Letter to a Playwright: How Drama Works Dramaturgically

Julian Meyrick*

Abstract

This article features one letter in a correspondence between the author and New York playwright Will Eno concerning Annie Baker’s Circle, Mirror, Transformation. The exchange focuses on the insights to be gathered from close analysis of how the play “works” dramaturgically and how it unfolds for audiences as a series of cognitive and emotional operations. The article argues for dramaturgy as a Heideggerian “learning in practice” rather than a species of academic discourse. The dramaturg is not a removed intellectual, but a member of a community of practice, working with terms and concepts defined as useful by that community.

Keywords: Dramaturgy, dramaturgical analysis, Annie Baker, Circle Mirror Transformation, Will Eno

Introduction

This article arose out of a letter exchange with the New York playwright Will Eno in 2009. It was prompted by an off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons of Annie Baker’s Circle, Mirror, Transformation (Baker) which we attended together. At the time, I had directed two of Eno’s plays in Australia and was a few years away from directing a third.[1] It is comparatively rare for an Australian theatre practitioner to enter into correspondence with an award-winning U.S. dramatist about abstract questions of craft. The lived reality of a post-colonial country is to import its cultural norms, sometimes to export them, only infrequently to debate them. However, drama is nothing if not a conversation––between artist and audience and between artist and artist. Sometimes, opportunities present themselves for a dialogue that otherwise would not occur. Not because it is intellectually inconceivable, but because it falls into that abyssal gap between national imaginaries so easy to overlook, yet so difficult to cross.

Playwright Annie Baker. Photo: Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons

Like other writers for live performance, Eno sometimes works in an advisory capacity on dramas other than his own and his interest in dramaturgical ideas and techniques is accordingly wide and deep. Historically, Baker’s play may be identified as belonging to the “cool” variant of the “in-yer-face theatre” movement named by Alex Sierz in his seminal In-Yer-Face Theatre (7–8). Critically, it may be discussed as an example of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s postdramatic theatre “when the progression of a story with its internal logic no longer forms the centre [of a play], when composition is no longer experienced as an organising quality but as an artificially imposed ‘manufacture'” (26). But from the point of view of professional craft––that is, from the perspective of a dramaturgical practice––these approaches do not exhaust the fascination of Circle, Mirror, Transformation.

For a jobbing playwright and his sometime director, describing what a play is and why it is, is less important than explaining what it does and how it works. Hence this letter, whose epistolatory form I retain as a framing device to indicate that the insights it offers, unlike historical or critical ones, do not aspire to decontextualized significance. They are remarks from one theatre artist to another about the work of a third, with a focus on what Martin Heidegger calls “learning in practice” (Nielsen).

The playscript is less an object to be intellectually appraised than a piece of equipment to be handled to achieve practical knowledge of the world of useful relations. The letter uses few specialised terms or concepts lying beyond the likely experience of an audience seeing the play as Eno and I imagined this to be. There is no attempt to understand Circle, Mirror, Transformation from above, no concern to put it in one category or another, historically or critically. The focus of our exchange was the opposite: to plumb the singular nature of the play and discover how it achieved that nature.

Yet, from time to time, exhaustive analysis of the particular can shed light on the general. Exploring how Circle, Mirror, Transformation unfolds as a series of cognitive and emotional operations helped Eno and I gain insight into what the play has in common with, and what sets it apart from, other dramas. This what-plays-have-in-common-and-what-sets-them-apart is, I would argue, the prime dramaturgical question if dramaturgy is conceived as a craft that aspires to, and mobilizes, transferable ideas and techniques. In this way, while no theory of dramaturgy can be generated outside the field of instances that ground its practice, it nevertheless claims a broader vista of perception and understanding as a being-in-the-world body of practical knowledge.

Annie Baker’s Circle, Mirror, Transformation, directed by Sam Gold, Playwrights Horizons (2009). Cast: Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deidre O’ Connell and Heidi Schreck. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons
The Letter

Dear Will, in this letter I define, discuss and apply some ideas about how drama works dramaturgically, taking as an object for discussion Circle, Mirror, Transformation. I first describe its plot, then outline the dramaturgical ideas I am interested in, making observations about their application when a play like Circle, Mirror, Transformation unfolds live on stage. For the sake of clarity and directness, I set aside the terms and concepts of theatre and performance studies, as well as the scholarship of dramatic criticism and dramaturgy. My focus is on the coherence and value of drama independent of other stage variables––such as, inter alia, literary quality, theatricality, performativity, acrobatic prowess––and the constraining, and so decisive, influence of time. It is drama as it impacts on the minds of non-expert audiences as they strive to make sense of what they are witnessing using their natural cognitive resources that I believe is of striking interest. In this, everything that can be usefully said about a play involves assessing the impact of time on its unfolding.

