15 February 2011

Theatrical Structure I

[In the fall of 1983, I took a course called Theatrical Structure from the late Michael Kirby, who died in 1997, at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. Michael was a Structuralist; his own definition of Structuralism, which he capitalized as an aesthetic movement to distinguish it from a general philosophical concept, is an “esthetic theory that emphasizes and gives primary importance to Structure.” He described the Structuralist philosophy in detail in his essay “Manifesto of Structuralism” (Drama Review 19.4 [Dec. 1975]) and several Structuralist plays by him and by other formalists in “Structural Analysis/Structural Theory” (Drama Review 20.4 [Dec. 1976]). As far as I can determine, no one, including Michael, ever explained his system in print; it was transmitted only orally to his NYU students. I’m going to try to present a model of Michael’s structural analysis here, divided into two sections, using Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press, 1967). The names of the structural devices Michael identified are from his NYU class; they don’t appear in “Structural Analysis,” though several are defined or described there. My definitions are derived from Michael’s explanations in class as I understood and learned to apply them when I took the course.]

“Nothing exists without structure,” Michael Kirby admonished. “There are only people who are not aware of perceiving structure.” Kirby had been a Professor of Performance Studies at New York University and wrote extensively about such genres as Happenings and Futurist theater, but he was also a sculptor—and, therefore, something of a formalist. He was also the composer of Structuralist plays which he directed or oversaw worldwide. As a Structuralist, he developed a unique method of analyzing performances from the perspective of the way they’re held together across time in the mind of the spectator. Since Kirby, aside from writing Structuralist plays based on his theory, could describe non-Structuralist performances using his analytical system, directors and designers of even non-formalist scripts should find much in it to use in production work. Despite Kirby’s insistence that structural theory “relegates any and all other aspects of a performance”—including meaning or interpretation—”to lesser positions,” there’s nothing to prevent directors or designers from applying it to create or enhance their narrative or dramatic points at the same time as they strengthen their productions’ theatrical unity. Even non-Structuralist authors can find useful application of Structural Theory to strengthen the unity of a diffuse or discursive text. Furthermore, that the analysis that follows is based on a text rather than a performance indicates that it’s also a useful tool for textual analysis alongside Aristotelian dramatic structure. In fact, I submit that this analytical method can be revealing even when applied to non-dramatic texts such as poetry and novels.

“Analysis,” according to Webster, is “a separation or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.” Theatrical structure, in Kirby’s terms, is “the way the parts of a work relate to each other, how they ‘fit together’ in the mind to form a particular configuration.” The structural analysis of a performance, then, is the identification of those elements which make it appear a unified whole in the mind of the spectator, often despite the disparate elements that compose it. This isn’t the same as traditional dramatic structure, which is usually a literary analysis of a text, though it may be seen as a companion to such analysis. Structural analysis is entirely subjective and will necessarily vary from spectator to spectator, even at the same performance.

Because structural analysis deals with the perception of someone watching the performance, elements determined to unify the production may or may not be intentionally put there by the writer, director, designers, or performers. Their significance isn’t less because a single spectator identifies them, or because two spectators identify them differently. In short, if you see a unifying device, then it’s there, whether or not anyone else sees it. Even accidents, if they can be seen to unite a performance over time, are legitimate structural devices. “[S]tructure,” Kirby asserted, “becomes manifest in the workings of the mind” because “time is crossed by mental connections.” Indeed, structure needn’t even be consciously noted to be present. Audiences need only sense “certain reflections, certain echoes, certain premonitions, certain answers, certain frustrations, certain fulfillments.” Since we’re talking here about psychological connections, it’s also true that even unrecognized structures will serve to unite moments of the performance.

Kirby identified 15 structural devices, each of which works to connect parts of a performance in a different way. Not all fifteen need appear in any given work and, of those that do, not all will appear with equal frequency or force. Of course, which devices appear and their significance is entirely in the perception of the spectator. It’s of no consequence whether a structure’s seen as weak or strong, useful or trivial. Structural analysis doesn’t imply a value judgment and the quality of a perceived structure’s entirely a matter of the spectator’s individual assessment. Certainly, not all will be equally significant to the meaning or interpretation of the play; however, for our purposes, structural analysis isn’t concerned with meaning, which Kirby referred to as “informational” or “semantic” structures, but deals exclusively with form, that is, the “formal” or “non-semantic” structures.

To see what could be learned both about the analytical system and about a conventional, albeit logically diffuse, play, I analyzed Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead structurally. In my analysis of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play, I’ve made two assumptions. The first is that the text’s a fair representation of a performance and, thus, that the stage directions are true indications of performance behavior. This assumption, however, necessitates omitting those structural elements that can be added in production by designers, directors, and actors, though these will considerably enhance the unity of the performance. Since most, if not all, of these structural devices are applicable to sound, movement, set and props, and costumes, as well as text, there are a great many ways these artists can increase the occurrence and impact of the devices. The second assumption is that the model spectator’s totally naïve with regard to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in that he’s never seen a production before and doesn’t know Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from which Stoppard’s play is derived.

