To Be Complicit

I watched the Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s streaming of Complicité’s production Drive the Plow over the Bones of the Dead last night. Based on the novel by Olga Tocarczok. I fell in love with theater all over again.

Kathryn Hunter is remarkable. And the physicality of the cast of ten was mesmerizing. The gestures of the desk cop were as choreographed as the movements of the dog. The camera moved in close often, and weirdly enough it was the fact that I could see the rise and the fall of the dead man’s stomach as he breathed that thrilled me.

I wonder if it wasn’t the invitation to play – the reminder that I have to be actively involved in the suspension of disbelief – that moved me. There is no attempt at illusion, and the audience cannot be passive. Even via the medium of film, this is theater. Can it be as simple as this? What a simple magic trick. NOT an illusion.

I recently heard an excellent playwright interviewed on a podcast. He said that it was poor playwrighting (emphasis mine) to use a narrator. As a rule of thumb, of course. And I see that: as a rule of thumb. So I have been thinking about the use of the narrator in adaptations of novels for the stage – yes – but also the role of asides in Shakespeare’s plays. His weirdly-fond use of letters notwithstanding, he was too good a playwright to have used asides as a crutch. We don’t need Richard III to tell us how he feels about seducing Lady Anne. His actions tells the audience everything we need to know. Richard III is playing with us. Inviting us in. He is elbowing all the drunken labourers in the pit. Winking. It’s FUN. Even in a tragedy, it is fun.

There are no narrators in Shakespeare’s plays. I need to be careful in my mind not to conflate the convention of speaking to the audience with lazily-crafted “telling”.

I honestly believe that we are historically myopic in our common view of theatrical norms and the way we let ourselves talk about them. Shakespeare didn’t “break” the fourth wall, because Diderot hadn’t even proposed it yet. Brecht’s idea that being reminded that we are at the theater would create emotional distance is – to be honest – a bizarre belief in my mind. Where did that come from? We literally have first hand accounts of audiences being moved to tears by Antigone when there was absolutely no attempt at verisimilitude or illusion of any sort. Antigone herself was a dude shouting through the megaphone-like mask. It’s as though, all up in their current trend of “realism”, when the Modernists responded to film with their re-theatricalizing, they actually forgot theater history as they were borrowing from it. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe I am responding entirely from my own generational perspective and limited education. It’s my impression that when players speak directly to the audience – in our out of character – the actors feel like they are being transgressive.

I think we should think of building a fourth wall as an exception in the theater, rather than something presumed in the performer/audience relationship that needs to be broken.

I’ve been wondering what I will do about asides in the new play. Who, and why?

In the scene on the flat moor, when Edgar tells his father he’s on the precipice, Edgar seems to almost apologize to the audience for being a jerk. I think the purpose of this aside may be to show Edgar’s character (his action revealing his insecurities) rather than furthering or explaining the plot. Showing, not telling. A concise use of text.

But, somehow, it’s more fun when the bad guys take us into their confidences.

2 Replies to “To Be Complicit”

    1. Thank you for reading, Janice. Weird thing- I got my digest from the NY playwrighting group yesterday and there theme was the 4th wall, too. Must be in the air.


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