I’m working on a full-length play. I’m learning not just about plays, but about life – that’s either a desirable side-effect or the whole point of plays. I’m not sure which. Anyway, here’s one reflection.
Everything Must Happen and It Must Happen Now
I’ve been trying to write this play. Not what I’m used to.
I’m used to writing fiction and more recently essays in which the characters – by which I mean the actual letters, the symbols that make up language, are in front of the audience, the reader, in ink. It’s visual, but strangely.
In a story or an essay, you look at the symbols on the page and they turn into light that hits your mind and understanding.
You can write about thoughts or the way the few, thin trees in San Francisco catch the light differently than the few, thin, shadowed-over trees of New York do. Or if a vase means something, well then, write about the vase.
On the stage, everything must happen and it must happen now.
There’s no hiding. The entire world – often rectangular, viewed like a diorama – is present. No one has private thoughts. (Voice-overs are cheating. Narrators in plays, a la Arthur Miller have fallen out of style.) Your characters must always want something, and they’re always trying to get it. The people around them must react to this (even if it’s a stone-like reaction; cold, distant).
If you walk around as an audience, observing others as if they’re in a play, you’ll find very quickly: It’s no way to live.
It makes you wonder about everyone you know. What are they thinking? What do they want? The playwriting term for this – what someone wants – is “action.” It’s not a good thing to wonder, when someone says hi to you at the gym, “What’s his action?” It’s a good phrase when your with a friend and someone hits on you at the gay bar or smiles at you (read it again in a British accent “What’s his action, anyway?”), but not a good thing to always be thinking. You’ll turn suspicious, maybe even psychotic. Like playwrights.
Better to be an audience when appropriate. Go see a play. If it’s at all good, the characters will lie to each other, undermine each other, try to appease each other. But here’s the thing: To the world, to the audience (I write “the world” but I could write “the universe” or even “God” if you believe in a dispassionate, observer God), it’s all so obvious. The character’s actions, so carefully constructed, so clever and ploying, are apparent to the everyone-who-can-see. The audience only appears to be the one in the dark.
Is this what we, in our lives, look like to the rooms we sit in, to the sky, to the ground? These things are the audience to our lives. We can’t see them, but they’re watching and absorbing and being moved to tears or disgust or laughter.
We think we’re so smart; we think we can hide our actions – but really, the world knows better. There is nothing we can do to fool anything.
This is why it is better to avoid being a character.
Sometimes, I imagine the conversations I’m having taking shape in the air above my head. The other person and I, with each carved bit of air we announce, form something. Errant words go in there too. Small talk builds the edges. Sometimes, the shape of that conversation is a terrible thing. If I’ve lied to someone, if I’ve tried to manipulate someone, or if I sense he’s tried to manipulate me and I react with each word defensively… I imagine black, baroque curves and latticework turning in the air – too much detail to be beautiful; ornamental only. And that shape can follow me into my sleep as a ghost. I’ll feel guilty or wonder why I’ve woken up in a bad mood. My words, which I might have thought were flippant, were noticed by the world, the unconscious, the people who passed by, the air. They have effects. Those are my words – what about my behaviors? Taken together, what sort of shape would they create? What effect on the world?
Generally, characters do not become aware of the audience. They will sometimes address the audience in monologues, but these could just as easily be delivered to a mirror, or occur in a dream. The character keeps going, pulled along by what he or she wants, with no regard for the swelling emotions in the surrounding black room.
This is, I realize, a very spiritual concept – that no action, no conflict, no event, goes unnoticed, and that every moment of our lives has an effect. This is a lesson, mostly, of the play, where everything is shown. In a book, the words are framed. They can go anywhere and then be closed – they are symbols. They can take their time and meander. Sometimes, they can refuse to disclose their meaning, or whether they even have meaning. We read and may miss something. A paragraph slips by us because we are thinking of someone as we read and it’s lost forever in the ocean of hundreds of pages.
In the play, we are shown: all the words go out into the world. They aren’t contained. Someone is always watching.
This is what I want to say, what the play has taught me.
There is an audience to my actions and it is the world. If I am aware, I act more carefully and purely. My actions are kind, because they’re not isolated.
If I am not aware of the audience, who knows what schemes I’ll come up with, and I will be threaded along, dragged by the force of my action.
So. There is a difference, in life, to being a human and being a character.
One knows and tries to keep his heart pure.
The other is locked in drama.