Friday, February 19, 2010


Every book on play-writing ever written contains in some form an exhortation to resolve. Aestheticians ever argue this necessity on the grounds of narrative or emotional completion of the action presented, on the grounds, I suppose, that this is what the audience wants. Moralists (who, madder, more often capture my heart) insist that resolution comprises the civic legitimacy of the theater, that only by seeing horrors or pleasures rehearsed onstage can we be adequately prepared to face them in our own lives.

But: suddenly, recently I've found myself ambivalent about them. When reading plays at home I almost invariably put them down as soon as all the crises are in place. Of course I'll pick them up again and almost always be surprised - a good resolution is never a forced march no matter how inevitable it may seem - but nevertheless this is when my attention flags, when the pleasure turns to work.

Greek tragedy (and maybe Roman tragedy even more so) was based entirely on the struggle (moral, emotional, practical) between arguments over the course of action to take when presented with a problem. The conclusion - it's important to remember - was most often the least dynamic part, because, drawn from shared myths or recent past it was certain the audience knew where the story was going.

Today, of course, this is not at all true, and I understand the desire to tell a story with an ending and to watch a question that builds to an answer. Also, I've snarkily diagnosed the cliché of ambiguity that looms with self-satisfaction over the contemporary theater "of ideas."

So what's the problem? I think part of the reason I might find conclusions to be irritating is actually rooted in a different - almost opposite - problem. Specifically, a lot of plays take a long time to get to what the "plot" is going to be. We spend much of the first act meeting the characters only to be presented with the "problem" of the play just before the intermission. The audience activity of the first act is replaced with the passivity of events unfurling in the second act, and this seems a shame.

In The House's Wilson Wants It All (the first play in a while I've immediately wanted to watch again when the lights came up), for instance, the opening video is fantastic and the initial plot device is darling, the acting (particularly John Henry Roberts and Edgar Miguel Sanchez) is precise and exuberant and there's an eleventh hour speech that offers the most perfectly constructed villainy imaginable in America today, but for me the piece suffers in part from a desire to tie up loose ends and pursue the intricate but uncomplicated web it spins.

Why bother? I don't have any solutions for this, but, if theater is about entertainment, if it's about movement or transportation, if it's about recognizing humanity, if it's almost any definition you can offer, it can handily unburden itself from the need to resolve.

1 comment:

Zev Valancy said...

I think that a lot of the terms you mention theatre being about in the last paragraph imply a resolution, by their very nature. "Entertainment" seems to almost require a resolution--one of the primal points of storytelling seems to be the desire to give a narrative shape to life. Any work of narrative, even documentary, by its nature is shaped. It may not have an ending that perfectly satisfies (not all narratives are "Law & Order"), but it comes to something. To deny that primal desire seems perverse.

And if the purpose of theatre is to transport, doesn't that imply a destination? Most people taken on a trip wouldn't appreciate being kicked off the bus halfway through. If that's a conscious choice, it's one thing (some plays use that kind of dislocation very effectively), but it being negligence seems bizarre.

Now, that's not to deny that a good resolution is very hard to do well. Asking questions that are interesting through plot action is difficult enough. Resolving them in a satisfying way is rare. But simply the fact that resolutions are rarely done well seems like an insufficient reason to chuck them--plays are rarely done well, period.

Wilson Wants It All (and were you reviewing it? I'd love to read your thoughts in more depth.) is a pretty good example of a play where the ideas, the world, the staging, and the acting were all more compelling than the actual plot structure. Indeed, there were some pretty big plot and logic holes. At the time I saw it, they didn't bother me that much, but later thinking brought them out. I would still recommend the show--there's more to theatre than narrative--but that would certainly be a caveat.

So I guess my questions to you are: do you have a problem with resolutions as such, or just with poorly developed plots? And what would the art and the audience gain by not having them?