Saturday 1 July 2017

The model of the perfect play...

  Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, writes that the fairy tale (and, similarly, the Drama) has the capacity to calm, to incite, to assuage, finally, to affect, because we listen to it nonjudgmentally—we identify subconsciously (noncritically) with the protagonist.
    We are allowed to do this, he tells us, because the protagonist and, indeed, the situations are uncharacterized aside from their most essential elements.
    When we are told, for example, that a Handsome Prince went into a wood, we realize that we are that Handsome Prince. As soon as the Prince is characterized, "A Handsome Blond Prince with a twinkle in his eye, and just the hint of a mustache on his upper lip..." and if we lack that color hair, twinkle, and so on, we say, "What an interesting Prince. Of course, he is unlike anyone I know..." and we begin to listen to the story as a critic rather than as a participant.

Radio is a great training ground for dramatists. More than any other dramatic medium it teaches the writer to concentrate on the essentials, because it throws into immediate relief that to characterize the people or scene is to take time from the story—to weaken the story. Working for radio, I learned the way all great drama works: by leaving the endowment of characters, places, and especially action up to the audience. Only by eschewing the desire to characterize can one begin to understand the model of the perfect play.
    The model of the perfect play is the dirty joke.
    "Two guys go into a farmhouse. An old woman is stirring a pot of soup."
    What does the woman look like? What state is the farmhouse in? Why is she stirring soup? It is absolutely not important. The dirty joke-teller is tending toward a punch line and we know that he or she is only going to tell us the elements which direct our attention toward that punch line, so we listen attentively and gratefully.

~David Mamet, Writing in Restaurants, 1986

First posted: 19 April 2013

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