Academic discourse, especially in its hermeneutical mode––the poring over the textual, visual or choreographic elements of a play to interpret its “real” meaning or show that it is “endlessly deferred” and so on––should not be confused with the experience of a play, which takes place in another way altogether. A way of capturing this is to say that plays present prior to what they represent. Or they just happen. Or they involve events not just processes. Or they have phenomenal intensity not just aesthetic coding. They are, ontologically. As their surface unfolds, their Being deepens, and if–– if––there is a radical shift such that the experience of a play presents as surplus to its apparent meaning, then that Being steps forward and is seen for what it has become: truly alive.

Circle, Mirror, Transformation is a play about a Vermont adult drama group that meets weekly to engage in quasi-interactional exercises exemplifying a certain type of actor training. There are four participants and a leader/teacher, who also engages in the exercises from time to time. In five long-ish, week-apart scenes, we see the group immersed in the exercises and doing things before and after class, and during their breaks. The group is composed of three women and two men. They are: Marty, the aging, hippy teacher; James her alpha-male, older husband; Schultz, a recently-divorced middle-aged depressive; Theresa, a N.Y. actress fleeing professional and personal disappointment; and Lauren, a dysfunctional teenager on the cusp of adult awareness. The fact that both the situation and the characters are instantly recognisable is a key feature of the play, not only in terms of its content but in terms of how it mines its nipple-twisting humour:

Group members pose as trees, beds and baseball gloves. They perform emotional scenes using only the words goulash and ak-mak. They pretend to be one another, telling their life stories. They write deep, dark secrets (anonymously) on scraps of paper and listen, sitting in a circle on the floor, as their confessions are read aloud. This is deep stuff, and the group is made up mostly of strangers.… the sort of motley crew you might find if you signed up for a writing class or a yoga weekend. The artificiality of the acting games emphasizes the naturalness of the characters’ real lives and feelings.

Gates

The characterizations display a miniaturist attention to detail that goes down to the bone, and the actors convey as much in a look, a gesture or an awkward silence as they do in words. Baker is never blind to their weaknesses and faults, yet regards all [her characters] with a warm, empathetic eye. Anyone with experience of drama workshops has had at least one teacher they will instantly recognize in Marty. Usually adorned with headscarf and oversize earrings, equipped with knowing eccentricities but without self-irony, these alternative-education stalwarts coach students through relaxation, memory, focus, mood and role-play exercises that often seemed dated even in the ’70s, cooing words of encouragement like “Wow,” “Thank you” and “Great job.”

Rooney

The division between action “in” and “outside” of class is the first structural feature of Baker’s drama. Sometimes, the characters are engaged in exercises and so “acting,” and sometimes, they are not and are therefore “being real.” This allows all sorts of slippages and reversals. An exercise in which nonsense is spoken tonally shifts into more intimate gear––is “real” for a moment in a way real life itself does not allow––because it is protected by semantic opacity. Thus, the exercise is real not despite the fact nonsense is spoken but because of it. Language disabled provides a haven for emotional response. All of which is meat and drink to Marty, for whom this is the point of class: to release and confide within a secure setting, thereby encouraging personal and collective freedom. The circle of the group + the mirror of the exercises = the transformation of the participants.

To do an exhaustive study of Circle, Mirror, Transformation, every moment of its unfolding would need to be explained in both its particular construction and its accumulated impact on other moments. Moments do not “pass” in theatre any more than they do in life. Instead, they shift temporal status, moving from “happening in front of our eyes” to “happened minutes ago and therefore clearly recallable” to “happened an hour ago, which may as well be last year.” Memory is the active ingredient in the adhesion of a play’s properties into sense, the time-binder par excellence. Without memory, moments on stage are all there can ever be, a dissolution of the accumulative and (therefore potentially experiential) aspects of a live performance event and the negation of drama as such (Meyrick and Cavanagh).

