When I am not writing for this blog, I’ve been spending most of my time these last few months translating G. E. Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy, a series of 101 essays on theater, drama, and dramatic criticism published in the late eighteenth century. This collection of essays reads a lot like a bunch of blog posts; often Lessing gets stuck on a subject for weeks at a time, and adds more thoughts about the same subject every few days. This past week I’ve been working on Essay #48 (yes, they are numbered), dated October 13, 1767, in which Lessing, as part of what ends up being a 14-essay-long diatribe on the myriad deficits he finds in Voltaire’s adaptation of Maffei’s tragedy Merope (stay with me, there’s a point here) brings in Diderot as ammunition for his attack, and offers his reader a lengthy quote from Diderot’s 1758 treatise De la poésie dramatique (On Dramatic Poetry) that argues against the practice among playwrights of hiding information about characters from the audience. Here’s an excerpt of what Diderot says about what constitutes the “interest” in a play:
I am far from thinking with the majority of critics who have written about the art of dramatic writing that the dénouement must be hidden from the spectator. […] Everything must be clear for the spectator. He is the confidante for every one of the characters, he knows everything that occurs and everything that has already occurred, and there are a hundred moments where one cannot do better than to tell him straight out what has yet to occur. […] For every one occasion in which it is beneficial to hide an important incident from the spectator until it comes to pass, there are always ten or more in which the interest demands the exact opposite. – By keeping the secret the poet treats me to an instant of surprise; by confiding it, he would have exposed me to prolonged anxiety! […] Indeed, I would almost argue that a subject that needs such concealments is a thankless subject, and that a plot that has recourse to them is not as good as one that could have dispensed with them. Nothing really dynamic will come from them. (291-3)
I realized, as I was working on translating this passage, that in general I agree with Diderot – as did Euripides, and Shakespeare, and Brecht, and a whole host of other masterful playwrights. Unless the play (or, in our day, film) falls into the “suspense” genre (e.g. the whodunnit) I side with Diderot and Lessing in finding tedious and irritating dramatic writing that withholds information from the audience and traffics in secrets merely for the sake of springing a surprise.
What does all this have to do with J. T. Rogers’ Madagascar? (You were probably worrying that I had mistitled this post, weren’t you?) Well, as Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; and as my fellow Pittsburgh theater aficionado Chris Rawson once said, “No rule is sacred.” Madagascar is laden with secrets and mysteries (the former of which, as one of the characters in the play observes, are answers waiting to be revealed, while the latter are simply mysteries), and its whole effect depends on the withholding, and drop-by-drop revealing, of information by the characters to the audience. But instead of being tedious and irritating, the play mesmerizes, probably because what lies at its heart is not merely secrets, but a real mystery, a puzzle about human experience that the play can only pose, but not answer. I began this post with a long digression about Lessing & Diderot because I’m always interested in the serendipitous ways my experience of art and scholarship can collide; in this case, just as I was musing in my scholarly life about my aesthetic affinities with the ideas of writers dead for over 250 years, I encountered a play that undermined the categorical assessment with which I thought I was in agreement. Live and learn.
Madagascar is structured as a series of overlapping, interconnecting monologues, in which three characters, located in the same elegantly appointed hotel room in Rome but at different times, relate their perspective on, and version of, a shared history. Occupying the room “now” is Nathan (Larry John Myers), an academic economist whose friendship with a more charismatic and brilliant (and now deceased) economist named Arthur Doyle has pulled him tightly into the orbit of Doyle’s family. “A few days ago” the room holds June (Melinda Helfrich), Arthur’s grown daughter, who had moved to Rome a few years earlier to start her life anew, and who leads tours of the city’s monuments and ruins for visiting Americans. Lillian (Helena Ruoti), June’s mother, speaks to us from the same room “five years ago,” as she eagerly awaits a rendez-vous with her son Gideon, whom she has not seen in six months. Gradually, the three monologues converge on Gideon’s mysterious, sudden disappearance and on the three characters’ feelings of guilt, regret, anguish, and bewilderment as they scour the past for clues, hints, and signs that might explain what happened. Memory being what it is (and the mysterious workings of memory is a key theme of the play), that scouring dredges up both more and less than the characters want. The play feels like a puzzle you have to piece together as new information emerges; it rewards paying close attention (and indeed, there were moments when I realized I hadn’t paid close enough attention to something a character said, and felt behind in putting the story together!) But the “interest” here lies not just in putting together the puzzle of the story (by midway, the relationships between the characters are pretty clear) but also in plumbing, with the characters, the mystery of what makes people do the things they do and change in the ways they change. Economics doesn’t have the answer, as Nathan’s feeble attempts at social-scientific explanation make clear, and often no amount of reinvestigating the past can clarify a true mystery, either, as June’s futile searching proves. What we don’t know and can’t ever know is pretty much what this play is about, which makes Rogers’s “withholding” approach work for the subject.
As much as I liked the inter-nested monologues, which kept me puzzled and engaged, when I think back on the play the situation itself actually does not hold a great deal of “interest,” involving as it does a family of great wealth in which the spoiled son rejects his inherited privilege and chucks it all to do service in Africa. The play’s Russian-doll-like structure is really what makes it tick, and the Quantum ensemble does a very good job of keeping all three threads alive and energetic: the acting is superbly concentrated and present. Sheila McKenna directs with an understated hand, keeping the play at the right level of simmer to maintain the mystery without overplaying its stakes. And I must not end a post about a Quantum show without mentioning the venue, a former bank lobby in the Carlyle Building downtown, in which marble columns evoke the Roman ruins that play such a key role in the characters’ memories, and white draping obscures the room’s past in a manner akin to the way memory – in both the play and real life – leaves so much of the past obscured and impossible to reconjure.