Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Off the Stage and Off the Page

One of the things we sometimes debate is what to leave off the page. There are those obvious things like household chores and other non-dramatic moments that are best cut. (Thinking now of a manuscript I once edited where every change of clothing was narrated as it was changed. Really, we don't need that.)

But there are also times when otherwise dramatic events are left out for thematic reasons, and I had a strong reminder of that last night at the theater. I saw a Chekhov play, The Seagull, and as with many of his other writings, key events happened off stage during the act breaks. I thought it might be useful to break it down here and ponder why these particular events are left out.

The story takes place on the lakefront estate of a Russian farmer during a visit from his actress sister. The main themes have to do with unrequited love, tension between generations, and the nature and form of drama and writing. For our purpose, we're primarily concerned with the unrequited love in two of the triangles.

Triangle #1
There are two writers, an established older novelist and a young struggling dramatist. The dramatist is in love with Nina, the lead actress in a play he's staging. Nina is in love with the novelist.

Triangle #2
A young depressive named Masha is in love with the dramatist. A schoolteacher is in love with Masha.

Keep in mind, none of these loves are returned. However, between the third and fourth acts, a gap of about two years, the nature of these relationships changes.

Triangle #1
Nina has an affair with the novelist. She has a baby, the baby dies, and the affair ends.

Triangle #2
Masha marries the schoolteacher. They have a baby together.

These are key events, right? Ordinarily, a writer might be tempted, in a story about love triangles, to write the scenes in which a character finds some form of romantic satisfaction (although not love) with the object of their affections. So why is it left off stage?

I think it's because the play isn't about finding that kind of romantic satisfaction. It's about how this kind of passion can drive someone to desperate moves. It's possible that in the beginning of the affair or at the start of the marriage, at least one and perhaps both of the lovers would be happy -- or at least happier than we've seen them otherwise. And the play isn't about the kind of happiness we feel in the arms of a lover.

So those scenes are left off. We skip over the newlywed phase and are left to imagine whether there was passion (two babies, so there must have been some passion), or any true meeting of the minds, or any meaningful bonding of the hearts or spirits. And audiences can debate whether Masha might have found a temporary abatement of her depression in the early months of her marriage -- but in the end, it doesn't really matter. Because at the start of the fourth act, after the two year gap, she's right back to her depressed yearning for the dramatist.

And that yearning with it's consequent depression is a necessary thematic state for this character.

I don't know that I can take this example and reduce it to a tight set of principles (something you know I ordinarily would do), because I think this sort of decision is very case specific. But this is a good example of the kind of analysis that might transfer, regardless of context. What is the theme of your story? And how are those themes enhanced or undercut by scenes that might be skip-worthy?



green_knight said...

This resonates with something Robert McKee says in his book 'Story': the basic idea is that if an event does not bring a change in the character, it doesn't belong. By the sound of it, the bits in the middle (marriage, babies) haven't fundamentally changed the characters, and they're still where they were when we left them, so dramatizing the middle bit would lead to false tension.

Edittorrent said...

The between-act events have wrought changes, though. Nina becomes more or less insane. (Probably more, though she's still functional on some level.) The new writer trades idealism for publication -- a hugely important decision that resonates throughout the final moments of the play. I could go on, but really, read the play if you want to see what I mean. It's short and worthy reading.

I think you're right in general, but in this particular piece of writing, there was something else driving the decision to eliminate those scenes. The characters do change, but the events themselves are a bit off-key from the rest of the piece.


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