A major concern of contemporary theatre is with the centrality (or fragmentation) of the literary play text. This artefact, it is sometimes claimed, embodies the “dramatic” part of a live stage event, as against other elements which are “theatrical.” Eric Bentley argues as such in The Playwright as Thinker,and his is a seminal contribution to a polemical debate that runs throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century. But I want to define drama more functionally and not confuse it with a particular media incarnation. Play texts may be dramatic. But they may also be inert. Other elements––lighting, design, music, most especially acting––may supply the adhesive qualities constituting the ground of drama. For our purposes, the distinction between the line as written and the moment as delivered is inoperative. The question of a play text’s contribution to a dramatic experience, as opposed to, say, that of the actors, is certainly interesting. But for a dramaturgical analysis, there must be a radical subordination of comparative merit in the face of a more urgent, practical question: does the play work?(Luckhurst 5).

Drama is what drama does. “Dramatic structure” is the name given to a series of operations, performed over time, on the minds of an audience, such that a live performance event attains deeper cognitive meaning and enhanced emotional and sensory life. It is not a thing but a force. While it has structure, it is not defined by it and, at a certain point in its unfolding, it must radically uncouple from that structure to present its most consummate face. At the limit, structures are honoured in the breach. Dramas set them up only to violate them. These violations are then co-opted to a renewed sense of structure, which forces the drama onward, to further acts of self-defiance, until it has achieved itself, or the evening ends, whichever is the sooner. Baker’s play is exemplary in this respect, almost a case study, so the next and most vital question for a dramaturg is: how is this achieved?

Drama as Force: Shape and Expectation

Let me now make a first-step analysis of how structure “works” in Circle, Mirror, Transformation. There is a formality to the way the narrative shifts between characters and their relationships, the pattern of tension and release or, as Aristotle would say, of recognition (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia).

Aristotle spoke about the importance of recognition (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia), and how they affect character relationships. Photo: Web/Public domain

While it is too strong to call these shifts “mathematical,” nevertheless a sense of quantitative exhaustion accompanies all successful drama. Big plays impress the sweep of their extensive possibilities; small ones by the prospect of the intelligent application of a limited number of inputs. Either way, an audience’s sense of shape is tapped, regardless of what might be thereafter communicated by way of political, social or psychological concerns. To show how this works, let’s assign each character in Circle, Mirror, Transformation the letter of their first name. Thus, there are five monadic relationships (the sort we have with ourselves):

M[arty]            J[ames]          S[chultz]        T[heresa]       L[auren]

And ten possible dyadic ones:

MJ       MS      MT       ML       JS       JT        JL        ST       SL       TL

And eight triadic ones:

MJS    MJT     MJL     MST    MSL    JST     JSL     STL    

And four quadratic ones:

MJST  MJSL  MJTL  JSTL

And one “group” one:

MJSTL

Each of these has a role in the way Circle, Mirror, Transformation unfolds, with dyadic relationships featuring in amorous couplings, triadic ones in parent/family scenarios and four-cornered ones in everybody-knows-but-one-person situations (pivoting on an act of exclusion rather than inclusion). The group relationship is best represented by the exercise ending each session (and beginning the play): the count-to-ten game, where the characters lie on their backs and call out numbers, trying to count in sequence without interrupting each other, thereby showing they are, indeed, a group (both ironically and non-ironically). The concept of character, treated by literary analysis in a unitized way––plays have characters in the way that hat-stands have hats––is thus more diaphanous, extending as it does over a series of points of different sizes and valences. “The class as a group” is an important character in Circle, Mirror, Transformation, as both the engine and the object of transformation.

All relationships are co-figured. That is, they take place alongside and against each other, and this is a constraining and enabling parameter for playwrights, actors and audiences in realising the shape-based dimension of the drama. This can achieve a high level of sophistication. For example, in Circle, Mirror, Transformation,at the start of each session there is an exercise where individual characters speak “as if” they were another member of the class; each character, over the course of the play, performing this service for one other. Information pertaining to a monad is displaced and doubled, put into the mouth of a single character, who can thereby trick out a dyad. Monadic/dyadic relationships can be read against each other, and increasingly are, as the drama unfolds and more contextual information is fed in. By the time of the last “as if” exercise, we can tell not only the precise feelings of Theresa towards James when she pretends “to be” him but make a shrewd guess at what will happen next between them. But here, we have moved beyond shape, to something more directly temporal: expectation.

Drama is the art of next things. “What will happen now?” is more than a question for a live performance event. It is an organising principle of its being, the interrogative implication of its temporal nature. The result is a sequence of looked-for but, until their appearance, unknown moments: this/then this/then this/then this/then this/then this/then this/then this. The sequence is formally empty. At the limit, nothing can be said about it other than it exists. There is no necessary link between one moment and the next. It is no more than a fact to say that in drama anything can happen. Temporal sequencing allows (in theory) for totally aleatoric succession. Whatever order we impose on it––verbal, imagistic, choreographic––is incidental to the “next things” dynamic itself which is indifferent to what next things there might be; it is concerned only that there will be next things.

