At this time of year, I am busy teaching on the Masters degree in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College. The following is a handout I put together for this year's students, elaborating on a theory I often muse about in class, and occasionally on this blog. It's the first time I've written it down though, so I though I'd share it with you here. As always, anonymous abuse can be left at your leisure in the comments box.
“Nuggets of Originality”
What they are and why good plays need them
A Theory: by Fin Kennedy
It is my belief that the best plays contain what I term “nuggets of originality”; that is, moments, ideas or even entire theses about aspects of human experience which contribute something new to the canon of thinking surrounding that subject. This is what gives great plays a ‘quality of mind’ that makes them stand out from the crowd and which, together with skilled theatricality, makes for the most satisfying experience for theatre audiences.
These ‘nuggets’ can take many forms. At their simplest, they might be a simple observation or witticism that one character makes to another, which encapsulates a truth about the subject in hand. Oscar Wilde is perhaps most famous for these:
“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”
- An Ideal Husband, Act III
Sometimes, nuggets might lead writers to locate their plays in unusual places, and take their audience to a world normally hidden from public view, or previously unrepresented on stage. Consider the metaphorical thought that has gone into Shan Khan’s choice of location in Prayer Room (EIF/Birmingham Rep, 2005):
From the back cover of the play text:
There was a place where the Christians and the Muslims existed in relative peace. Everyone was more or less happy, except for the Jews – who were few and had to be thankful to their Christian overlords for the little space they were accorded. Then one day more Jews came, and it soon became apparent to them that they’d need their own space – but at the Muslims’ expense. The Muslims of course are fuming. The Jews feel they’re perfectly within their rights. And the Christians are trying to take a back seat and let the other two share the blame.
This place is a multi-faith prayer room in a British college.
However, nuggets might embed themselves even more deeply. They might be a theory which runs throughout a play, like a word through a stick of rock, and which in hindsight turns out to explain much of the play’s events, indeed perhaps even illuminating something about the human condition. Consider the closing speech of Lucy Prebble’s Enron (Headlong, 2009):
The huge crack along the wall of the building glows from behind and becomes the jagged line graph of the Dow Jones Index over the last century.
Skilling (to us) There’s your mirror. Every dip, every crash, every bubble that’s burst, that’s you. Your brilliant stupidity. This one gave us the railroads. This one the internet. This one the slave trade. And if you wanna do anything about saving the environment or getting to other worlds, you’ll need a bubble for that too … All humanity is here. There’s Greed, there’s Fear, Joy, Faith, Hope. And the greatest of these – is Money.
Nuggets of originality can also give birth to unusual character types, inhabiting contradictory or unexpected combinations of qualities, or representing on stage certain types of people for the first time. Consider Dr Diane Cassell, the climate change scientist in Richard Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court, 2010), whose research leads her to question whether global warming is happening:
Diane I’m a scientist. I don’t ‘believe’ in anything.
Or Zain, the young, gay Muslim party animal from Alia Bano's Shades (Royal Court, 2009):
Zain Technically, the Qur’an says nothing about having a few Es.
Nuggets might go deeper, and influence the way in which an entire storyline plays itself out. Consider the idea in Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts (Bush, 2009), in which Iraqi father Ibrahim decides not to pay the ransom for his daughter being held hostage, to the horror of his wife and British daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly:
Kelly That’s what fathers do. Dad. That’s what they do. They look after their own.
Ibrahim Maybe your fathers do that. But important men, better men, look after everyone. They look after their country. They stick to what they believe.
In this way, an abstract political ideal manifests itself in the real world as a tangible action in the plot. In going against every natural parental instinct, it makes us question whether one’s country or one’s children are more important in the long run – and whether there are cultural differences here that inform the answer.
Fully embedded ‘nuggets’ such as these have evolved beyond mere nuggets, into fully formed theses. Sometimes, they even go so far as to break the laws of time, space and physical possibility to make their point. Consider the characters of Catalina and Joris in The TEAM’s Mission Drift (Traverse Theatre, 2011); two teenage Dutch settlers to America who do not age throughout the play’s entire 400 year span. Eventually, we come to understand that the couple are a living, breathing manifestation of the young, thrusting spirit of American capitalism itself:
Catalina (drunk, slamming the bar) How bout a round for all these poor souls?! May not look like it, but I own all this. THIS IS mine. This glass – the ice in this glass – the bartender who pours it, the bottle, the bar, who carved it, who painted it – I own you, these people, the money in their pockets their clothes their shoes how much they’re all worth – I decide.
What all this is really about is the playwright taking a view on the subject they are writing about, as an original thinker.
Where do these nuggets come from?
In a research-led process they can come from a writer’s reading, meetings and site visits around the subject they are investigating. Experts in a field or academic thinkers can often come up with uniquely original insights which might elude the lay person. These can be ‘harvested’ and woven into a play text to provide moments of lucidity, insight, revelation or plot twists.
More satisfying is for writers to use all this as inspiration, and rather than just harvesting magpie-style the glittering ideas from their research, to actually come up with their own original angle on the subject matter.
But their most sophisticated use involves not merely having characters regurgitate original thought dreamed up by oneself or by others. It is in fact when the playwright deploys her own creativity to use put such insights into the service of an artistic vision. At its best, theatre is a crucible of new ideas at the forefront of its society, and playwrights theatrical philosophers. Plays that achieve timelessness do so because they capture something fundamentally true about their society, or about the human heart, yet manage also to newly or freshly articulate that. They run that truth throughout the play like DNA through a body – informing character arcs, plots, subplots, locations - taking many forms but essentially echoing something fundamental.
It is at times like this when theatre burns brightest, and when it becomes indispensable to our species - because it advances our understanding of the world, and of ourselves.