Sunday, 8 May 2011

Narrative and Story

Preamble / Background reading

Two months ago (the 8th of March, coincidentally enough), I opened this blank Word document, gave it the title Narrative and Story and left it on my desktop, intending to come back to it when I had a moment.

It was inspired by the discussion which I had suggested to Chris Wilkinson for his Noises Off column at the Guardian, and which was also taking place across several Facebook walls and in various email exchanges. It's worth re-reading that original blog, and the pieces to which it links. And also, Andy Field's brilliant response.

At the time I was halfway through writing “About”, “Properly”, “Professional” and “Political”. During that period, I also went to Hamburg to see (the not-very-“narrative” piece) This is How You Will Disappear, and the Gerhard Richter show Bilder einer Epoche at Bucerius Kunst Forum. A fortnight later, I was at the Berlin Philharmonie to see, among other things, a performance of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen. In between, I visited the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park.

As a result of having this unresolved essay about narrative rattling around my head, I ended up thinking about all three non-theatre works and the recent dance-piece Tremor in relation to it, as well as spending much of my review of Romantic Afternoon thinking about the subject.

Happily, the debate seems to have been reawakened across the Atlantic by George Hunka linking to Deborah Pearson's original Exeunt piece, which in turn caused it to be picked up by Halcyon Theatre's Tony Adams, Isaac Butler and “99 Seats”, before being subsequently written up as another Noises Off blog by Wilkinson.

At least I get to be (almost) timely, by finally writing something on the subject.

The Argument

It strikes me that there are two completely separate arguments going on here.

The first strand of the argument is presented –

by FT theatre critic Ian Shuttleworth here:

“Plays are linear. We can't get away from that given our current relationship to the laws of physics: plays consist of moments, of events, as we move in one direction in time whilst perceiving them. Narrative is not just a natural but, I'd argue, an inescapable response to that arrangement in anyone with any significant memory or attention span (and I say that not as a clever-dick judgement but in its medical sense). We may constantly review and revise our narrative interpretations, both retrospective and prospective (i.e. our assumptions and expectations about moments/events to come) - arguably, all the best plays do this. But that's what we do with data that we receive in succession. We have to live with that, or do the other thing.”

by Tony Adams here:

“You cannot have a work of performance free from narrative. Something happens. That is an event. Our brains are hard wired to create them even if they may not exist. Even if you were hypothetically able to create a performance in a laboratory, where nothing happened. There were no events. The act of performing that work before an audience would create its own narrative. ”

and by playwright Glyn Cannon (on my Facebook wall), thus:

“My standpoint is that narrative is a feature of all performance, be it dance, words, movement, music etc. I've never experienced any performance that escapes duration and frame, and I think the two of these inevitably activate a process of narrative in those attendant at the performance. My personal experience is that process is then deeply and implicitly connected to my sense-making of the world. Short version [his original reply was longer]: 'non-narrative' makes no sense to me, seems a bit superior, I don't think you can exist outside it. 'Anti-narrative' seems a bit more up-front and useful.”

The position could be characterised thus: “Non-narrative theatre is impossible.”

The second strand of the argument is presented –

by Isaac Butler here:

Even if the performer does make an ostensibly narrative-less work, the audience in its hunger and desire for a narrative will impose one on the proceedings. If you want to work in performance and don’t want to deal with story, go make modern dance (which, by the way, would be fine, I vastly prefer non-narrative dance to narrative dance).” [my bold & italics]

or by "99 Seats" here:

“I made a choice to be a narrative-based artist, to tell linear, discrete stories, to employ the tropes and styles I do.
I don't do it because I didn't learn any other ways or because I lack the fortitude or courage to see past the surface. I don't do it because my only goal is to entertain and give people a good time and send them out into the street, tapping their feet. I have very, very specific reasons that I employ this very, very specific artistic style [...]
It's not an accident or the path of least resistance. In fact, I face quite a good deal of resistance. My work doesn't meet people's expectation of the work of a black artist. That's purposeful. Sure,
I could embrace the long, proud and excellent tradition of non-linear black theatre. I chose this because of the audiences I hope to reach, to bring together. This is my project.”

This position might be summed up as “Not in my artform” or “Not in my practice”.

Over the next week, I [hostage to fortune coming right up] hope to write about (emphatically not "answer") the following three questions:

What is narrative?

Is narrative theatre somehow bad?

Is “non-narrative theatre” possible?

In the mean time, I've got a review of some contemporary dance to write up (no narrative; tricky), but it really is worth reading up on the stuff linked to above...


Samantha Ellis said...

