Friday, 7 October 2011

Going backwards...

A few thoughts about the week, below, but first a couple of excellent tip-offs:

Ben in my MA Conflict and the City class has reminded me about ‘Decade’, a site-specific response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Theatre company Headlong and director Rupert Goold both have excellent form, and student tickets are still available until tomorrow, so check it out here: Ben’s also drawn my attention back to a neat article from the guardian on how Charlie Kaufman wrote ‘Being John Malkovich’: And speaking of form-breaking narrative, Will in my first-year Writing the City class mentioned another film called, intriguingly, ‘John Dies at the End’:

Thursday also saw the beginning of the Creative Method module, which introduces students to many visiting writers over the course of two semesters. It kicked off with Francesca Beard, who’s going to be taking four sessions in which she explains her own writing practice. Having had the pleasure of hearing some of her amazing performance poetry piece ‘Chinese Whispers’ the other day, I’ve included a link to her website here:

One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had this week was at my own writers group. (We’ve been meeting almost every Tuesday for eight or nine years now, with a core consisting of Samantha Ellis, Ben Musgrave, Nick Harrop and Robin Booth – all brilliant writers to watch out for...). We were talking about some of the difficulties involved in developing ‘backstory’ in plays. Of course, it’s incredibly important for writers to research their characters fully (see Monica’s interesting comment about this under my last-but-one post), but I think it can be problematic to explain characters by reference to too many events in their past. Drama is fundamentally about the present: it happens before an audience as if for the first time. The actions, interactions, dilemmas and choices we see before us are the ones on which we build our understanding of character. And when something dramatic has happened before the story of the play, I think that event needs to be easily ‘read’ by the audience. Swallowed in a single gulp, as it were, and digested effortlessly. So, Hamlet’s father has recently died in unexplained circumstances. Nora (in ‘A Doll’s House’) has told a lie to her husband. Christian (in the film/play ‘Festen’) has been sexually abused by his father… It may be something of a paradox, but backstory which is too diffuse, even if psychologically ‘accurate’ often fails to convince. Perhaps that’s because we can only ever hear about it, and we tend to resist information that we can’t see and scrutinise for ourselves. This debate arose out of a discussion on comedy writing, and here more than anywhere complex backstory has the potential to muddy the waters. In the present-tense action, we intuit all sorts of things about particular characters. We can all imagine what David Brent’s childhood was like, but we don’t have to know about some devastating formative experience in order to fully understand him.

I was thinking about this again on Wednesday evening when I went to see ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ at The Old Vic. It’s a strange play - particularly in the second half when it develops from fairly broad comedy into something almost absurdist in register. The set-up, too, is disarming. A young man rocks up to pub on the west coast of Ireland claiming to have murdered his father, and becomes an instant celebrity. What’s extraordinary (and very funny) is that no-one seems to question his bravery and heroism. Even the older men in the pub, who may well be fathers themselves, completely accept it. There’s a lovely sense in which everything that is important in the play begins when it begins. We don’t need to know anything about the word of the story, except what the story shows us.


  1. Very interesting...although don't you think plays like Ibsen's (which are sort of unfashionable now) work partly by the slow explosion of backstory into the present?

    But, absolutely, I hate any play that has what David Mamet calls a "dead kitten speech" in know: a character is awful all the way through, for no good reason, & then towards the end, the playwright suddenly interrupts the action to make the character deliver a speech that supposedly explains why he's been so awful, with reference to some traumatic childhood event, often beginning with something along the lines of "When I was young, I had this kitten..."

  2. I like your thoughts on backstory, Matt. I think it does operate differently in comedy, where we're not generally interested in how a character became burdened with his/her difficulties, but in how they are going to deal with them.

    Tragedy - certainly those tragedies that follow the Oedipus Rex model, as Ibsen did in his mature work - are more backward-looking. Here, the revelation of the backstory *is* the action of the play: Oedipus sets out to discover the murderer of King Laius and save the city of Thebes from the plague, only to find that the murderer was himself. In Ibsen's Ghosts, the philandering of Mrs Alving's dead husband has consequences in the present: their son has inherited his father's syphilis. Your example of Festen is a good one too: the action of the play is driven by the question of when and how the truth about past abuse will emerge in the present.

    Is it a rule, then, that in comedy, characters are generally easily understood types operating in complex present circumstances; while in tragedy, characters are generally complex psychological entities driven by a set of circumstances that has been heavily determined by the past.

    The Playboy of the Western World is fascinating because Christy Mahon's supposed backstory unravels in the present. It's clearly a comedy. Or is it?

  3. Interesting discussion. But isn't the practise of starting the play after the action (as in After the End by Dennis Kelly, as you introduced to us) inform the character? Martha and George are shadows of what they once were because of an event that happened off-stage in Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? We will never get to see that time they were happy with eachother, if they ever were. But maybe that's too general a point. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a character's personality to change halfway through a play, let alone done well - it's about the establishing of characters and how they react with eachother.


  4. Interesting discussion. Backstory often plays a big part in TV drama - think Don Draper's past in Mad Men or the endless flashbacks in Lost that keep complicating our understanding of the characters - but it's much easier to dramatise it there than on the stage.

    I've been trying to think of TV comedies that have a complex backstory, and I'm struggling. You do get quite a lot of backstory in, say, Peep Show - e.g. Mark will refer to things like his mum's affair - but it's basically to get a laugh. In that instance, it doesn't develop our understanding of Mark's character, it confirms it.

    Anyway, I like your point that "we tend to resist information that we can’t see and scrutinise for ourselves". I think backstory can work when it's live - e.g. when it's a point of conflict right now, like in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But when it's just dropped in to explain a character, I agree it's problematic. e.g. that boring scene at the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist explains why the psycho is such a psycho.