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April 13, 2006

Books, Journals & More

A closer look: Kathleen George

What do theatre and fiction have in common?

This deceptively simple question switched Pitt theatre arts professor Kathleen George into deep scholarly mode.

When she emerged, a preface, four chapters and a conclusion later — 231 pages in all — she had her answer in a newly published book, “Winter’s Tales: Reflections on the Novelistic Stage.”

“I’d been studying fiction and writing fiction and I’d been thinking about the connections between plays and fiction and I thought, ‘Nobody is exactly talking about plays in novelistic terms,’” said George, whose extensive writing experience includes two novels, a collection of short stories and now three scholarly books. “People have been talking about how now there are more narrated plays, for example, but they’re not talking about how plays as vehicles were using more materials of the novel,” such as characters shifting tenses, an abundance of monologues, the blurring of the past and present, stories starting at the end, stories told through the inner psychology of characters and characters employed as commentators on the action.

“Then I started thinking about Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ where I got my book title, and why that play is called a romance,” she said. “And I thought: ‘Of course, it’s because it’s so novelistic.’”

The play covers 40 years of history between kings of neighboring countries, suggesting an epic, with the treatment, or plot, covering 16 years. Time as a chorus/character bridges those latter years for the audience with a description of what has happened in the interim. The play is loaded with monologues, replacing action, the traditional driving force of drama. Scenes are abrupt and often unexpected and many of the epiphanous moments, which one would expect to be enacted, instead are described after the fact by witnesses.

“Anything you do to keep a work exciting is good, because that’s what artists need to do,” George said. “And I think it’s true that most good novelistic plays still have a highly dramatic element going on because the playwright has figured out how to do both.”

As a writer, George began to notice that ideas came to her as fiction rather than drama, even while she continued to direct plays and teach playwriting. She constructed a list of comparative opposites found in each genre, fiction vs. drama: telling vs. showing; summary vs. scene; narration vs. enactment; past tense vs. present tense; first-person point-of-view vs. third-person point-of-view; monologue vs. dialogue.

Those lines of demarcation between the forms are breaking down in contemporary times, George said, especially in stories that are told as opposed to stories that are enacted (in classical terminology, diegesis as against mimesis). That insight coincided with her growing interest in the use of voice in fiction and drama.

“I started reading New Yorker short stories, and there was all this first-person voice,” she said.

Even criticism was being written in the first person by the 1980s, she noted. “So I felt that everyone was moving in that direction, one way or the other. As a theatre director, I started seeing those interpretations of productions where the director becomes another first-person voice author who changes the text around, in a way that I will always resist because I’m devoted to the text.”

She’s even soured on directing plays herself recently, in the face of this popular trend to inject the “I” into established texts.

The best playwrights avoid that pitfall by what George calls “other directedness.”

“How many people say: ‘I’m going to write all about me’?” George said. “All these imitators of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ don’t seem to have noticed that it is not about me, Tennessee Williams.”

The play is about memory and about the inner life and struggles of one character, presumably Williams himself. But it’s also about the nuclear family growing apart and being haunted because of it, George said.

“It’s about Tennessee Williams but only because he managed to let it be about the rest of the family. It’s the play giving a full accounting for the others. There is that other directedness, and I would go so far as to say because there’s love in it, the other directedness is the genius of the play.

“When I started writing fiction, everything I had struggled with, from point-of-view issues to handling time, was right there. I was learning about a detached point-of-view and then seeing how certain plays do have point-of-view characters, that is, a character who’s on stage and is the filtering intelligence for the whole play — Kent in ‘King Lear’ or Horatio in ‘Hamlet.’ Characters who are watchers, who comment on the action. They’re the novelists in the script.”

So the process of studying and writing fiction — to go along with her Pitt Ph.D. in theatre, she earned a Pitt M.F.A. in creative fiction in 1988 — taught her as much about plays as about fiction. Those insights had the unexpected benefit of informing the dramatic literature and playwriting classes she teaches, George said.

“I had to sit in fiction workshops, which are traditionally run by having the group talking about a work, but the writer doesn’t get to talk about it — not a word,” she said. “And that’s torture, really, because you always want to defend it. But it’s giving you the same experience as what happens if your book or your play is out there in the world.”

She since has incorporated techniques from her workshop experience into her playwriting classes, breaking down components of plays into smaller assignments for group review.

“There are different kinds of monologues, for example, but I demand the kind where the person speaking is speaking to another person who is alive on stage, who is conscious not comatose, and that for some reason it is believable that this person is not speaking back; this person could answer at any time … and doesn’t,” George said. “So you’re playing with the tension between silence and sound. Plays still survive on sound, on the spoken word, and on the rhythm of the spoken word driving the action.

“The trick with playwriting is that plays have to be heard aloud. Dramatic dialogue is very hard to write,” she continued. “In fact, I think it is the hardest of all forms of writing — and I want to make it clear I’m not a playwright. Making a whole story out of spoken dialogue, first of all, is astoundingly brazen, and to make a story that makes sense is an amazing feat. To write dialogue that’s fairly tasty on the tongue for actors and is doing more than just talking by driving the action is very hard. Also, lines that sound perfectly good in another form, on stage can sound either silly or weak or flat.”

Other assignments include writing a playlet where an established relationship is disbanding permanently and the audience is convinced of that. It could be a romantic couple, a boss and worker, a father and child or any other combination, including of more than two characters. “These make for very interesting little playlets,” she’s found.

A third assignment is having students write scenes that involve two characters and a prop. “The goal is to make the prop alive in the scene, on the level of the characters themselves, the point being to realize how many scenes depend upon negotiating something that has to do with a thing.”

These kinds of assignments, taking elements of a play one strand at a time, are working, she said. “Exercises, if they’re right, do lead people to write very good plays, even if they don’t know why, because if the exercises give the ingredients, something else happens: The ingredients lead to something else, to a natural extension of ideas,” George said.

“I think I became a much better teacher of playwriting from studying fiction. And yet theorists don’t usually talk about the two together. They don’t even think they should be talked about together. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a mistake.”

—Peter Hart

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