Friday, July 24, 2009

Changed my Mind

After a spiel lamenting what I saw as a kind of weak-minded hero worship of Shakespeare, Jack Tamburri took me to school with his response:
This is the magic of Marvel Comics.
Bear with me.
A number of writers, many with little actual writing ability, have written the adventures of, say, Thor, over the past 50 years. The characters’ voices, motivations, and histories are remarkably inconsistent as a result.
The pleasure of reading Marvel comics over many years is the imaginative work the reader must do to reconcile those inconsistencies–to fill in the blanks between issues, between panels, between runs of writers. As a reader, I write like half the story, and end up much closer to the characters–more emotionally invested as a result.
This is the pleasure of the principle of perfect intention. Start from the assumption that every word, every comma is vital. Then you must do imaginative work to reconcile inconsistencies and give them reasons to exist “in-continuity”. In Marvel letters pages, this was called the “No-Prize”–a fan would write in with an in-story solution to what is blatantly a coloring error or an editing gaffe (Harry Osborn’s shirt changed color in two panels of the same scene because he’s actually a shape-shifting alien!). Directing (or acting in) Titus Andronicus is a series of No-Prizes.
This is also the thinking behind “ambiguity” or “emotional storytelling” or “dream logic.” Make the audience participate in telling the story. This is an extremely important – nay, vital – part of the power of theater.

Well, this is absolutely fantastic and certainly correct.

I'll still raise two caveats, however. First, an interesting difference with the Marvel comics example is that everyone understands that the "smoothing" creative act belongs to the audience. Makers' "errors" etc. are accepted, willfully, as true, and then worked through by the audience. Amazing.

Secondly, I don't think it's true exactly in the theater that we extend the same kind of license to every author that we extend to Shakespeare, and I think that's really what I was trying to treat. Excepting a text as complete is, I now am certain, a great creative act of reception. Privileging one dead genius is still hero worship.

Ooh lastly, the difference in theater is that this receptive act does not necessarily extend to the audience. In a comic book if a frame has a coloring error or something like that the audience takes it as it may. In theater if a script has a plothole or a complication, ostensibly the production team will smooth this out - before it ever gets to an audience.

All the same, a great response, and a wonderful example of audience activity. Thanks, Jack.

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