Friday, December 17, 2010

Action Is the Medium of Dramatic Writing.

Every art form has its medium, its material of expression, its vehicle.

  • Painting uses paint.
  • Music uses notes--whether they’re plucked or struck or sung.
  • Dramatic writing uses actions.

This is easy to overlook.

  • Films use images.
  • Plays have lots of words.
  • Maybe you think films and plays are about emotions or people or stories.
  • Those may be elements, but they are not the medium, the basic fundamental material.

I’m talking here about dramatic writing--which includes writing plays, films and other things.

  • Dramatic writing selects and arranges actions to ‘spell out’ story and character.
    • Actions themselves aren’t a story: think of what you did today. Lots of action, not much story.

    Action is at once the substance, the semantics and they syntax (or perhaps the grammar) of dramatic writing.

    • I’ve said something about substance.

    • Semantics is the way or ways of communicating meaning.

    • And syntax is the binding force which holds the elements together.

    How is action these three things?

    • It's the substance, because action a basic material without which actors have nothing to do.

      • A script or play is a score referring to a sequence of actions the way a musical score refers to a sequence of notes.

      • Choreography is even a species of dramatic writing insofar as the choreographer chooses and arranges actions in time.
    • Action is the semantics of dramatic writing, because something else is conveyed through actions.

      • Emotion, place, thoughts--all these can, and at a certain level must, be portrayed through actions.

    • Actions also convey other actions.

      • The action "John marries Cynthia" can be conveyed by smaller actions like:

        • "John and Cynthia choose flower arrangements,"
        • "Cynthia shops for a wedding dress,"
        • "John rents a tux,"
        • "John puts a ring on Cynthia's finger,"
        • "John and Cynthia drive away in a limousine," etc.

    • In this sense, actions are a plastic material--like paint in a painting or words in a poem.

      • They are flexible.

      • They convey both themselves--in their sensuous and material realities--and something beyond themselves.

        • (And the material reality is both everything the audience knows about ‘getting married,’ ‘getting arrested,’ ‘falling in love,’ or whatever the action is--and it’s the material reality of the performance, that actual person doing that thing and what that looks and feels like, for the performer and for us.)
    • But actions are also the syntax of dramatic writing.

      • Because a single action so typically participates in and points to a larger whole, a larger action, every single action gives rise to expectations of what’s to come.

      • These expectations may be flouted or subverted rather than satisfied.

      • But the key point is that action magnetizes together a sequence.

      • The unity of part-actions within a whole-action is also a syntactic force uniting sequences of actions.

    • The syntax of actions then create another layer of semantics:
      the arrangements of actions generate more meaning.

      • Parallelism and difference suggest the significance of these actions.

        • One person does this, another does this.

      • So cinema discovered early on through cross-cutting.

        • Certainly, cross-cutting signified the passage of time.

        • And cross-cut actions imply some relationship--these things have something to do with each other.

        • But very early on, cross-cutting was also used purely for parallelism, to imply moral significance. “One Is Business, the Other Crime” is the title of one of Griffiths’ early (1912) shorts.

    At this level, dramatic writing is a kind of poetry and shades into poetry.

    • It gives rise to realism because someone must always be able to perform the actions the writer writes.

    • But the method of composition in dramatic writing is essentially poetic.
      • Using actions to express meanings, including other actions,

      • composing these compositions in ever larger patterns.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dramatic Devices, Big and Small.

Recently I watched a really lovely film called Last Holiday (1950, directed by Henry Cass). The story concerns a boring young salesman with no real friends or romances to speak of. He finds out he's going to die soon, so he gets all the money he can and goes for a holiday to a posh resort. A junk dealer sees him shopping for suitcases, realizes he's the size to fit some expensive clothes he acquired, and so now the salesman has a posh new look.

At the resort, he's a new man, since he's determined to enjoy life. Everyone loves him and finds him mysterious. Because of his clothes and where he is, they assume he's wealthy. He gets betting tips and offers for jobs and political appointments. People ask his advice, and he's not shy, and they find this refreshing.

It's all very ironic, since he could never do this during his normal life. Eventually he finds out he's not really dying--and I won't spoil the ending for you.

It's all very charming, but it also made me realize something.