Experimentation vs. Convention in Dramatic Writing

Experimentation vs. Convention in Dramatic Writing

I will always remember with nostalgic fondness my first encounter with experimental dramatists in Suzanne Westfall’s Modern Drama course during my undergrad studies at Lafayette.  Susan Glaspell’s Machinal, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, and August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata were delicious counterpoints to my footings in Marlowe, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde (excepting, perhaps, Salome).  Looking back now, I wonder what it was about these writers and works that so intrigued me.  After all, at 19 or 20, anything remotely unconventional tends to appeal.  This much I remember: it was not the dialogue in these plays that drew me in. The wit and sarcasm of Shakespeare’s clowns and Wilde’s widows were nowhere to be found (of course, Beckett’s Godot is another matter).  Anyway, I think their allure sprung from their ideas and their visuality:  Glaspel’s industrialized feminist metaphors; Pirandello’s inversion of invention and authorship (which I think speaks to my fascination with Charlie Kaufman’s film, Synechdoche, New York); Jarry’s hyperbolic sexualized abstractions, and Strindberg’s dark and dreamy depiction of love and death.  When I read them, I witnessed creative motives, sensibilities, driving and redefining craft.    

In his most recent post on “Upstaged,” the theatre blog for Time Out NY, David Cote joins the discussion about craft vs. experimentation that has been taking place on the Lark Play Development Center blog, which I still need to read through.  But before doing so, I want to jot down some of my own thoughts on the subject.

As timely and relevant as this topic is, a stroll through theatre history reminds us that there is nothing new about it.  To be part of the theatre, at most any place or time in history, is to be part of this tension.  During the Restoration period in England, for example, the debate centered on innovation versus imitation and whether “native” drama could be truly “English” if it rigidly adhered to classical conventions or allowed continental influences, such as Italian opera or French farce.  

The labors of some experimentation have born blessed fruit while others have yielded only rotten tomatoes.  The novel, whose name alone speaks to what its originators were trying to do, was incidentally indebted in part to dramatic writing; the form was considered experimental and frequently criticized when it began to emerge. It has clearly endured, but not without its own generational conflicts about form and function.  And so the story goes with poetry, too.  When I talk with my college freshmen about grammar conventions, I always show them poems by e.e. cummings.  Without fail, they are shocked to learn that a formally educated Harvard grad could produce almost indecipherable poetry that dismantles syntax and exploits punctuation.  If nothing else, I try to then convey that it’s not a bad idea to know “rules” or precedents before you break them, so you can defend your work.  Of course, some don’t feel they should have to explain themselves either way.  Cote touches on this type in his post: they are the ones who say, “Don’t get it? Too bad. It’s from my heart.”  The reality, however, is that few writers of any genre  write for an audience of one; necessity and human nature together won’t allow it.  So experiment away, but you need to make sure enough people speak your language, and preferably ones with adequate cash, clout, or contacts to buy your book or attend your show.

The past also reminds us that there is nothing different or varied about the need for diversity or variety and that the term “experimental” is both relative and subjective.  By the actual dawning of the Modern period in the early 20th c., and the flurry of -isms that comprised it, from surrealism and dadaism to absurdism and expressionism, the term meant something very different than it had centuries earlier when Behn, Dryden, Shadwell, Otway, and others were contemplating creativity and convention.  And, of course, that is because through the centuries, their “innovations” became our theatre mainstays, our repertories, repeat, repeat, repeat.  

All this said, the tension that exists between experimentation and convention in the theatre may be one of the few good conflicts that exists today.  No actual blood has been shed yet, right? More later after I check out the discussion on the Lark blog.


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