I have been trying to fathom what it is that makes a play different from other forms of narrative. How it engages with an audience, what experience it can give that is different from a film or television script, what it is that makes it supremely visceral and moving and why it is a form or art that must be understood and developed and why those very particular qualities need to be kept and passed on to this new generation before they are lost forever.
Why is it that film script writing is different from playwriting? Is it simply because they are different media? Film relies on visual imagery for its narrative drive and impact. Theatre relies on the interplay of character through action and dialogue. Yes, film includes these as well but they are not the driving force. Consider this: 3 quick images 1) A man sitting by a lake. 2) Ripples on the lake surface. 3) A woman weeping. There you are, a suicide by drowning told in less than two minutes. The play in the theatre cannot approach this. The theatre does not rely on an image stream but by observing the interplay of characters so that we can understand the why rather than the bald facts of the event itself.
But that is not really enough to describe the difference fully. We must think of the engagement with the audience. In a play these interactions are taking place in front of us. We are in the room with the protagonists. As an audience we are, to all intents and purposes, part of the action. We cannot just turn away from unpalatable interactions. The impact of theatre lies in the extended working out of an argument, a fight, a love scene. It is now, it is actual, it is here. The actors are always aware of the audience. Their performance varies from night to night based on the reactions of the watchers. In a world that is increasingly second hand this is our one place to access the actual world of human interaction.
But now we come to the most difficult concept for the script writer to grasp: that of the continued presence of the actor on the stage. Consider our three scenes above. The character sitting at the side of the lake. Then his empty seat and the rippling water. The playwright has to deal with the question: Where does the actor go? Must we see him jumping into the water? We cannot simply have the actor dissolve or vanish into thin air. Of course, there are ways to signal to the audience that actor’s presence is, as it were, no longer required. We can establish a convention that the audience understand and accepts. We can use lighting or a convention in the play itself. Of removing a piece of costume, say. We could use the simple action of an actor laying down his hat to mean that he has died. But that is only a solution to a perceived problem. What is more profitable is to use the actor’s continued presence to tell the narrative in a different way. We do not show the event itself. We deal with the events leading up to and the reactions of other characters after. We accept much more the reality of the situation because we see it unravelling in front of our eyes. We hear what drives our suicide. We understand. We feel it because we are there with these characters.
So let us think of the continued presence of the actor at a little more depth. What extra is it giving us as an audience? Well, for a start, we know that the character we are watching is going to have to run through the whole development arc there in front of our eyes. Nothing can be hidden. There is no camera trickery or cutting away to provide mystery. The character may well lie about themselves but we can see the lies. That is why theatre has a particular access to the truth. It may be agonising and difficult but we cannot avoid it. This is part of the idea of Theatre of cruelty as propounded by Antonin Artaud. The Greek dramas knew this and made this a rule. It is all up there on the stage for you to see.