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.
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"
“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...