Plato uses the famous analogy of a cave to illustrate his argument about mankind’s limited grasp of reality. We sit, chained, facing away from the mouth of a cave, seeing only the shadows a fire throws onto the back wall.  Let me put forward a different image for drama: that of an illuminated window. We sit, fixed to our seats, unable to turn or move closer. In the window, people walk and talk, fully visible. But when they go, they go absolutely. There is literally nothing outside the window, only the extinguishing of what happens within it.

At a minimum, therefore (before anything has been done or said), drama follows the same invariant condition of mortal life as constrained by time: out of the dark, into the light/out of the light, into the dark; where the dark is not “the opposite” of the light but its complete cessation. Everything that arises in a drama comes from within the drama and not from some more foundational layer of awareness lying beyond or behind it. Drama “floats” at a distance from the world––though distance implies space, while this gap is a void, an alien, un-traversable nothingness. There is the world. There is the drama. The relationship between the two can never be fully explained, nor is passing from one to the other without consequence. When the lights go down on a play prior to its commencement, who knows where we go before surfacing again in the brightness of the window of the drama?

This lack of necessary relation is infinitely creative. If the world could be read off a play in the manner of a train timetable, it would be no more than a receptacle for what we already know about it, thus not only without mystery but without truth. But how is this radical ontological separateness managed as a job of work? A play can be so constructed that, despite its alien status, it is intelligible. It can be invested with recognisable features drawn from the social world, and for this, there are three main avenues: what gets said and done; what gets inferred from what gets said and done; and what is known by an audience ahead of time. These are the means by which a drama makes of itself a representative object, something that can stand as a simulacrum of real experience. In its focus on the first source of dramatic knowledge, the playscript, literary criticism never takes adequate measure of the second or third. It is the latter that do the bulk of the work.

Again, how does this happen? Obviously, it happens in a broad way first. Social context provides a major resource for identifying and interpreting worldly features in a drama. With Circle, Mirror, Transformation, contemporary American audiences can be relied on to come to the theatre with an understanding of adult drama classes, small-town life, the anxieties of middle age, the idea of personal change, how mobile phones function to disrupt our lives, the ethics of serial monogamy, and how events may be life-changing not because of their size but because of their timing. Logical inference is also a useful tool. When Schultz and Theresa, on a break, leave the stage hand-in-hand after having kissed, and Lauren, hidden, sees them go but says nothing to Marty when she asks where they are, we are presented with a powerful sequence of tight-fit associations. The links between them cannot be guaranteed. There will always be patrons who do not bring the required contextual knowledge, or, falling asleep during the performance, fail to make the appropriate connections. But probably they will, and on that basis––on the basis of most people making the connections and thus contributing to an evolving collective understanding of the night––a stage play ventures to deploy.

Having thus looked at how shape and expectation (naturally-occurring concepts, readily perceivable and discussable by non-expert audiences) operate in Baker’s play, we can turn to the guts of drama as an experience: the way in which “learning by experience” actually takes place.

Heuristics

Heurĭ’st|ic 1. serving to discover; . . . proceeding by trial and error; ~ic method, system of education under which the pupil is trained to find things out for himself [irreg. f. Gk. heuriskō find] (Oxford English Dictionary)

Relying on contextual information and inference is an efficient way of packing coded associations into a drama. It volumizes a live stage event, co-opting an audience’s propensity to invest in the action before it. The thoughts audiences have on their own account are not entirely personal (though, vitally, some will be, as we shall see) but are responses to features in the drama analogous to their off-stage experience. For some dramas, realistic ones, these features present as typifications; for non-or anti-realistic dramas they present as ideal types.[2] Either way, they call forth what micro-sociologists call “recipe knowledges” (Heritage), notions derived not from a situation at hand but from socially received idea clusters that are “in the air.”

