and address one wall of text with another.
So I had Tragedy and Modernity, which all three followers may remember is my favorite class, today. We discussed Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night, if you haven’t read/seen it, I recommend it.
This play was incredibly personal for O’Neill, so much so that he banned its performance during his lifetime. It’s based on his own family and boy does it show. The biggest indicator to how much of himself O’Neill put into the play is the stage directions; they are massive. Some run for almost a full page and they go far beyond the standard “Character does A at B with C” and would be more at place in a narrative rather than dramatic text.
The discussion in class inevitably wandered into this territory. The lecturer posed the question: what is an actor or a director to do with these long blocks of text? From an actor/writer’s perspective: you boil it down to necessary action and throw out the rest. Were I staging this play as director I would read it (several times) and keep a full text version of the script for myself but I would give the actor’s scripts with a lot of [REDACTED] text. Actors cannot be restricted by the writer. That might sound a bit weird, but you must remember when dealing with theatre, that the actor, director, and tech input must be just as—if not more—important than the writer.
The theatre is alive and ever changing. No two productions of the same play should ever be the same. Having a writer spell out not only action, but motivation and voice inflection, is mortally limiting. It will kill a play. This is also how a show like Fool for Love can have such a short page length but a long running time. It’s also how two casts in the same company can run coexisting productions that don’t address the same issues.
Back to the class, my fellow modern tragedians from the lit study arm of the department kept going back to the craftsmanship of the stage directions and how informing they are for characterization. I would agree, they are quite well written and they build the characters up for the reader. But an actor can never rely on another person’s interpretation of their character. That will breed hammy, unwatchable performances. It’s also why I think that an actor should never ask the director “what’s my motivation”: it isn’t the director’s job to tell you your motivation.
On the bus ride back to my flat I kept going over the class, something was bothering me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The little niggle kept picking at the back of my brain as I walked to Sainsbury’s and in the middle of a crosswalk it hit me.
Why do we have an industry of criticism occupied by people who don’t create?
My answer was, we shouldn’t.
Art isn’t objective, it’s subjective and if you’re doing it right it will touch different parts of different people in different ages. Critics attempt to take art and stuff it in little boxes for easy categorization. I feel that this is a bad thing and has a negative impact on writing in all forms.
This isn’t to say that literary criticism is without merit, on the contrary it’s important to know what you’re saying about literature (just like you must know what you’re saying about anything). But the only person you should be trying to understand a work for is yourself. Art is like religion, the more people you have to filter it through the more diluted and useless it becomes. Art and religion both must be dealt with through the primary sources (and secondary sources brought in for your own edification if you feel such a need).
An actor or a writer would immediately look at Long Day’s Journey into Night and understand that while beautifully written are very superfluous from a performance perspective. The dialogue gives you just as much characterization (and opportunity to develop your own ideas on it). In fact, I would say it does it much better.
But I’m sure you stopped read somewhere around “so I had Tragedy and Modernity today…” so I’ll close up now. I’ve got a three page stage direction I’m writing and hoping to finish up in a few paragraphs.