In Search of the Fantastical

By Timothy Daly

The problem with writing on the technical aspects of play writing is that some new and developing writers think that’s all there is to it; that all one has to do is to absorb enough principles, enough tried-and-tested approaches, enough tricks, and the ‘strong story’ will do the rest.

Sadly, there is much more. In the next article, I’ll be going holistic, examining the very picture of what makes up the totality of a great play. For this article, however, I’m going to concentrate on a lot of small aspects, because it is in the lack of detail, the lack of rich particulars, and even the lack of careful thinking-through that prevent many plays from realising their potential.

Accordingly, I list here nine aspects of ‘the total experience’ of drama. They have one important thing in common: they stress things that are beyond technique, beyond logic, and, most importantly, beyond narrative realism. One can be too realist in technique. A wild, imaginatively-intoxicating world is more important than a “well-constructed plot.” The ideas below should be seen in that light.

  1. The astonishing. The composer, Stockhausen, once said, “I demand one of two things of a composer: that he be inventive, or that he astonish me.” Logical craft is not enough. Ask yourself: what is astonishing, amazing, about my story? About my characters?
  2. The unique. “I breathe the air of a different planet.” That was said over ninety years ago, and some of our theatre work still hasn’t caught up. A play is ‘another planet’. To make an audience travel to this other planet, only to find it’s the exact social replica of Planet Earth, is often a let-down. When you consider that you, and your own inner life and emotions are unique, you should either transfer the uniqueness of that inner landscape to the landscape of your story, or else show the audience that the world that they see (i.e. reality) is not what they think it is.
  3. The numinous. Plays are symbols, not of ‘all-knowingness’, but of its opposite: a great, astonishing mystery. The whole point of visiting the oracle was to receive a message that could be read several ways. A rich play cannot be explained. It can only be interpreted. The same goes for your characters. They are enigmas, even to themselves, and it is in this ‘gap’ in their natures that resides their essential power and humanity. In other words, find the paradox, find the contradiction in your central characters, that “something isn’t quite right here” aspect that tells the audience it is in the presence of a mystery. Iago is a mystery– even Othello is. What mystery, enigma, puzzle lies at the heart of your characters?
  4. The wild and untameable. A director once said to me, “Where are all the wild, half-crazy writers?” She was referring, not to their everyday behaviour, but to ‘what ends up on the page’. It is often very tame. It’s very rare that an audience says, “I can’t watch this play. It’s too exciting.” It’s often the reverse, as our work so often falls into those deadly sub-categories of current theatre: the discussion piece, the easy-target satire, or “the problem with Mum/relationships/families” play.
  5. The virtuosic. Audiences like to see actors walking a tightrope, and about to fall off at any moment. Where is the thrilling show-off passage in your work that makes the actor sweat, that is near-impossible to learn, but when it comes off thrills an audience? Where is the bit where she is doing six things at once? Where is the story that is demanding that an actor work on most of the levels at once– ie, the physical, the social, the emotional, the muscular, the vocal, the intellectual?
  6. The universal. To counterbalance the previous aspect, this is that part of the theatrical experience that brings an audience’s life experience in. “I’ve been there”, they think. Or, just as good, “I can imagine being there.” What is the situation that is symbolic of life on or below the social surface that is being dealt with in your play? A good play is often the examination of the way that apparently ordinary events prove to be turning-points, watersheds, even necessary and sacrificial rituals to places that the astonished characters had no idea they would be heading.
  7. The joyful. Plays are also celebrations: of community, of relationship, of dignity, of grace under pressure, of the beauty of life and humanity even when it seems to topple into the mud. What is the celebratory aspect of your play and its world? I see a lot of plays, including some by middle-class writers, where they, for example, feel sorry for the working class, or the poor, or the unemployed, or the legless, or the protein-deficient. I watch these writers struggling to involve their audiences in the miseries, unaware that, first, in real life these people do not see themselves that way, and second, that ‘an ugly world’ is not a definitive, passive judgement or a final state, but simply a context, or a starting-point. Characters are– or should be– larger, wilder, more creative, more interesting, more intelligent, more optimistic even, than the squalid surroundings they may find themselves in.
  8. The emotional. Every character (and probably every person in real life) is at the very centre of their own personal psychodrama. This man might be living through his own personal tragedy (or what he thinks is a tragedy). That woman might be living in the grip of a problem which has no solution. The crucial thing that we can do, as creators, is to make these tragedies and unsolvable dilemmas at the very core of the characters that we create, so that an audience sees that not only is the play a symbol of the paradoxes of human life, but so is each character, being representative of some aspect of experience. It’s not going to far to say that sometimes plot is simply “the rising to the surface of a deep, half-conscious flaw, weakness, poison or irreconcilable division in the thought-life and dream-life of the main character(s). The closer to the surface it gets, the closer you are to your play’s climax.
  9. The transcendent. Plays are very material things (using real bodies, clothes, tables, sets, props etc) but their real power comes from the suggestion of immateriality, that there are invisible worlds, intangible levels (emotional, intellectual, metaphysical) that can only be poetically suggested, or hinted at. It lies in the power of one’s ability to create characters who are deeply immersed in a thought-life and a feeling-life, but for all that, simply players in a cosmos that, for all their fretting and strutting, is much bigger than them. It also lies in the personal ability of the writer to write language that is suggestive of impulses beyond rationality, reason, logic and “this world”. I’m not being religious here; I’m simply asserting the pre-eminence of imagination.
  10. The fantastical is about suggesting the presence of things we can’t see but know to exist and to be essential for human fulfilment and purpose. A story that dramatises injustice (an invisible concept, despite its material outcomes) requires imagination even more than the realistic setting in which the story may begin.

In a future article, I’ll try and draw these diverse aspects into a ‘theory of everything.’ Watch this theatrical space…