Deirdre O’Connell, Heidi Schreck, Tracee Chimo, and Reed Birney in Annie Baker’s Circle, Mirror, Transformation, directed by Sam Gold, Playwrights Horizons (2009). Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

Thus, while Circle, Mirror, Transformation has unique features as a drama, it also has aggregate ones. I call these heuristics because they work as active discovery devices. They are used by playwrights, actors and audiences to achieve a deeper connection with the drama and richer cognitive and emotional processing (Turner and Behrndt 33). The heuristics presented at the level of narrative are the ones audiences probably notice first; that is, the story features Circle, Mirror, Transformation shares with other dramas of the type. For example:

  • Dramas about small groups
  • Dramas about non-family (work) groups with complex emotional lives
  • Dramas in which couples change partners
  • Dramas in which all the characters are somewhat loveable but somewhat dysfunctional
  • Dramas that take place in a single setting over a limited period of time
  • Dramas about things we did recently (as a society) that make us cringe now (as a society)[3]

How many heuristics are there in drama? A few? A dozen? Hundreds? More the last, perhaps. And there are different kinds. While the distinction between narrative, character and language in drama is purely contingent––all that is present, at the limit, is a field of performative awareness––nevertheless, when these manifest they entrain different styles of associative commitment. In a story-based play, these heuristics have a quality of cause and effect since this is what narrative does: create a relation between two points distant in time and determine a flow of meaning between them.[4] A principle of efficiency governs their operation. “Exposition” is the relaying of causal information an audience knows will later impact as a series of effects within the window of the drama. Knowing that an audience knows this, however, playwrights and actors can spin or subvert the related heuristics in unexpected ways, or occlude them, by burying information that will not be seen as causal until later.

In Circle, Mirror, Transformation, Lauren’s is an occluded narrative. Information relating to it––the fact that her family is poor, that her father is in trouble with the police, that she wants to be (ironically) the star of her school musical, West Side Story––is presented in incidental bursts around the thrust of other, more sustained narratives, and/or in a consciously comic way. All of which leads to a sense that the “Lauren story” is without noticeable development, a benchmark of stock humour against which change in the other stories may be judged.

Character heuristics present more loosely than narrative heuristics. The convention that determines that the actor calling themselves “Hamlet” at the beginning of Hamlet is the same person who calls themselves “Hamlet” at the end ensures a principle of non-contradiction that is infinitely elastic. That is, almost nothing the actor playing Hamlet does during the course of a performance rules them out from being seen as the character Hamlet. Whatever the drama has Hamlet say or do will be another Hamlet-like thing that reveals who Hamlet “really is.” In short, characters present in a bag-like way, as bundles of traits, without “bones,” all cartilage and skin. The level of expectation encoded into their heuristics is less pointed but more resilient than those encoded at the level of narrative. In Circle, Mirror, Transformation, we can identify them accordingly:

  • Marty
    negotiative, conciliatory, supportive; vaguely religious/New Age; warm, outward-going, firm in principles but flexible in their application; positive and affirming in her view of others (and consequently blind to their shortcomings).
  • James
    authoritative, judgemental, protective; rebellious yet capable of assuming personal responsibility; hard, self-contained, unequivocal in both principles and their application; action-based in his view of others (and thus blind to emotional currents in their lives and his own).
  • Schultz 
    emotional need, emotional weakness, passive-aggressive; self-absorbed and self-pitying; soft, vulnerable, inward-looking; firm in principles but not in their application; disconnected in his view of others (and thus surprised by the actions they take which hurt him).
  • Theresa
    sexual desirability, emotional need, physical weakness; self-absorbed and angry (masked); panicked, vulnerable, inward-looking (masked); unscrupulous in both principles and their application (masked); disconnected in her view of others (and consequently able to take action which hurts them).
  • Lauren 
    literalness, self-absorption, naivety; rebellious but as yet incapable of assuming personal responsibility; beleaguered, quizzical and uncertain; unclear in both principles and their application; curious in her view of others (and thus not surprised by the actions they take which hurt others and themselves).

Against Heraclitus, we can say that when a character steps into a (stage) river, they always step into it twice: once as an individual, once as a representative of a general type. Everything said about how narrative heuristics work can be applied to character-based ones. As proleptic temporal devices, bubbles of expectation, they can be spun, subverted, read against each other, read against themselves. Any pattern once entrained can be breached. Every symbolic expression provides the means for its own subversion. You have only to turn an image on its head, literally or figuratively, to up-end its meaning. However, there is an important difference between narrative and character heuristics that amounts to a foundational difference between narrative and character per se. This is because narrative can only flow. It not only represents movement in drama; it is of a piece with it in life. Character, however, can arrest it. It can stop the flow of drama. And in so doing, it can part with the business of worldly features and clear the way for a radically different manoeuvre––the seizing of a truth.

