SUBJECTIVITY ON STAGE
First published by Headlong (2015)
Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things is an unusual play because we see the events of the story subjectively, through the eyes of its main character, Emma. We experience the world as she experiences it. When Emma takes drugs, the lights glow brighter and voices slow down. People seem to become other people. Objects disappear and reappear unexpectedly. When her experience of events becomes fragmented, the action of the play becomes fragmented. We see her world from the inside, as opposed to seeing the reality of the events that she is experiencing from the outside.
Theoretically, writing a play from a subjective viewpoint is an impossible task. Theatre is traditionally seen as an objective medium. The word ‘drama’ is intrinsically linked with the idea of action, being derived from the ancient Greek verb dran, ‘to do’. Drama shows its audience a ‘doing’, a set of events happening in the present moment in front of them. The events of the stories that it tells are represented rather than reported to us. The audience witness the objective truth of these events. They know what happened because they saw it happening with their own eyes.
In contrast, the narrative mode of the novel is traditionally seen as offering a subjective perspective. The novel’s narrator tells the reader about a set of past events that they once witnessed or that once happened to them or that they once heard about. Sometimes the narrator is identified and given a clear identity. They might be a character in the the story that they are telling, the ‘I’ who experienced what happened. Sometimes the narrator is unidentified; an omnipotent narrator or the voice of the author relating a set of events as if their account is the undisputed truth of what happened. The events are being reported as opposed to represented, and therefore you can never be sure if the truth of the events has been altered in the telling. The narrator could be lying or they may have coloured their account of the events with their own feelings about them. There is no objective version of the truth available.
Drama is thought of as an objective medium precisely because it lacks the presence of this dubious narrating voice or, to put it more technically, it has no ‘mediating communication system’. There is no narrator framing the action of the story you are being told. Drama is traditionally assumed to be more trustworthy in its retelling of events than the narrative voice of the novel.
If drama is an inherently objective medium, then how can it be possible to tell a story from a subjective perspective in a play? The dramatic mode, however, is not a pure mode. Subjective accounts of events have been a part of drama since its inception in Greece 2500 years ago. Every time a character comes on stage to report what has been happening off stage, they bring the subjective with them. There is always a question about how reliable their retelling of events is. The messenger in Greek tragedy is a good example of the subjective voice. We assume that their account of offstage events is faithfully reported, but can we always be so sure of their objectivity? The messenger’s retelling of events can be heavily informed by their own hopes and fears. The soldier who brings the news that Polyneices body has been buried in Sophocles’ Antigone, is terrified of being punished for having to deliver such bad news. Sometimes the messenger is even deliberately lying. The herald in Euripides’ Trachiniae lies to Deianeira about her husband Hercules, in order to hide the fact that he has been lusting after another woman.
The subjective narrative voice has always been a feature of the dramatic mode. In Postdramatic Theatre, Hans Thies Lehman notes a trend in contemporary theatre towards narration as opposed to action. Plays are increasingly being written in the narrative mode as opposed to the dramatic mode. Instead of seeing the events of the story happen on stage, the audience have to rely completely on the characters’ reports of what happened instead. They provide the audience with ‘a narration of the play presented’. For example, in Simon Stephens' Pornography, four of the characters give an account of their personal experience of the 7/7 London bombings through narrative monologues as opposed to dramatic action. In Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, three different characters tell the audience conflicting versions of the same events.
Character, Aristotle argues, is revealed through action. In the narrative mode, character is separated from action. The events that the characters are involved in are described rather than directly represented. The dramatic action happened elsewhere, in the past. The interest here is less located in the question of what will happen next, than in the character's relationship to the events that happened, as Lehmann terms it ‘the peculiar act of the personal memory/narration’. We become aware of the narrating subject’s double position as both the subject and the object in their retelling of their story. Character becomes both protagonist and author. We see them involved in the moment of the past event that they are recounting and, at the same time we see them, in the present moment, constructing their version of the events.
Both the true nature of the events and the true character of the narrator become unknowable. We are only acquainted with the version of events that the narrator offers us. We are denied the objective truth of what happened. In Pornography, the characters offer different fragments of a story that is too large to tell. The 7/7 bombings form the background against which seemingly more pressing personal concerns play out. The new mother is worried that her husband is drifting away from her. A schoolboy is sexually obsessed with his teacher. A lonely widow finds kindness on a long walk back home through London’s streets. For only one character, the bomber, are the bombings themselves the central event. In Faith Healer, the contradictions and ambiguities in the stories told by the three characters are impossible to reconcile with a single true version of events. The truth about Frank and Grace’s baby and about their own deaths remains forever unclear. Characters tend to present both themselves and the events in the best possible light. It is only in the gap between what they say and how they say it, and between their account of the events and other accounts of the events that the audience have an opportunity to glimpse the true nature of the events and of the person reporting them.
The subjective mode in drama, however, is not just limited to the use of the narrative as opposed to the dramatic mode. Tennessee Williams gives us a glimpse into a different approach to presenting the subjective on stage in The Glass Menagerie. The play is Tom’s retelling of the events that led him to abandon his sister and his mother. In his opening monologue, Tom makes it clear to the audience that what they are about to witness in the dramatic scenes on stage is his personal perspective on these events as opposed to the objective truth of them. This is a ‘memory play’. He is turning back the clock in order to tell his version of events and he frequently breaks the dramatic action of the play with direct narration in order to remind the audience of the subjective nature of what they are seeing.
In People, Places and Things, Macmillan takes this subjective viewpoint one step further. The framing device of the narrator is completely removed. Now we see events directly through the eyes of the protagonist but there is no explicit commentary to remind us that we are seeing the events in this way. We become aware of the subjective viewpoint through the ways in which the world around Emma responds to both her emotional state and her level of intoxication. When she sees her mother in the authority figures who dominate her life, they literally have her mother’s face. When she is confused and disorientated, the action of the play becomes confused and disorientated. When she becomes intoxicated, events start to skip and jump. One minute she is in a club, the next she appears to be driving, the next she is in hospital. Our experience of events is as confused and jumbled as hers is.
If there is no obvious narration, how is it possible to identify that the events depicted on stage are being told from the subjective viewpoint of a single character? In this type of subjective play, the character from whose point of view we are viewing the action remains on stage throughout the entire performance. The events of the play swirl around them. David Eldridge’s Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness is another play that, like People, Places and Things, uses this technique to present a subjective viewpoint. The play is about Joey, a banker, who is in the middle of a nervous breakdown. As with Emma in People, Places and Things, Joey remains at the centre of the action of the play. As his mental state deteriorates, the presentation of the events that are happening to him becomes more and more confused as real events, memories and dreams start to blur. Conversely, as he slowly begins to recover, the action of the play itself slowly becomes more and more coherent. The audience experience the world as he experiences it.
Whilst the majority of plays continue to offer us an objective viewpoint of the world, there has been an increase in the number of subjective plays on the British stage in recent years. This is interesting in terms of the way in which it reflects a change in how we view both ourselves and the world that we live in. Postmodernist thought argues that it is impossible for us to engage with the world from anything other than a subjective viewpoint. We can only see the world through the lens of our own experience. There is no objective truth to any set of events. There is only the perspective from which you are viewing them. This perspective is inevitably shaped by the culture in which we live and our personal experience of the world. The objective truth of a set of events is beyond our comprehension. In these subjective plays, this idea is reflected in the fact that the events are clearly seen only in terms of one individual's experience of them. The idea that the theatre can present us with objective universal truths about both the world and ourselves is challenged through this use of the subjective mode.
This article was originally published by Headlong (2015).