It's really interesting that so many of the people you quote seem to think narrative is bad, or something you can't help doing either because we can't free ourselves from it, or because whatever we do, audiences will read narrative into it. I love story, and I can't help feeling that those of us who love it could be a bit prouder about it and enjoy it more. I was also struck that some people who came to see my last play called it "old-fashioned", I think because it had a story, and at the time I often felt irritated that this was seen as a bad thing...and also I felt I had innovated in other ways that maybe weren't as noticeable as if I had made it less plotted. (Which, by the way, I found really challenging to do. Coming up with a good story is really hard.) I think it’s really interesting that you ask the question “Is narrative theatre somehow bad?” I think maybe we think it is, and I worry that a sense of anxiety and even shame about narrative could hamper writers who love stories and want to write them but feel they shouldn't.

Leo said...

As long as a performance exists within 'space' and 'time', it's impossible not to have a narrative of some kind. The act of watching a performance from beginning to end (or even to halfway through if it's bad) is a narrative in itself.
What's perhaps trickier are the kind of narratives that theatre-makers create, particularly in Europe and America. In terms of linear plot and story, we're still following the same patterns as the Ancient Greeks, or, more accurately, the New Testament, or, indeed, the rise and fall and resurrection of Christ. Most plays (particularly most written plays)are shadowy versions of these same stories, which is why the real revolutions have been largely to do with content rather than narrative (or, indeed, structure or form).
Perhaps the real breakthroughs in narrative will only happen when we find ourselves in the midst of radical social change - as in, for instance, the renaissance or the industrial revolution - which forces us to have a fundamental reassessment of the way the universe works and the way we exist within it.

Jana said...

If I remember the conversation correctly, my question, which at the time remained unanswered, was simply: what about those times when we feel that a piece of theatre failed to tell a story?

As a simplest example of a narrative not being there. Then there is lyrical poetry. And finally, I don't know about you, but I remember faintly my high school literature teacher making a distinction between epic (narrative) and dramatic (dramatic) form. Ostensibly, if the whole work is just drumming up emotion, it doesn't have quite a narrative, does it? (But I will freely admit here that I know almost nothing about ancient Greek theatre.)

I think it would be very interesting to try to develop a taxonomy of things that are not narrative.

Ole Georg Graf said...

first of all: this is a very interesting debate going on here.

second: I will post a long comment, concerning different arguments of the ongoing discussion (@ Ian Shuttleworth/ @ Tony Adams/ @ Glyn Cannon/ @Isaac Butler et. al)  - but I will do this in German, because my English, especially my academic English is not good enough for this - I'm really sorry and I hope somebody will translate parts of it.

die linie der argumentation könnte so aussehen:

- zunächst einmal müsste klar zwischen rezeptionsästhetik und werk-/aufführungs- oder textästhetik unterschieden werden: selbstverständlich ist es so, dass sich über jede aufführung und jedes stück "erzählen" lässt  ("gestern war ich im theater. das licht ging an und beschien eine weisse fläche, die im bühnenraum hing. sonst geschah nichts. irgendwann wurden die leute unruhig - die fläche störte das allerdings überhaupt nicht - mich hat die konzentration, leichtigkeit und spannung, mit der die läche dort hing sehr beeindruckt..." usw.: diese art von erzählung lässt sich trefflich mit labovs  sozio-linguistischem erzählmodell analysieren). und: auch kunstwerke, die narrative elemente enthalten, müssen nicht unbedingt narrativ rezepiert werden (aristoteles ordnet die platonischen dialoge dem drama zu - das mal als historische relativierung der diskussion - und zb. das symposion enthält auch narrative elemente - man muss nur mal den anfang lesen. barthes beginnt "die helle kammer"  sogar mit: "eines tages, als ich das photo von X. betrachtete..."). anders formuliert: auch über das lesen von wittgensteins notizbüchern kann ich geschichten erzählen - das macht aber aus wittgensteins notizbüchern noch keinen narrativen text. und wittgensteins notizbücher enhalten narrative elemente - das macht aus ihnen noch keine erzählung.

- @ Ian Shuttleworth/ @ Tony Adams/ @ Glyn Cannon  die ganze mind-script-geschichte (jede folge von ereignisse verknüpft "das gehirn" zu einer geschichte...) gibt gar keine antwort (über die mögliche struktur des kunstwerkes) - ansonsten würden es gar keinen sinn machen, zwischen narrativen- und nicht-narrativen strukturen zu unterscheiden.

- selbst der soziolinguist labov  weiss, dass narration von evaluation geprägt ist, d.h. von antworten nicht auf die fragen "und dann?" oder "was,wann, wo?", sondern auf antworten auf die replik: "na und?"

Ole Georg Graf said...

- dann wäre zwischen "fiktionstheorie" und "narrationstheorie" zu unterscheiden. es gibt ja auch narrationen, die nicht fiktiv sind (die zb., die labov untersucht hat), oder fiktionen, die nicht narrativ sind (letzteres bezweifeln manche. beispiele dafür wären nach bunia die theorie der imaginären zahlen in der mathematik oder die fiktiven fälle der juristik: "wenn der erbberechtigte zum zeitpunkt des erbfalls noch nicht geboren, aber bereits gezeugt ist, gilt er als..." vgl. bunia : faltungen ). mein eindruck ist, dass das über den unscharfen begriff der story zustandekommt (@Isaac Butler/ @ Samantha Ellis/ @ Leo) (story im sinne von fiktion oder story im sinne von narration?). und man muss das nochmal klar trennen.