To stop a drama, the flow of new information needs to cease so audiences can consider what has already been provided. Dramas are never written in words. They are written in words and silence. The gaps between words ensure a minimum of response-time in even the most verbally condensed live stage event. At the very least, the actors must pause for breath. When a breath is taken, when narrative is suspended, another kind of understanding kicks in which might be called “the parenthetic gear.” I would argue that nearly all the meaning of a play is contained in this cognitive and emotional gap, and very little in narrative per se, which provides locomotion only. When we are taking in information, we are not responding to it, and only in response is meaning generated. Meaning in a drama is relational.

A play must therefore arrest to allow for greater investment on the part of an audience. And character is the most common (but not the only) device for allowing this. Along with the aggregate responses associated with various heuristics, thus arises a universe of individual thoughts and feelings that can be attributed to the drama by the spectator as an expression of trust in its unfolding. The aggregate gives way to the particular. The particular opens out onto a plethora of personal response. The only condition of this expansion is that it is surplus to the informational aspects of a drama. That is, it is freely accessed by individuals and not compelled by narrative cause and effect, or inferential or contextual logic.

The structure of a play may be formally perfect; its story and characters may be absorbing and relevant to a high degree; the language may be Shakespearean in its loquacity and poetic force; but everything worth anything in a play happens in a zone contiguous to the drama yet constrained by it. It is in the ability of a drama to raise this structural silence to full awareness––a zone it cannot enter, that is the audience’s alone (we, the living, who watch the drama, which is formally inexistent)––that its true value lies. But how can a play reveal what lies outside its scope? The answer is: by breaking with the business of heuristics and worldly features entirely; by going beyond what is expected; by foregrounding an element always present but until then unseen or considered insignificant; by radically exceeding a narrative’s apparent flow of meaning. Yet in this, keeping its integrity of form, staying kin with the expectations it has generated, even while violating them. In short, by showing something which is both wholly new but was there all along, under the audience’s noses. And to this sequence, always brief, always fragile, always inexplicable in terms of the conventions governing the drama until that moment, we can give the name “truth.”

In thus advancing diagonally from its own expectations (Badiou), a drama engages in an act both perilous and unique. There is nothing that can be generally said about such manoeuvres (in this respect, it resembles the empty set of temporal sequencing). If it over-plays its hand, the result is loss of form, and thus loss of truth. If it stays too close to its heuristics-produced boundaries, it will present as no more than the sum of its worldly features, and nothing will be said or shown that hasn’t been said or shown before. So, it must act right at the limit of its own possibility, on the edge of the dramatic window. The violating act will have no necessary relation to the window, so it must create one. The drama must leap into the dark and hope to take the light with it.

How is this accomplished in Circle, Mirror, Transformation? Towards the end of the play, after James has revealed he will leave Marty for Theresa (as we supposed he would) and Marty runs the last class despite her devastation (which we also guessed at) and Schultz is furious and wounded, his pain forcing a new articulacy (likewise true to form), a final exercise is proposed. Marty asks Lauren and Schultz to imagine themselves ten years on, meeting by chance in the street. Schultz starts off, making some unsubtle digs at James and Theresa. Lauren follows, wildly imagining herself as a vet with a boyfriend (Todd). Then, Lauren has a key line. She talks about her high school musical and of not getting the part of Maria but of getting the part of Maria’s best friend. And on this tiny mote of information, for reasons I touch on below, the whole play breaches. The lights change imperceptibly, the actors change imperceptibly, and now it really is ten years on and we see directly (that is, we experience) that:

  • Schultz is in a supportive relationship
  • Lauren has achieved some but not all of her ambitions
  • Theresa has paired off with James, and stayed in Vermont
  • Marty now lives in New Mexico, a place she always yearned to visit

Most spectacularly that:

  • The acting class really did change the lives of its participants
  • Lauren and Schultz were in love with each other. And still are.

Here, we see how a drama can honour its form while breaking with the conditions that have hitherto constrained it, forcing a sequence of action in an entirely different register of being. In dramatic criticism, this is treated as a purely structural feature. It is the “climax” or “climactic plateau.” But everything interesting about such a sequence lies outside the categories of critical exegesis. It invites a new investment on the part of actors and audience who participate in a shared risk, thereby raising the drama to a new intensity of lived experience (only potentially––a play cannot compel cognitive and emotional investment). This manoeuvre is what all dramas, in one form or another, set out to accomplish. We talk about dramas failing. But failure and success are subsumed by the deeper quest for actualisation. It is more accurate to talk about dramas falling short. Provided a drama does not fall short, it can “fail” in any way it chooses, and this will not only be forgiven by an audience but will be accepted as part of its nature. Likewise, a drama can succeed structurally and yet remain largely inert.

