Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Losing the plot...

For my MA playwriting class, I’ve just read Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’. The play opens with a woman, Clair, describing to her husband a meeting with a writer, Mohamed, at a railway station – one of those transitional spaces that feature so often in urban stories. Mohamed has nipped into a shop to buy his daughter a diary before she leaves to live with his sister-in-law, but it takes too long and he misses his last goodbye. Instead, he gives the diary to Clair.

Later in the play Clair meets Mohamed again at a conference. Arriving at her bedroom door, he reveals that his daughter has been killed. In a scene also loaded with sexual possibility, he confesses his guilt at having prioritised writing over parenthood whilst she was alive. More shockingly, he reveals how he now feels liberated by her death. Not only will he have more time to write, but he’ll also have new material: ‘My child, you see, is like a log thrown into the fire, making the fire burn… more brightly.’

Clair’s appalled reaction is an emotion we can relate to immediately, in a play where empathy and understanding are otherwise just beyond our grasp. But at the end of the play we discover that Mohamed is entirely a product of Clair’s own writer’s imagination – a fact she records, disorientatingly, in the very diary Mohamed is supposed to have given her. Her husband Chris is moved to ask if he, too, is merely a fiction. In fact, the danger is even greater. These self-referential slights of hand imply that the whole story has been created out of nothing. ‘The City’ becomes a kind of anti-story, existing and not existing at the same time.

It also reminded me of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant ‘The Pillowman’ – a surreal satire on the crossover between writing and totalitarianism. McDonagh’s play builds around an extraordinary set-piece fairytale featuring a creature (the Pillowman of the title) who travels back in time to convince children destined for suffering to kill themselves before their personal tragedies can unfold. So traumatic is this job, that eventually the Pillowman can’t bear it any longer. Returning to his own childhood, he persuades his younger self to commit suicide before he can fulfil his terrible vocation. At which point, the universe is filled with the screams of previously dead children coming back to life and living out their pain-filled lives. As with ‘My City’, this is both a story and not a story; the whole grim tale derives from the actions of a character who turns out never to have existed.

Similar features can be seen in other stories rooted in paradox. The new science fiction film ‘Looper’ is one example. Whilst on a certain level the story clearly ‘exists’, it also contains a sort of self-deleting code. Searching for meaning in these circular narratives can be a perplexing and frustrating task - which isn’t to say they’re meaningless. All stories are a ‘construction’ of one kind or another, with - depending on which way you want to look at it - more or less reality that ‘real life’.

Next week I’m going to see Hedda Gabler – a more straightforward play about what happens to a writer when their life’s work is undone. And I’m also quite tempted by the film ‘Ruby Sparks’. A film about a novelist who writes a character into existence…


  1. The idea of stories and not-stories reminds me very much of the film The Butterfly Effect, where each choice the protagonist makes leads into a new timeline and new existence. Reality and not-reality.

  2. That's interesting. I'll check out The Butterfly Effect. I think Looper is trying to pull off the same trick. There are those moments where alternative story-lines are opened, but not resolved (for us). Quite a neat way of addressing the 'impossibilities' of time travel. Also interesting, generally, how some literature becomes a sort of archaeology of scientific ideas. Writers like to co-opt the latest theories - the 'multiverse' being particularly popular at the moment. I'm going to see 'Constellations' by Nick Payne in a couple of weeks time, which sounds like it has similar themes...

  3. This is a fascinating post Matt. Are these types of stories the result of us living so much in cyber space and of fantasy stories that are now mainstream? Or have we simply exhausted naturalism and realism as dramatic form? Whatever the answer, life would be much duller if we didn't have our imaginations to stimulate our lives.

    (Tanya). I tried to link this to my wordpress blog but blogspot didn't ilke it.

  4. Thanks for this, Tanya. Yes, I wonder if these sorts of stories can be found further back in history. Not quite on topic, but I read a bit of 'Trickster Makes This World' the other day by Lewis Hyde.
    That has lots of examples of weird and wonderful storytelling that do play with time and paradoxes in interesting ways...

    And a shame wordpress and blogspot have such a difficult relationship!