So here’s a question to mull over a good word count… what exactly is drama?
Kinda a broad question, and not really one I expect to be able to answer in any shape or form. But hey, when has that inhibited things…?
The question was raised by the follow spot operators on the latest show I’m working on. It’s a great big sprawling production, full of men shouting about god, and faith, and power… well, no, mostly god, faith and power. And while I do pay attention during the Good Bits, and while I absolutely pay attention during my cues I do tend to spend a lot of time when not on standby with my notebook in hand, or laptop on lap, scribbling away at my own stuff. Not because the show doesn’t merit attention – it does – but because after however many performances it’s been I really can quote the entire thing, in the necessary voice where required. (I’d reached a similar position on the last production I follow spotted on, where most members of LX could a) recite the play and b) recite it in the style of either one of the two leading dudes, depending on which night it was. Actors… who needs ’em?)
But what this production mostly is, is dramatic. There’s battles, there’s shouting, there’s people getting stabbed and poisoned and tearing their clothes off on stage in order to try and cope with any number of the above, there’s divine revelations, prophecies, ghostly encounters; you name it, it’s there. There’s even a mild sort-of divinely fueled orgy, depending on how you look at it, or perhaps and more to the point, how you quite carefully don’t look at it because thankfully, you’ve only got a couple of cues in that particular sequence to deal with. Whatever you make of things, it’s absolutely dramatic.
… to bring us back to the first query…
… what exactly is drama? Make no mistake, it’s more dramatic than plays in which three people sit around in a living room talking about past indiscretions. There’s more blood and gore in it than, say, 85% of Hamlet owing to the fact that 85% of Hamlet is one dude lamenting about how lame he is. There’s more actual naked bits on stage than anything by Becket, more shouting than the works of Pinter combined, more deaths than Rattigan ever prescribed and definitely more battles. But is that what we’re saying – are we equating drama with spectacle? I know art is subjective – of course it is, and this is probably not the moment to broaden the topic to ‘what is art’ – but if the question we’re dealing with here is one of simple visual effects, then I fear I gotta refer you to my 101 ramble on final showdowns.
I love final showdowns. I mean… obviously, because they imply you’re near the end… but more importantly I love the moment when everything comes together not simply narratively, but emotionally. That moment-before-the-elastic breaks feeling, that balancing on the edge finale when everything wobbles a bit too hard, a bit too fast and something has to fall, the instant where everyone turns round and goes ‘hell, this was where I was going and I don’t know if I’m glad to have arrived’ or whatever the logical conclusion of their character development is. But spectacle – while fun – is not necessarily the key. Whenever asked about writing these things, I always refer people to the two most contrasting showdowns I can think of – the film of the Fantastic Four, and the TV series of Sherlock. Take the Fantastic Four. Love or hate comic books, an embarrassingly large percentage of us probably saw it and even if you haven’t, you can guess. Things explode. There’s fire, there’s ice, there’s people shouting a lot, there’s The Team Coming Together At Last and so on and so forth. There may even be a little impotent screaming by the enraged villain as he’s taken down, in a way which always implies sequels. It’s big, it’s brash, it’s highly enjoyable and utterly forgettable. There is a sort-of attempt to reconcile the characters with their new place in the world, but frankly there’s just not enough journey from ‘oh whoops’ to ‘oh yay’ to really make us give a damn and so the entire thing passes off in glorious, amnesiac style.
Opposite end of the spectrum, and for the past few months when giving this ramble, I’ve always cited Sherlock. The first episode of the first series, for anyone who was watching BBC 1 over last autumn. For everyone else, it’s a final showdown, about twenty minutes long (so roughly approximate to the Fantastic Four in that sense) in which two dudes sit in an empty room and talk. That’s it. There is, just to help things along, a gun on display, but really, the gun is not the issue. In fact, the two bottles of could-be poison on the table aren’t really the issue either, and what you in fact end up with is a lot of cutting between two very nicely cross-lit faces (because cross-lighting is the way to go, in case you’re wondering) as two men almost but not quite literally, spar with their brains. It’s static, nothing goes boom, and it’s utterly rivetting.
For my money, the pat answer is this – that in the Fantastic Four, life and death are on the line but they’re not what really matters to the characters. I mean, they matter, in the sense that life and death matter to us all, but that’s exactly the point – it’s a universal angst, and one we’re very used to putting our fictional characters into. Because let’s face it, you just know that he’d die for her and he’d die if there were children threatened or maybe just a puppy and he doesn’t want to die but he’d do it if a cute blond girl screamed loud enough and frankly, being too heroic really does lower the stakes in that regard. In Sherlock you have the same situation – life is on the line – but more importantly the thing that matters more to either character than life itself is up for grabs – intellectual pride, deductive ability, the very bases on which the hero/villain have built their lives, their very justification in everything they do – one of them will not only die, but be utterly, and completely destroyed in the process. And it’s fascinating. It’s more than fascinating. It’s twenty minutes of nicely lit adrenaline churned out at less than forty decibels, and like all sensible writers who’s ever picked up a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and though ‘damn he’s good’, I wish I’d got there first.
All of which comes back again to the original question… what is drama?
And hurrah for the variation in the answer, huzzah that you can happily say ‘it is both Lord of the Rings and the complete works of Proust’ embrace that diversity! But if the example above illustrates anything, it is this – that drama is not about the volume, or the gore, or the blood, or the sex or the things going ‘boom’. The thing we tap into, the thing which as audience members makes us crane forward in our seats, is something ridiculously, incredibly, heart-racingly human.