Raconteur: Or, Once Upon a Play(wright)

Raconteur: Or, Once upon a Play(wright)

We have all told our own story, or at least parts of it, to someone.

We have all been out somewhere and overheard someone telling someone else another person’s story. Something like this: “I knew a guy once (upon a time) who…” or “There was this old lady who lived down the street from us when I was a kid, and (the story goes that) she…”

We have all seen crime dramas in which a suspect is brought in for interrogation, and a gum chewing cop asks, “So what’s your story?”

As I have been lying restlessly in bed, I have been thinking about a point made on various theatre blog comment threads about the importance of ‘story’ to playwriting.  I’ve considered before the slightly different implications of calling oneself a dramatist vs. a playwright, but what about a stage raconteur?  Ooh la la. Oui Oui.  And I wonder if we donned this title (with or without a feigned French accent) if we’d approach our writing any differently.  (Jack White and his band aren’t afraid to work ‘the word’…)

The Raconteurs

Then, I got to thinking about how important stories are in everyday life.  Everybody’s got a story.  You’ve heard people say this plenty, yes?  Because it’s true, obviously.  Human stories, then, form a (the) bridge between life and drama.

Of course, not everyone’s story gets told.

Not everyone tells their story themselves.

Not everyone even wants their story told.

And not everyone knows when someone else is telling their story.

Some people are better storytellers than others.  Some people tell stories chronologically and succinctly; others tell them chaotically, in stream of conscious, with interjections, digressions, and backtracks; still others manage to tell them linearly, but take what seems like forEVER to do so (like a past neighbor of mine who would clap his hands and say to his wife: “faster, funnier, faster, funnier” when her stories would drag on).

While every person has a story, not every story has a play to live in (and so we keep writing).  And not every play has a story (apparently).  Otherwise you would not hear people saying again and again that, yeah, form, character, etc. are important, but it’s really about ‘the story.’   Or is it that every play has a story, but that some don’t have a good enough story or that some don’t tell a story well enough (because they sacrifice content to form, for ex.)?  Or is it that some plays are idea or concept based?

Then, I started thinking about ‘the story’ factor in my own writing and that of my literary mothers and fathers (following Isaac’s post here, though he stipulates the playwright must be living).  I have deep admiration for the Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn, but when it comes down to the stories that drive her plays, yikes; they are mundane, perennial, relevant, relatable–courtship, marriage, infidelity, family strife, and so on.  But like many plays of this period by her and her contemporaries, discerning differences between them (particularly for a non-specialist, which is most people) is like splitting hairs: and this is because they are thematically and formally redundant (The academic in me feels guilty for saying this).  What I enjoy about Behn’s plays, then, is not the stories they tell (though they do give historical insight into 17th c. personal and social relationships), but their language, their WIT (which, incidentally, is a staple of a raconteur).  I also adore Oscar Wilde, for largely the same reasons I do Behn.  Their subversiveness (relative to their times, of course) would be another, but this, again, is tied to their wit, verbal irony, sarcasm, and perhaps also character physiognomy (thinking of Lady Bracknell and Behn’s pant wearing heroines).

Another writer I’ve come to admire more recently is Sarah Kane (I’ve written about her in the past months on Drama, Daily, and George Hunka andJosh Conkel have written about her on their blogs, also).  I’m trying now to think about the stories Kane tells and how she tells them.  I’m of the mind that the rapid-fire violence in Kane’s work obfuscates the messages her plays deliver; that is, our understanding of the stories she is trying to tell is delayed (which is not to say necessarily or entirely detracted) by the immediacy of the violence.  The blood and torture, maiming and murder in her work assault you, wake you, unsettle you.  And, for me personally, the story comes in the moments, days, weeks even, after the encounter with one of her plays.  I’ve never engaged in such prolonged contemplation after reading or seeing a play by Behn or Wilde.

So what’s your story?

And what’s ‘a story’ anyway?

And which playwrights throughout time do you think have told stories best? worst?

And what story are you waiting to hear told on stage? What story do you need never hear told again on stage?

(Isn’t it odd how when you’re up during the night writing and you actually have words to show for it in the end, you don’t actually mind the sleep you missed?)

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