A theatre of narrative

The performance of stories in various fringe venues has gathered enough momentum to present the possibility of a Theatre of Narrative where the art of storytelling is as vital as other performing arts.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
26 February 2015

Flickr/Bahman Farzad. Some rights reserved.

Some literature is not written to be read but to be spoken. Shakespeare is an obvious example. The works of Homer were not even written but were memorized and spoken from generation to generation. Dickens prepared [and performed] oral versions of his fiction. Bob Dylan’s poetry is written to be sung. Poets are invited to read their work to audiences in recordings or live performance. Engagement by direct communication always has been integral to the idea of literature. The solitary reader is a necessary part of literature, but it is only a part of a wider experience that is within society. Of necessity the act of writing is in part solitary because it is personal. The act of reading may require concentration and silence. The reception, even in a social space, is an individual, personal experience. Yet we have reading groups with members sharing their interests. The need is for the personal to find its way into society because we recognize and value literature as integral to society.

A recent development extends this idea of sociability further by the performance of fiction as drama is performed – by actors on a platform before an audience. This contrast with the received image of the isolated reader taking the bound volume from bookshop or library home where it can be read in a quiet sitting room. Some texts do require a level of concentration that depend on a measure of isolation. As autonomous beings we require some personal space for the part of us that is ours alone. As social beings we find the need and the pleasure in communicating that which we are. Without those feelings there would be no literature that extended and codified conversation.

The growth of organisations like Are You Sitting Comfortably? and Liars’ League and White Rabbit testify to the creative opportunities within the experience of performed literature. The generative capacity of the experience is not yet fully realized. The writer of fiction is certain to be stimulated by the social exchange which is performance. Where once the only direct contact may have been the brief banalities of the book signing, today we no longer rely on the book to contain our fiction – it is there in the reading and the subsequent podcast and Youtube broadcast. The story may be published also, and perhaps it should be, as a permanent record in a literate culture. But the primary communication of that literature is oral. Will anyone turn up to a fringe venue midweek to hear stories? You bet they will. The frisson both of expectation and acceptance can be electrifying.

Fiction as a performance art takes place within a breaking of forms. There is a fluidity of bounds that challenges the orthodoxies. The traditional categories of genre no longer apply. Theatre is no longer primarily a text with dialogue between two or more characters. The essence of theatre is in performance, but the definitions are flexible. On the one hand there is physical theatre. It has a long history of acrobatics, mime and music. Street theatre shapes the performance according to the immediacy of the moment. Street theatre is an invaluable apprenticeship in performance skills. Nowhere than the square or park is more illustrative of Peter Brook’s dictum that the theatre is an empty space. Stripped of the proscenium/auditorium dichotomy, stripped of the social formalities of courtly entertainment, theatre returns to its roots in rituals sacred and profane.

The challenge to a theatre of words is profound. The dialogue play will not, and should not, disappear. But it must be seen as one convention among others. This is far less of an aesthetic challenge than it may seem. Change is a negotiation with history, a looking back as well as forward. Stoppard’s masterly New Found Land, an inspiration to his younger contemporaries, is exemplary. The monologue has been a preferred form for Beckett and Brian Friel. Popular successes like Shirley Valentine, Spoonface Steinberg and The Vagina Monologues testify to the capacities of narrative drama. There is a long history of narrative drama, not always for one voice alone. Charles Laughton, with Tyrone Power, was creating such performance for radio and stage in the Nineteen Forties. The ambition was to create a Theatre of Narrative, although the conditions for such a project were not there.

Today the conditions are gathering coherence. A literary theatre of a performed fiction has grown in part from a frustration with an orthodoxy that demands that theatre be one form, or another. To propose conflict between the theatre of words and the theatre of sound and gesture is divisive and obstructive. Against the orthodoxy of separation is the radical spirit seeking the infinite permutations to be found within the cross-fertilization of forms. Harmony is the blending of parts, not a single note of unity. Poor Johnny One-Note is left at the stage door, or perhaps some shadowy corner of the Garrick. Beneath his feet, almost literally so, the spells of enchantment are being cast.

Where words matter, where the text takes precedence, the search is for a writer’s theatre. The Royal Court has a long history of being such a theatre. But other places may be so described in other terms. Mike Leigh as writer/director (in the spirit of Joan Littlewood) improvises collectively with the company of actors. The text is not a precious artefact but a working part of the whole. This approach does not conflict with the idea of writers’ theatre. It complements it. To work in this collaborative way is a refreshing engagement with literature as a social exchange. It is how Shakespeare and Sheridan and Shaw worked.

It was said in the Fifties that theatre was the natural home for writers. The famous explosion of new writing lends credence to this view. But a closer look at the writers’ personal statements testifies to an age-old truth: writers explore all the available media before concentrating on the one where they find success. Resisting quasi-mystical notions of the medium finding the writer, it is a question of practicalities. Radio, it is said, is a writers’ medium because it is language-based. There is a demanding concentration of form that betrays any indifference to literary quality. Underwritten scripts cannot be saved by visual effects. In radio every cliché clunks where elsewhere it may pass unnoticed as the eye gazes on the scene.

A stumbling block to the advancement of radio as a writers’ medium has been the hierarchic structure of broadcasting within a hierarchic society. Liberal pieties mouthed as a litany do not alleviate this problem. New media, and a new spirit among a network of engaged writers, have circumvented the obstructions.

A significant development as I write is that the BBC is alert to the new theatre of narrative. It is seeking accommodation. It is a timely sign of acceptance. The possibilities for such a development have hovered round BBC radio drama for years. In certain respects it is a return to a tradition abandoned so recklessly in the populist orthodoxy that swept over all our culture as a counter-revolution with a vengeance. For a time it seemed irresistible. And, if you wanted to hold on to your job, it was. But there prevail the everyday acts of resistance that good writing is.

To speak of victory is the language of conflict. The language of harmony speaks of acceptance. After the BBC will come the National Theatre’s Season of Narratives, let us call it, with Michael Billington’s considered appraisal. Glastonbury will follow, returning to its roots circa 1978 when Heathcote Williams was the headliner. There even may be an actual Theatre of Narrative. Who knows? Scepticism will be swept aside. Something may be lost other than obstructive cynicism. A sense of intimate space will be possible no longer. Other possibilities will emerge. A sense of engagement with things that are seen to matter is the basic narrative that must not be lost.

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