Monday, August 15, 2011

Resolutions and their Proper Avoidance

SPOILER WARNING: I talk about the endings of plays over 400 years old. Odds are readers won’t be spoiled anything, but just in case…

I was watching Charlie Rose the other day, interviewing the director of the RSC Michael Boyd. The topic was the recent set-up in New York for a run of a number of plays to be performed by the company there, including a production of Hamlet for inner city youths. Early results seem very positive, and this is the kind of thing I’d like to see continue and spread – one of the biggest misconceptions about Shakespeare is that it’s incomprehensible without either a college degree or a monocle.

Rose asked Boyd what he thought made Shakespeare endure as well as it has, and his answer’s been running around my head for a few days. He said (to paraphrase) that Shakespeare knew how to close a story without resolving anything. Taking Hamlet as an example, the play’s named for the boy, he succeeds in killing his enemy at the end, so on the surface everything’s wrapped up nice and neat, but if you take a deeper look at what’s going on, the big picture is still blurry. By the end of the play, the country’s torn itself apart in civil war, the entire royal family is dead, and Hamlet’s more concerned about how it’ll sound in history than who will succeed him.

I thought back to what I remember and realized Shakespeare does this a lot. In Romeo & Juliet, the families keep the feud going even after their kids kill themselves. Toward the end of Twelfth Night, one character is swearing revenge on everyone, the only response sending a messenger with a request for peace. Othello: Iago manages to tear apart his own nation’s army and destroy the lives of a happy couple, and he is one of the few main characters to survive through the play.

Boyd goes on to explain that with every story, the temptation exists to tie up all the loose ends, and give the audience a clear indication of what the creator wanted the audience to take from the story. This exists in teaching as well – a teacher can tell students what they need to know in a certain subject and have done with it. They’ve said their piece, the audience will either take it as their own or leave it. But the best teachers orchestrate ways for the students to figure the critical things out for themselves. The effective teacher will lecture like normal, but instead of the whole of the lesson they’ll just give pieces – breadcrumbs – for students to pick up, and every now and then the teacher’ll stop lecturing and see which student has followed the breadcrumbs and can tell where the class is heading. This is a far less certain method – it depends as much on the audience’s energy and attention level as anything – but when it pays off, the lesson sticks with the audience forever. Even through finals week.

This also reminds me of the idea of a writer’s “contract with the audience,” the idea of a creator’s obligation to the people for whom they create. To put it another way, a writer will put hundreds or thousands of hours into a novel, estrange friends, family, health, hygiene, so when they finish they have every right to expect an appreciative, paying audience; an audience member has only so much time and money for themselves, the rest spent working hard to survive, so when they do spend time and money on a novel, they have every right to expect something they’ll understand and enjoy. How much can the writer explore their art and play with their audience before the audience moves on to something they can absorb easier? A tricky equation to solve.

Personally, I enjoyed the lack of resolution Shakespeare employed because it helped give each play a sense of continuity, that it was one segment out of a much richer environment that we were seeing as an audience. We’d watch characters grow and change, perhaps die, and by the end they had stopped being the people we met before, and the background had changed just as much. Both were ready to change and grown even more, but the audience wasn’t going to see it. It gave them lives – it gave them life – outside the story.

And I liked that.

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