It is the noise, the chaff, the unrelated responses, the planetary dust, in a drama, the flaws, the disconnects, the unseen or overlooked details that contribute to the truth of its Being. Only these can escape the prison of structure yet bear its radically displaced imprint. Thus, it is Lauren in Circle, Mirror, Transformation who becomes the vehicle and exemplar of change. Positioned outside the web of adult relationships, her heuristics operate at a basic level until right at the end of the play. The breach of the drama is signalled by a new level of detail concerning her exact role in West Side Story. Like the tip of a magician’s rope, this pulls the hitherto submerged reality of her character into greater visibility. Her adult self lays in embryonic form within her child self. Now, it steps forward. In front of our eyes, a dysfunctional, difficult teenager becomes a beautiful and poised young woman.

Deirdre O’Connell, Tracee Chimo, and Peter Friedman in Annie Baker’s Circle, Mirror, Transformation, directed by Sam Gold, Playwrights Horizons (2009). Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons
Language

To conclude by briefly discussing the element closest to the playwright’s heart: words. Of all the heuristics in a play, the ones relating to language are the most intriguing. For some dramas, words are both medium and message, how narrative and character deploy, and an object of attention in their own right. But there is no necessary relation between words and drama, any more than there is between drama and any other stage element. Language can denote rather than connote, of course. But this isn’t always an advantage, as the steady replacement in twentieth-century drama of verbal exposition by complex image attests (Meyrick). There are visual and choreographic-based live performance events which are clearly, even definitively dramatic, and contemporary theatre practitioners may not see in the playscript the embodiment of drama, as Bentley did, but something obstructive to it; something, even, that gets in the way of drama.

Words are condemned to explicit meaning. One thing we know ahead of time: they will always make sense. Even when they don’t (the war cries of Dada, the salad speech of Ionesco, the grunts of Ted Hughes’ Orghast), they make another kind of sense, impossible to escape. It seems to be a condition of linguistic presence.One way of bucking this expectation is to meet it, and then breach it. Rhyme and alliteration are examples of pattern-establishing linguistic conventions that can be subverted because they are pattern-establishing, and some freedom is gained thereby. The Pinter pause and the Beckettian inanity are other devices for uncoupling words from must-have associations and letting them breathe a little. You could even write a play, like your own Thom Pain (based on nothing), in which every sentence ends in a different way than it seems to begin, defying consistency of tone and the rules of grammar in an effort to force words into the dark of senselessness, the one place they never want to go.

But they can go there. For all the tricks playwrights ask language to perform, it is sometimes its radical capacity for plain talk that is its greatest strength. Imagine what an Elizabethan audience thought and felt hearing the first “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In the middle of a revenge thriller, the lead character, starts talking about his feelings. Today, we know this is acceptable, conventional, even. In 1596, no such expectation existed. An actor opened their mouth and started talking about something so utterly other that the moment redefined the form of which it was nominally a part. It gave us Shakespearean tragedy.

What about language in Circle, Mirror, Transformation, how are words deployed here? Simply and sparingly, as is the way in contemporary drama. Two examples show Baker’s approach. The first is a moment of no words at all. Schultz comes into the classroom, alone, after Theresa has dumped him, and looks at his face in the mirror. We know everything we need to know about the man from this moment. Words do the decent thing: stand back, ready to cover up the truth, if required.

The second moment is likewise understated. It happens in the Schultz-Lauren scene at the end. They are talking, and they continue talking. There is no change in their language whatsoever. . . and that’s the point. The words Annie Baker uses in Circle, Mirror, Transformation are not remarkable. They are not strikingly poetic, charged, imaginative or idiosyncratic. They are “naturalistic” if we mean by this that the heuristic they exploit is an audience’s connection with socially received conversational speech patterns. This means––usefully—that the idiom will not be consciously inspected by them and the playwright can get away with things later on because of it. The Schultz-Lauren scene is just such a steal. For “naturalistic dialogue” carries with it the hard-wired presumption “we are speaking now, here.” By re-programming the temporal coordinates around it, Baker uses language like a time machine. Bang: just like that we are ten years into the future. All the actors have to do is say the words. The language of the play enables this not because it is more complex than other live stage elements but because it is simpler.

Last Remarks

Is Circle, Mirror, Transformation so great a play it deserves this detailed level of examination? The answer is: who cares? It was certainly a great experience to see it acted as a live performance event. Whether the playscript as an artefact should be thought of in this way is the sort of tedious argument academic discourse is often obsessed with making. Its verdicts vary depending on which critical paradigm is in favour in the moment.

