I’ve recently directed a production of one of my favorite plays ever, Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey.” I insisted on using a live band and live music, which is called for in the script, and I didn’t cut the show down, so every word is in there (provided the actors remember all of their lines in the rapid-fire pace of the play). So I was close to what Delaney intended with the show, I hope, and that intent seems to be a cabaret-inspired, almost sitcom atmosphere that emphasizes the drama of the play, when characters are truly horrible and abusive to each other (stark dialogue) versus when they are wonderful to each other (music montages with dancing). So the play is somewhat realistic in its portrayal of people, but it is not in a “realistic” format, as we Western theatre practitioners see it.
My boyfriend (we’ll call him M) came to see the show on opening night last week and very much enjoyed it. He also came to see my production of “MacBeth” and thought this show was much better. Well, I tend to agree with him on an artistic basis, but once I got past his “I hate Shakespeare” stance, we got into a delicious debate about why he liked it. He said it was because he felt the show was more real, less fantastical, than “MacBeth.” While “A Taste of Honey” portrays a situation and emotions that a modern audience can more readily identify with, does that make it more realistic than Shakespeare? I mean, “A Taste of Honey” doesn’t feature witches or spells, but it does have a self-centered ambitious female head of house and a long-suffering hero(ine). There’s no sword fights or prophecies, but there are lots of personal battles, screaming matches, and hitting and shoving. There is a constant yearning for something better. And, as in any piece of entertainment, the characters are archetypes for people in the real world. How is this show less of a fairy tale than “MacBeth” or “Cinderella”?
All story-telling is related to us, but it is not often specifically about us. There are no plays written about me, specifically, that I know of. And even if there were, you’d think the playwright would come up with a different name for the character, especially if they wanted to make fun of me. So there’s no plays about my life that specifically feature me as a character, with my full name and accurate details of events that have happened to me. This is true of all of us, I think, unless you count stand-up comedians as theatre (and I actually do, but even so, they are using their personal stories as a medium for telling a larger tale about our collective experience. Or at least the really good ones do). Any form of story-telling uses archetypes that we can identify with, or at least identify in our culture. Using our lovely sympathetic nervous system to get the point across, and all that. We must like having that area of our brain stimulated, or story-telling in music, dance, and theatre would never have evolved in the first place.
So all effective story-telling uses devices to make us emotionally sympathize/empathize with the people in the story, whether it is through a Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung style or Nietzsche style of analysis, or comedy, or just identifying with the trials and tribulations of the main character. In theatre, we have to have characters that we identify/identify with, in order to impress the story on us in a deep, emotional way. But those characters must be archetypes or stereotypes for us to understand them. We might not identify with old fairy tales anymore, but we continually invent new fairy tales with similar themes. We don’t really take “Cinderella” seriously anymore, but Princess Diana’s decision to use her fame and fortune to benevolent ends is definitely a modern fairy tale.
Yes, I am saying that all theatre plots are fairy tales. They have to be, this is how this medium communicates with its viewers. Realism on stage or on film isn’t real at all — what seems “real” to us is when the plot, character, and/or actor communicates something to us that hits us in just the right way that our brains go “Ah Ha!” and we identify with it. That Ah Ha moment can happen anywhere, anytime, in any medium — but we Westerners are used to Stanislavsky and all his horrible “realistic” theatre ideas, the American Method, and the instilled belief that film and TV acting is somehow more realistic than Shakespearean acting on stage. It’s not. That’s a myth, too, just like all the other stories we tell ourselves.