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Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Essential Nature of Cosmic Truth Revealed. Finally.

The last question in the post-show talkback was “In your opinion, what was the theme of the play?” Decent question, and one most likely asked by matriculating theatre students of a certain, still-in-discovery age. Usually this question gets a scatter-shot result, with any number of audience members throwing out concepts with reckless abandon. (“Love!” “Despair!” “You need zombies!”)
In this case, as stated conspicuously in the text, the protagonist's crisis was a “loss of faith.” Decent premise, and certainly can lead to any number of possibilities.The protagonist, a life-long dedicated Christian, finds himself suddenly doubting the very existence of God, the supreme peg on which he's hung his entire life, the very nexus around which he has structured his beliefs, morals, and prejudices. And like most inherently good people, he feels this absence of faith is, not a flaw in the either the deity or the religion itself, but a flaw in his own system.
The Christian God is, by its very nature, perfect. And therefore, he reckons, if god does not exist, or he believes the god does not exist, the responsibility is not God’s, but most definitely his. Guilt abounds. Uncertainty. A questioning of the very nature of the fabric of his existence. So (based on the advice of his friendly neighborhood pastor to “take a vacation”) off he goes, like Don Quixote with a midwestern accent, on a quest to find . . .  he knows not what, because before this (and like many good-hearted folk who put their lives in the hands of their deity) he's never bothered to examine or question his own existence.
The non-thinking blind man begins to travel. We await the awakening of his thinking muscles. Now that hold a promise of good theatre!
And the more I think about the play, the more I come back to the remark I made in the talkback, that by the end of the play, at the point of catastrophe, just before the oh-so disappointing deus ex rectum (when the God of Resolution is pulled from the playwright's nether region to magically tie up the loose ends), I believe that the protagonist had suddenly and finally found, NO, not the answer to his question of faith, BUT, more importantly, the direction in which he was supposed to head in order to achieve his goal. This is the critical moment. We, the audience, can assume, as the character begins to wake up… discover… break out of his self-imposed modes of thinking and self-defeating reactions, discovers his turning point, that he will stumble along his way into the light sooner or later. In this and many other cases, the complete answer, the protracted denouement, the closure,  is not important. Really. Anti-climactic in many instances, I believe (yes, pun intended).
What is critical is his breakout moment, that crest-of-the-shark’s fin of rising action epiphany when he suddenly, surprisingly, and naturally knee-jerks into a heretofore completely different mindset. And it worked. The moment was honest, vital, truthful, and OMG so effin’ sexy.
And yes, most everything had worked up until (and including) that critical point. But the next scene, the last scene, was the wrap-up, and I didn't buy it. Nothing up until then even indicated the resolution the playwright presented. But there we were. Happy ending achieved. (And as some are aware, “Happy Ending” has more than one meaning these days. I mention this disreputable definition simply because a copout ending is metaphorically the same.)
Anyway. Truth. Helluva concept. Our intrepid hero seeks it, but has no idea how to find it. His pitiful wanderings are both aimless and fruitless because he’s never been acquainted with non-linear, instinctive, self-directed thinking. He doesn’t understand it. It’s not a language he can speak. So he looks for a clue, something he can recognize, something he understands the language of. His belief in God has deserted him, so he instinctually seeks something to replace it. He seeks a new set of rules he can follow, something that will give him the answers to Life. And herein lies his real problem: He seeks to replace his panacea, and does not look at himself. He who worships icons and subjugates himself to these idols cannot understand being his own god. He seeks outside direction and can’t trust his own heart. So he seeks a brand new, simple, objectively clear answer, just like the ones he’s believed up till now.
If life were that easy, drama would not exist. But Truth, like the sculpture device presented in this play, is representative. Literalism and objectivity are useless here; what our hero needs to unlock the door is a metaphor, a non-linear, abstract, figurative epiphany. When one’s own language fails, Truth must communicate by abstracts, by emotion.
Truth. Ya know . . . it sounds great, but . . . its very nature is a threat. It promises an objectively accurate mirror to one's own psyche. But who really wants to see who they are? We say we do, but frankly . . . that shit is terrifying. We spend so much time in our heads, subconsciously building up an image we can live with, be proud of, that just gets us through the day. Truth? Dude . . . absolutely! No problem. Talk to me tomorrow, okay?
And here I arrive (OMG finally) at the crux of the biscuit: truth in playwriting. The play I recently saw upon which I base this circuitous typing exercise was . . . well . . . the story moved, the characters were (almost) all interesting, and the direction was solid, imaginative, and visually stimulating. But the play itself — the text — forsook finding the truth of the dramatic crisis and settled for an out-of-left-field plot device to steer the protagonist into a revelation that supposedly settled the dramatic question. I respectfully say, “Poppycock.”