The analysis of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead which follows is my own interpretation of the structural devices and how they function in the play. It’s offered as a model for the application of Kirby’s analysis technique, not a definitive structural analysis of Stoppard’s play. Other observers will certainly see different structures and will attribute different significance to them. Additionally, as I’ve noted, I’ve used the text for this analysis, not a performance. A spectator doesn’t have the ability to “reread” parts of a production that have passed by in time and will necessarily miss many structures or note them only subliminally. This doesn’t invalidate the system or my model.

The 15 devices considered in analyzing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Progression, Framing, Character Structure, Contrast, Patterns, Action, Episodic Structure, Information Structure, Parallelism, Levels, Expectancy, Memory, Thematic Structure, Echoes, and Present Reference. Of these, I find no evidence in the play of Progression or Framing. The most vivid illustration of Progression—where something’s accumulated or stripped away by degrees throughout the play—occurs in the film Little Big Man in which Allardyce T. Merriweather, the snake-oil salesman played by Martin Balsam, keeps appearing with fewer and fewer body parts.

Framing—where a distinctive performance element brackets the play, a scene, or a series of scenes at the beginning and the end—may be exemplified by the simple mechanism of raising the curtain at the beginning of a performance and lowering it at the end, joining together everything that happens in between. This is, of course, useful in vaudeville and music hall performances whose components have no narrative or logical link. Peter Shaffer employs a more dramatic instance of Framing in Amadeus. Most of the play takes place in the eighteenth century, but Act One opens with accusatory whispering voices, then shifts to Antonio Salieri’s apartment in 1823 and Act Two ends with the reverse of this sequence.

The remaining 13 structural devices in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern provide a great number of examples of psychological connections. Perhaps the most obvious unifying force is the omnipresence of the two title characters. Except for an exit at the end of Act Two and their “disappearance” at the end of the play, these two characters are always on stage. Thus Character Structure holds the performance together by the constant presence of the two main figures, regardless of who else may enter and exit, or what locations or settings may be employed. Reinforcing this structure, the Tragedians reappear at regular and extensive intervals, further tying the play together by the presence of key characters.

Character Structure can have variants, particularly in contemporary performance. For instance, a character’s presence may be felt throughout the performance even though no actor portrays him. Godot comes to mind, of course, though Vladimir and Estragon are always on stage themselves. In Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta, the title figure never appears but he’s nevertheless a constant presence. In some performances no single character remains on stage, but one actor does, as in the stage works of Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and Anna Deavere Smith. In still other performances, many actors may come and go on the stage, all representing a single character, say at different ages or stages of life. In The Yellow House, a play about Vincent van Gogh by Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company, four actors (including a woman) portrayed various avatars of the artist, at least one of whom was always on stage.

If Character Structure is reinterpreted more generally as Continuity Structure, aspects of performance other than characters or actors can function as unifying devices. Setting—”a place without any visible character” in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern; Waiting for Godot’s “A country road. A tree. Evening”—or other design elements can operate structurally. (Ironically, the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lost this unifying structure by the cinematic technique of “opening up” the text, depicting realistically and literally the locations only suggested in the stage script.) In Brecht’s The Measures Taken, different members of a group portray one of their number who was killed. In a 1974 production by The Shaliko Company, each actor in turn donned a red bandana as a distinguishing emblem so that a costume element formed a connective thread through the scenes.

Another device, Contrast, highlights the Character Structure in the constant presence of the two courtiers. The juxtaposition of two elements can create an effect that wouldn’t exist if either element were absent as in Vincent van Gogh’s belief that one painting shows up more vividly when hung next to another in a complimentary color, say a blue one beside an orange one or a red one beside a green one. In performance, a comic scene may make surrounding tragic ones seem graver; a brightly lit scene emphasizes the darkness of dimly lit ones before or after it. As mentioned, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do make an exit at the end of Act Two just as the stage blacks out. This is their only exit in view of the audience, and it points up the fact that they’ve never been out of the spectator’s sight for two acts. Additionally, at the end of the play, first Rosencrantz then Guildenstern “dies” by disappearing from view. (They don’t actually exit, but are blacked out by the stage lights.) The only occasion on which dialogue and action take place without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being present, this Contrast makes the preceding Character Structure appear stronger in retrospect.

This is an opportune juncture to point out that many structural mechanisms work “backwards.” When a spectator recognizes a structural element, she usually recalls something earlier in the performance. Structures that connect moments distant in time—always retrospectively—are “discontinuous.” A Frame, for example, is clearly discontinuous: each instance exists discretely. Framing only emerges as a structural element with the second instance, when the spectator’s reminded of the first occurrence, connecting the two and integrating in her mind everything that happened in between. Structures that steadily carry the spectator forward as they flow through the performance, such as Character Structure, are “continuous” structures.