- und schliesslich wäre eine klärung des narrationsbegriffes notwendig, z.b. anhand chatman "coming to terms", oder chatmans  "story and discourse". chatman unterscheidet zwischen "story" und "discourse" - wobei "story" das WAS der darstellung mit der ihrigen zeitstruktur bezeichnet, und "discourse" den darstellungsmodus mit seiner zeitstruktur. narration ist dann, wo diese "doubly temporal logic" anzutreffen ist und beide zeitbenen (erzählte zeit und erzählzeit, oder genauer: zeit der darstellung und zeit des darstellungsmodus/ ) unterscheidbar sind (bei bunia : faltungen gibt es eine schöne erläuterung dazu anhand von becketts krapp).
anders gesagt: keine narration liegt da vor, wo die darstellung keine zeitstruktur hat (also zb  etwas dargestellt wird, dass keine zeitstruktur hat - zb "die kritik der urteilskraft"), oder der darstellungsmodus keine zeitstruktur, oder keines von beiden, oder beide nicht unterschieden werden.

- und wenn man soweit wäre, dann käme man sehr schnell darauf, dass viele theatertexte in sich viele NICHT-narrative strukturen haben (wie auch narrative strukturen). und die könnte man suchen: bei skakespeare, bei cechov...

so ungefähr. schade, englisch müsste man können - mehr können, als es nur lesen zu können...

Ole Georg Graf said...

[translation of the above]

the line of argumentation could be the following:

first of all one would have to distinguish between the aesthetics of reception and the aesthetics of the work/the staging, the text itself: it is obvious that one can „narrate“ every staging, every play („yesterday, i went to the theatre. the lights went on and shone on a white surface on the stage. apart from that, nothing happened. after some time, people in the audience started to be nervous – that did not have any impact on the white surface – i was impressed by the concentration, the easiness and the tension of the white surface....“, etc.: this kind of narrative can be wonderfully analysed with the help of william labov's sociolinguistic model)

works of art that contain narrative elements do not necessarily have to be received in a narrative way (aristoteles allocated the platonic dialogues to the genre of drama – that just as a historical relativisation of the discussion - and the symposium for example also contains narrative elements, you just have to read the beginning to see that. roland barthes even begins his camera lucida with the sentence: „ one day, quite some time ago, i happened on a photograph of napoleon's youngest brother...“

put differently: i can go and tell stories about the reading of wittgenstein's notebooks – that does not make wittgenstein's notebooks narrative texts. wittgenstein's notebooks contain narrative elements – that does not make them a narration (a story).

- @ Ian Shuttleworth/ @ Tony Adams/ @ Glyn Cannon: the whole mind-script business (every sequence of events is combined to a narrative by „the brain“...) does not give any answer at all (about the possible structure of a work of art) – otherwise it wouldn't make any sense in general to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative structures.

- even the sociolinguist labov knows that narration is coined by evaluation, that is to say not by answers to the questions „and then?“ or „what, when, where?“, but by answers to the question „so what?“

Ole Georg Graf said...

[translation continued...]

- and then one would have to distinguish between „theory of fiction“ and „theory of narration“. there are narrations, which aren't fictional (for instance the ones labov analysed), or fiction, which isn't narrative (some people doubt that. examples can be found, after remigius bunia, in the theory of imaginary numbers in mathematics or fictional law cases: „if the heir is, at the point of inheritance, not yet born, but already conceived, he is...“ (see remigius bunia: faltungen).

my impression is that the whole thing is based on the blurry notion of „story“ (@Isaac Butler/ @ Samantha Ellis/ @ Leo) (story in the sense of fiction or story in the sense of narration?) and that one has to distinguish that clearly.

- lastly, one would have to define the notion of narration, for example with the help of seymour chatman's coming to terms" or "story and discourse". chatman distinguishes between "story" and "discourse": "story" for him means the HOW of the account with its temporal structure and „discourse“ means the mode of representation with its temporal structure. narration is where one finds this "doubly temporal logic", where one can distinguish between both levels of time (time of narration and narrated time, or, more precisely,: the time a representation takes and the time of represented in mode of representation (there is a nice example of this in bunia's „faltungen“ based on beckett's krapp)

put differently: no narration can be found where the representation does not show any temporal structure (where things are depicted that don't have a temporal structure, for example kant's „critique of the power of judgement“) or where the mode of representation doesn't show any temporal structure, or where neither of them show any temporal structure, or where one cannot distinguish between the two.

after that, one would quickly find that many theatre-texts contain many non-narrative structures (as well as many narrative structures). one could then search for those: in shakespeare, in chekhov...