I tell my basic playwriting students this: that a denouement does not have to wrap things up tightly. And here is where I see what kind of people my students are. Life, I pontificate sonorously, is a really long and mostly boring story. Nearly every play you see is the last part of a section of someone’s life. Could be the very last section, in which they die. Could not be, in which case they go on. But, in well-crafted plays, they go on changed. Irrevocably. Some students get this in theory, others completely shut it off. For them Truth means absolute closure; everything all tidied up with no flaps sticking out anywhere. And this forces them into a mode of playwriting that can easily deny the very essential truth of human existence: that the imperfect nature of humanity denies, nay, abhors a clean wrap-up.
So, the poor befuddled students ask me, how do you end a play?
Truthfully, I reply. You’ll know it when it happens. Blank looks ensue, possibly scorn.  I try again. Let the play tell you, I say. Let the play write itself. Now the looks range from one or two quiet “I got it” smiles to notebooks petulantly slamming closed.
Explication: The stimulating device in the play in question was the protagonist’s dying mother. There were three scenes featuring her, but her element was never truly utilized. Her illness never had the emotional weight to sway our intrepid yet quixotic hero into seeking the truth of his own dilemma. No interaction, no action at all, really, between near-catatonic Mom and our intrepid hero. No, it is not our job to assume what he felt, how he was affected. How did he feel about her? All we ever saw of her was her death. That wasn’t special; mothers die all the time. Yes, it’s tragic, but without seeing the relationship itself how can we judge the effect of the passing? Did he love her? Was there a long-standing resentment? We don’t know. So her passing could not sway us to understand his final decision.
He says he suddenly no longer believes in God; fair enough. What does he do to rectify that dilemma? Does he seek spiritual answers in a quest for religious truth? No, he gets drunk, does drugs, falls in with ne’er-do-wells, and tries to learn sculpting. While on this hejira he deserts his wife (a cipher in the play; does she have a personality? We never find out. She is the true Stepford wife, dutiful, and nearly without identity/dialogue), leaves his dying mother to slowly fade away, and abandons both his daughters, only one of whom will have anything to do with him (another issue raised but never examined). But hey ... the mother's death brings him home, instills cosmological hope, and makes him beg for the love of his wife. Ooooo-kay.
Truth. It doesn't happen here. Not in this play. It comes sooooo close, then diverges at the 1:54 mark. A breakthrough—a true breakthrough--happens and then the play leads, no it LEAPS, to something that should have taken another 43 minutes to get to. Truth is the biggest demon for a storyteller.
The protagonist was not searching for his lost faith in God. That was his symptom. In any journey story, heroes travel through discoveries, and almost inevitably the greatest discovery is the one where the hero realizes that his/her original crisis was a symptom of a different problem. In this case his loss of faith in God is really a questioning of his entire life, a midlife crisis, a creeping sense of the fruitlessness of one's avocation, marriage, beliefs. The approach to and the inevitable realization of the truth of the matter: What the Fuck Am I Doing? How the Fuck Did I Get Here? What the Fuck Do I Do Now???
Taken generically, midlife crises are mundane. Boring. Dime a dozen. Its not his dilemma; It’s how our hero attempts to solve his dilemma that makes him interesting. Whether he does or doesn’t is essentially immaterial; it’s his choices along the way that tell the story, show who he is, and keep our interest. Truth is in the action.
Truth, like the sculpture that was produced by our regretful, sorrowful, emotionally traumatized protagonist at the top-of-the-shark-fin catastrophic moment, is not objective but representational. It shows a unique glimpse of a thing beyond true representation, beyond diagramming. We get a slim slice of a vision of the nature of grief, the simple yet earth-shaking nature of the ache in our hearts. Essential truth doesn't come in a chaptered book full of answers and step-by-step solutions. It comes as images, fleeting moments, epiphanies, subjective representations that speak the language for which there is no verbal equivalent, where emotions like love, joy, fear, and despair dwell. We’re not even sure our hero gets it all himself, but his breakthrough comes as he finally understands how to express himself representationally, instead of trying to replicate a moment precisely and accurately. Instead he learns that life and love and pain are instances, indescribables, non-diagrammable, unable to be boxed and labeled. His breakthough, where he finally looks into himself and sees his agony, comes in the form of a twisted clay figure that reaches to the sky, its head thrown back, and is so simple, so open, so honest, that it could have been done by a third-grader.