Saturday, February 25, 2006

The "New Storytelling" (part 1)

“The New Storytelling” isn’t a very catchy name, but the trend in music and theater I’m writing about isn’t exactly a movement… yet.

In some theater and music of roughly the last decade, text has been given a new status. One could probably trace an interesting history of the role of text throughout the history of theater; it might begin with the Greek (and Shakespearean) moves between speech as “just part of the action,” as narration of what happens “outside the play,” and as poetic rumination (thinking out loud about something, usually a broad question or issue). Such a history might include later tendencies toward realism in dialogue (the first part of the trio of functions above), or toward a version of this where dialogue has the entire status of the action (as in Oscar Wilde). Modern and postmodern developments would include the odd literary language of Harold Pinter’s early plays and the heightened absurdity of the dialogue in work by Mac Wellman. I think the writing of Wallace Shawn, Robert Ashley, David Greenspan, and Rick Burkhardt is contributing something new: a focus not only on the telling of stories, but on the fact of that telling, and on what it means to relate an anecdote or a narrative in contemporary social and aesthetic contexts. I’ll briefly discuss some works by these writers here, and then present a tentative summary of aspects common to works of “New Storytelling.”

Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, which premiered in 1996, takes to an extreme a way of writing that has come to make up an increasing proportion of each of his scripts over the course of his playwriting career: a mass of text, attributed to a character, without any essential requirement of staging in the usual sense, or at least without any built-in relation to what’s physically happening onstage. Almost the entire play is narrated to the audience. Three characters (Jack and Judy, who are/were married, and Howard, Judy’s father) present conflicting accounts of the breakup of the marriage, the takeover of their country by a brutal right-wing dictatorship, the wrecking of the economy, and the execution of hordes of activists, intellectuals, and nearly everyone associated with them, all in the past tense. This past tense comes to seem “impossible” when we find out that both Judy and Howard have been killed at some point in the story. The stories are told “out of time;” once the point in the story has been reached at which Judy is executed, she stops participating in the telling, which seems to make sense—but the fact that she “was” dead already by the present time of the beginning of the telling destabilizes this sense. The setup of the play splits time into the temporality of narrating and the distinct temporality of what’s narrated, and Judy’s death and the loss of her narrative become analogies for one another, rather than simply the same event. Though both Jack and Judy tell about the collapse of their relationship (which Jack abandons), Judy relates it to the political events that lead to the death of her father and their friends (as well as to her own death), making it seem like Jack has run away to save his own skin, while Jack ascribes it to the inconsistency and smugness he sees in the liberal, upper-class literary milieu of “Howard, Judy, and the whole gang of them,” a milieu he once wanted to participate in but felt “kept out of.” His story is one of cutting away all the bullshit, admitting to himself that he really doesn’t like poetry (and claiming that no-one else does, either), and settling into an existence free of interpersonal obligation. The fact that it’s Jack’s tale of ostensible personal liberation that gets the last word is the salient dark fact of the play; we’re left thinking about whether we’d be the kind of storyteller who seals the fate of resistance to oppression by turning its memory into an anecdote in the tale of the formation of our personal narrative.

The Designated Mourner is also written in a strange literary language. Though much of the text is very similar to normal speech, there’s always something wrong with it; metaphors are too florid, or show up in inappropriate places, or just aren’t quite the right metaphors. The sound of the language is unnaturally rich, alliterative, poetic (though it doesn’t seem like poetry). The sentences are beautiful to hear, even when they’re describing horrors. All this heightens the “writenness” of the text, its artifice, its nature as story. In addition, Wagnerian or Schoenbergian “leitmotifs” are carefully woven into the text in the form of words that recur in shockingly different contexts (an example is Judy’s use of the noun in “human remains,” a phrase quoted with distaste from a newspaper describing the sudden profusion of corpses in the nearby park after the political shift takes place; Jack later uses the verb form to describe the persistence of comforting beauty when, sitting in that same park, he says, “but so much remains”). These resonances within the text make words, phrases, sentences and lines of argument memorable as they occur and recur in the midst of speeches that can last as long as fifteen or twenty minutes; the ornateness of the writing, rather than distracting us from the content of the play, keeps us from getting lost in the masses of words, and also allow us to take parts of the text away with us, to muse over further and perhaps be frightened by. The way they stand out heightens our consciousness of the “toldness” of the story—we’re not in it, we’re hearing it related, and that’s a political position.

Since the mid-1970’s, Robert Ashley’s work has been almost exclusively concerned with the use of speech as the major component in musical compositions. His operas are elaborate arrangements of talking, with the anecdote as the dominant form of talk. Dust (2000) is an opera for five performers and “electronic orchestra” in which the speakers (Robert and Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert and Joan La Barbara) ostensibly play the roles of five homeless people, living in a park in a large city. During the introductory section of Dust, Robert Ashley announces that they are going to “sing the songs” of a sixth friend, a man in a wheelchair who “lost his legs in some war” and is a hero to the other five because “his irreversibilities are real… he doesn’t have to think of himself as a fuckup.” These “songs” (actually five stories, performed by each of the musicians with a distinct approach to an area Ashley has been cultivating, a set of techniques between speaking and singing) are anecdotes from the man’s past, from before the war. The setup for the opera is quite complex; the opening section introduces the characters, but the rest of the opera contains no reference to them—not even a reminder that we’re listening to “characters” perform. Though the introduction sets out the serious themes of war and homelessness, the “songs” that follow (with the exception of the last one) aren’t about these issues (though they do, I think, take on a powerful resonance in relation to them, and I feel that the opera has a lot more to say about destitution than most narratives I've encountered that try to tackle homelessness directly).

The opera is primarily about storytelling. Ashley announces this early on: “you have to tell a story a lot of times to get it right… the story becomes a kind of friend… to keep away the hurt and the loneliness,” and there are various discussions throughout the opera of practicing ways of talking: learning stories, learning “the dirty words,” trying to stop using others. These statements refer to the content of the stories, to life outside the opera, and to the opera itself. The latter must indeed have taken a lot of practicing; the first four songs are, to the second, the same length. The orchestra part provides chords around which the talking/ singing is to center, and an echo is set up to cause particular pitches in the voice to resonate. This results in particular melodies in the speech, and in particular rhythmic and dynamic emphases, all of which results in a music after which the listener can vividly remember sentences (I’ve been amazed at just how much of the opera’s text I’ve involuntarily committed to memory) and stories, to an extent that just isn’t possible if one goes to hear a lecture, or to see most plays. There’s a also a strange set of similarities between the five singers’ performances, though they approach speech/singing in very different ways; maybe it has to do with the underlying harmonic structures. In any case, it really does sound like five people who have learned the story of one sixth voice, have taken it into themselves as “a kind of friend.” Stories double us, and double the people we’re close to, in whatever way, and the retelling multiplies the whole gang of tellers and stories exponentially.

(to be continued in the next post)


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