On Narrative

  • Posted on: 25 April 2011
  • By: Tony

A while back I was at a convening at a Tony-Award winning theatre. As we were discussing new plays and what can be done for foster them, I said that I would love to see more discussions on different aesthetic approaches. The associate artistic director of the theatre where the convening was being held, who was co-moderator of the gathering, looked up, "Well, that's hard."

End of discussion, new topic.

When I was younger, I thought aesthetic conversations were hard because artists just didn't want to take the time. As I get older I wonder if having aesthetic conversations is hard because we no longer know how?

I've been thinking of that a lot since. I was reminded of it when I came across this article that Travis Bedard shared on twitter at the #2amt hashtag. (Issac weighs in here as well.)

The political problems that narrative throws up are not so tough to recognize. Narratives must have   beginning, a middle, and an end. They must have a “controlling idea”, one main point (moral) we can take from the series of events that have unfolded. And they must have consistent characters with easily described natures – cowardly but kind, or irrational and insincere, for example. (Once a crook always a crook, etc. How much does this say for rehabilitation?) Narratives are psychologically comforting because they provide resolution, and often impose a logic onto a frustratingly fluid reality. As anybody who has ever had to edit a play or story can tell you, narratives are highly selective, shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story. This is all well and good for Oscar bait – but when these rules are applied to a political situation (as in the media they often are) the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences.

There's a lot I find problematic about the article. We have been telling complex, fluid narratives for thousands of years.  It also mistakes the nature of how many ways stories can be told. For ex. classical Indian dance could be written off as a rejection of story by someone unfamiliar with it when it's actually a highly complex, codified mode of storytelling. There is no set structure that narrative takes, let alone the extraordinarily narrow framework that Pearson claims narrative “must have”.

It reminds me of many conversations I've heard about narrative works vs. non-narrative works. Those conversations always make me cringe. I've seen and read thousands of works spanning all but one continent. (If there was ever a play written in Antarctica, I'd love to read it, if for no other reason than I could say “on every continent”) I have never seen or read a work devoid of narrative.

...most pieces I have seen seem to lie at one of two extremes – well made plays that place Story above all else, or performance and dance pieces that reject storytelling entirely. And then there are those pieces that sit somewhere in the middle – juggling the difficult job of telling a story while not telling a story, aware of narrative without pandering to it blindly. Two pieces that come to mind are Tim Crouch’s The Author and Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time. Both of these pieces have serious beef with narrative, and yet skillfully play its game.

Narrative is a recounting of events. It's the very nature of performance. Too often formal and aesthetic traits of aristotelian-based modes of performance get lumped together as "narrative" But that is inaccurate.  Pearson, among many others, confuses form and structure for narrative.

You cannot have a work of performance free from narrative. Something happens. That is an event. Our brains are hard wired to create them even if they may not exist. Even if you were hypothetically able to create a performance in a laboratory, where nothing happened. There were no events. The act of performing that work before an audience would create its own narrative.

We speak so infrequently of aesthetics as a field that our terms are a copy of a copy of a discussion, and we conflate aesthetic approaches with basic building blocks of story.

Ah story. Another one that's usually conflated. Story is not narrative, and story is not plot. They are connected but not interchangable.

More on that to come. Hopefully this is not the end of the conversation.