In addition to its function as a subsidiary Character Structure, the Tragedians’ reappearances are so regular that they form a discernible Pattern of entrances and exits. After the first appearance—and certainly after the second—the spectator can predict when they’ll appear again. The Pattern of off-stage and on-stage time is as follows:

  • Act I: 11 pages off – 14 pages on – 19 pages off.
  • Act II: 7 pages off – 8 pages on – 6 pages off – 9 pages on – 11 pages off.
  • Act III: 17 pages off – 12 pages on – 2 pages off.

Taking into consideration that the time it takes to perform a page of script will vary, only the last, very short scene would be noticeably different in stage time. (The longer passages include a good deal of short dialogue and long stage directions.) This predictability psychologically connects the passing events of the performance for the spectator and engenders an Expectancy that the elements of the Pattern will reappear.

Like the presence of characters, their Actions and the Action of the play itself also unite the performance into a whole. Aristotle considered Action to be Physical Action, such as “bringing a murderer to justice” or “ascending the throne,” within which each scene causes the next to happen in a chain that inevitably results in the play’s climax. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, there’s certainly a physical act toward which the play’s tending: the courtiers’ deaths. That’s where the path the title characters are following leads, but neither they nor the spectator (if he’s truly naïve as I’ve assumed) knows this—at least until the broad hint’s dropped during the Tragedians’ dress rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago late in Act Two. There’s certainly no cause-and-effect relationship among most of the scenes. The games Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play aren’t caused by any Action that comes before, nor do they cause any subsequent Actions. The Tragedians, whom the courtiers encounter first on the road to Elsinore, don’t further the Action, nor are they propelled by it in any way. Yet there’s a feeling of continuity; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are headed toward some fate which they don’t know and can’t escape. This Reflexive Action—one the spectator doesn’t recognize until it’s nearly been fulfilled—is, however non-Aristotelian, a continuous presence holding the performance together. In fact, the spectator needn’t be able to name the Action for it to be structurally effective. He need only sense that something’s going on and be pulled along with this unspecified Action.

Action can also be psychological—what Stanislavsky called the “superobjective.” This is the principle goal or aim toward which the characters strive—what they want. It may not be the same as the Physical Action of the play and, indeed, in modern theater, both may not even exist in the script—though either may be created by the director and cast. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, there’s a clear Psychological Action that both the title characters have in common. They both want to know what’s happening around them, and they actively seek out clues and piece together information to figure this out. That they never succeed is inconsequential in terms of the validity of the Action; it’s still what drives them through the play and keeps the spectator connected to the performance. Success or failure in accomplishing an Action within the bounds of the play has no bearing on the effectiveness of Action as a structural device since, as long as the characters pursue it, the audience is drawn along with that pursuit.

Either Physical Action or Psychological Action may be a reflection of Plot Action, a semantic function of the work’s narrative if it has one. Plot Action is certainly a component of the text, but it can still serve as a powerful unifying performance force as spectators follow the story and anticipate events down the road. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the Plot Action is related to the courtiers’ Character Actions. The play’s the story of two lost men trying to figure out what’s going on around them. As long as the audience watches them gather clues and try to put information together, even if the information’s misleading and the clues never add up, the play holds together both as text and as performance. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the audience will want to know what’s going on and what’ll happen next.

(Stoppard’s later play, Arcadia, also tells a story of piecing together information. We watch as the characters gather clues about what happened in the house 150 years ago and we add up the pieces with them. At the end of the play, we discover that their conclusions are entirely wrong—but the cohesive function of the Action carries us along nonetheless.)

Despite the strong Psychological Action evident in the play, the physical act toward which the play tends has no cause-and-effect connection in the scenes. They stand apart as separate episodes, each with its own small Action. Though some of the scenes have causal ties—Claudius and Gertrude’s instructions that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find out what afflicts Hamlet cause the courtiers to play at questioning Hamlet—most don’t have such obvious links. Not only are their games not causally bound to the scenes surrounding them, neither are the scenes with the Tragedians. Each of these scenes also has its own brief Action—to win the game, to see a play, to find the coin—which somehow relates to the overall Action, but neither causes it nor is caused by it. In fact, it seems that only the Shakespearean scenes cause subsequent scenes to happen. Scenes which propel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern toward their deaths are principally these. This Episodic Structure, which presents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as wanderers through life, reinforces the strength of their omnipresence and their search for answers. The courtiers are inexorably impelled toward their fate, regardless of the fact that the scenes themselves aren’t causally connected. Episodic Structure—the classic “string of beads” configuration best exemplified by Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Büchner’s Woyzeck, or Brecht’s Mother Courage—depends heavily on a strong “string” to unite the “beads.” In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the uninterrupted presence of the two main characters forms the string, reinforced by their pursuit of their Action, to understand what’s happening around them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Action in each scene’s a manifestation of their overall Action. The regular arrivals of the Tragedians also helps bond the episodes.

[This is the first part of my discussion of Michael Kirby’s structural analysis technique. I’ll pick up with part two in a few days, starting with the next structural device, Information Structure.]

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