On Monday night, I had the more unusual experience of going to see a production of Verdi's opera La Traviata - and for all that some people dismiss opera for being overblown or melodramatic, what struck me was the simplicity and subtlety of the storytelling. A friend once told me that they loved drama because it was just about human beings getting themselves into a muddle. I was reminded of that when I realised that (in this interpretation at least) the opera lacked anyone obviously villainous. Instead, characters just make wrong choices (although right, at the time, from their own points of view). There’s a particularly moving scene between the heroine and her would-be father in law, in which he tries to dissuade her from marrying his son (her past as a courtesan is wrecking the family honour). There’s no malice in the interaction, just determined positions. But the fallout is as great as in any tragedy.
The opera is in four acts, and each one has an entirely different energy, which was beautifully reflected in the aesthetics of the design. I left the theatre with a strong sense of the ‘colour’ of each phrase of the storytelling, both figuratively and literally. It reminded me that ‘structure’ in writing is much more than just ‘narrative structure’. Indeed, perhaps the most important thing about a story is that we see it from all angles, as if it were a three dimensional object. So, we witness all the central characters interacting with each other, revealing different aspects of themselves in the fresh permutations. And we need to see those same characters in different ‘universes’ too, to deepen our sense of them by observing their choices in these contexts. This kind of structural ‘patterning’ allows a story to be pulled along by the slightest of ‘plots’, giving us space to concentrate on the richer elements of characterisation. Many of Harold Pinter’s plays seem to operate in this way. In The Caretaker, for example, there are three very simple acts. In the first, Aston brings a manipulative outsider (Davies) into the house, where he is also exposed to Aston’s vicious brother Mick. In Act 2, Davies is established as the 'caretaker' and enjoys a fragile acceptance. In the third act, Davies overplays his hand and is ejected. These three sections sit at dramatic right angles to each other. I wonder if their elegance would be undermined by the kind of Robert McKee style ‘plotting’ that seems to dominate contemporary approaches to dramatic writing?
On a completely separate note, I’m off to see Foxfinder at The Finborough tonight. It’s part of a festival of new writing that a play of mine is also appearing in. So apologies - the link below is really just a shameless plug…