The conclusions of this dramaturgical analysis, however, cannot vary in the same way. Circle, Mirror, Transformation “worked.” You cannot talk away a play “working” any more than you can talk it up. As theatre practitioners, we must seek to discover how Baker’s drama achieved: 1. a high level of operational sophistication, cognitively and emotionally; and 2. a breach with its structure to seize a truth that was available all along but in no way guaranteed. In writing the play and performing it, Baker and her original actors took a big risk. In drama, there is no other kind. Pontificating on the excellence of the results is a job for academic scholars. Estimating the chances of committing to the play in the first place is a job for playwrights and their dramatically minded associates, those we have come to call dramaturgs.

Too much of what passes for dramaturgy today––the corpus of dramaturgical instruction––is academic discourse by another name. As a result, it gets bogged down in acres of procedural description or focused on novel concepts and taxonomies, rather than the cognitive and emotional realities that turn dramatic structure into operational dramatic force. It is not enough for dramaturgy to get more discursively complex––to produce more divisions and categories, to talk about “new” dramaturgy versus “old,” to postulate about postdramatic drama and “innovative” theatre movements. All of this may be interesting, but, in the end, it is a scholarly discussion rather than dramaturgical analysis. To produce the latter, we need to narrow down and open up; to quit our fascination with conceptual elaboration and turn instead to axiomatic thinking and the identification of common conditions. If dramaturgy cannot say what is true of all dramas, irrespective of form, content, context, stated intentions and chosen media, what use is it?

At the heart of Circle, Mirror, Transformation lies a successfully realised algorithm of infinite audience response. The appearance of this is historically and socially constructed, but the fact of it is no less infinite for all that. One day people will no longer stage Circle, Mirror, Transformation, or even understand it. But the truth which it seizes––exemplified by the growth in front of our eyes of Lauren and Schultz as human beings, and an acknowledgement of the love between them––is a constant. It delineates a terrain ready to be progressed in other plays that are part of a deep, ongoing project of human discovery that has been lurching forward in the art form for two and a half thousand years. Thus, individual dramas, despite their formal differences, feed a collective effort about how the world may be represented, and transcended, in live performance events. They feed a powerful, subsuming, singular figure: drama.


Endnotes

[1] The three productions were: Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) in 2007; Lady Grey: In Ever Lower Light in 2009; and The Realistic Joneses in 2017.

[2] “Typification” is a sociological concept used to explain how people manage their daily lives in a coherent and rational manner. New experiences crop up all the time but can be parsed on the basis of features they hold in common with old ones. “Ideal-type” is a Weberian notion about how characteristics can be attributed to certain kinds of situations, events or relations in a consciously abstract way to define them as exemplary.

[3] The last heuristic is an important source of humour in the play. In life, there are beliefs and behaviours which no longer regularly appear in the present but linger in the collective memory as having only recently passed from/been rejected by the society that once owned to them. This loose resource is usually less a matter of historical specifics (this date, that event) than social mores. Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and David Williamson Don’s Party are comedy-dramas presenting louche, transgressive behaviour an audience can be relied on to recognise yet feel superior to. The bite of their heuristics comes from the cognitive lag between what spectators know and what the characters grasp, which is always a lesser amount.But the heuristics also feeds non-comic elements of a drama. A “typical” feature of Marty’s sort of actor training, for example, is its presumptuous claim to personal change based on simplistic techniques and dubious psychological theorising. “Now” we know it, “then” we didn’t. Another kind of expectation for the audience is thus established about her behaviour: that there will be consequences to it. The question for a dramaturg is: when do these kick in?

[3] This has nothing to do with psychological or physical determinism. Cause and effect are poetic relations decided by the window of the drama. In the scheidrama of German Expressionism, for example, emotionally extreme events lead first to the truncation of language (Sprechstimme), finally its replacement by the scream (die Schrei). The rule of cause and effect is: the more extreme the event, the greater the loss of words. Jacobean tragedy constructs the opposite relation: when characters suffer, they wax lyrical as the world about them implodes. The fact that dramas make use of heuristics does not presume loss of creative freedom. But it does raise questions of dramatic formas socially constraining devices.

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Photo: Christopher Deere

*Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University and Literary Adviser for Queensland Theatre. He was Associate Director and Literary Advisor at Melbourne Theatre Company 2002–07 and Artistic Director of kickhouse theatre 1989–98. He has published numerous books and articles on Australian culture, including Australia in 50 Plays (Currency Press, 2022).

Copyright © 2023 Julian Meyrick
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