Features Essays Published 5 March 2011

The Necessity of Narrative?

An essay by Deborah Pearson on the ethics of narrative.
Deborah Pearson

On an episode of Radiolab about the Self, a study was described in which scientists discovered that the same part of the human brain that is able to recognise the self is also responsible for inventing narrative. The program suggested that this may be because our sense of identity is an invented narrative – it is the story we choose to tell ourselves in which we play the hero – story telling is how we make sense of our lives. If the human need for narrative is not restricted to dramatic conventions but originates from our very sense of self, then how do we extricate ourselves from it in performance? Should we?

The political problems that narrative throws up are not so tough to recognize. Narratives must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They must have a “controlling idea”, one main point (moral) we can take from the series of events that have unfolded. And they must have consistent characters with easily described natures – cowardly but kind, or irrational and insincere, for example. (Once a crook always a crook, etc. How much does this say for rehabilitation?) Narratives are psychologically comforting because they provide resolution, and often impose a logic onto a frustratingly fluid reality. As anybody who has ever had to edit a play or story can tell you, narratives are highly selective, shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story. This is all well and good for Oscar bait – but when these rules are applied to a political situation (as in the media they often are) the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences.

Performance in the UK has its own Kinsey scale of Narrative – most pieces I have seen seem to lie at one of two extremes – well made plays that place Story above all else, or performance and dance pieces that reject storytelling entirely. And then there are those pieces that sit somewhere in the middle – juggling the difficult job of telling a story while not telling a story, aware of narrative without pandering to it blindly. Two pieces that come to mind are Tim Crouch’s The Author and Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time.

Both of these pieces have serious beef with narrative, and yet skillfully play its game. I will refrain from detailingThe Author for those who haven’t seen it, since, frustratingly for reviewers, even a description of the show would necessitate a Spoiler Alert, but I’ll return to it momentarily. Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time does not throw up this problem, so allow me to expand from here. Two german men sit in a bathtub in a gay sauna in Thailand. They begin by naming political thrillers, asking each other which they’ve seen, and then go on to have a conversation in which one of the characters (a writer) goads the other to tell him a story about his life. The writer is consistently bored by the other’s attempt to engage him in a story, and the non-writer’s stories (which he claims are true) become increasingly extreme and violent in an attempt to engage his attention. Surprisingly, given the company’s reputation for experimental performance, this piece employs several techniques that screenwriting guru Robert McKee describes in his book, Story. The characters are consistent and easy to describe in a sentence – one is unimpressed and the other is eager to please. There is a unity of time and setting, complete with the ultra realistic touch of steam occasionally rising from their bath. And as McKee advises writers to up their stakes as the story progresses, building to a final moment of climax or resolution, the non-writer’s stories follow this by rote. His anecdotes become gradually more extreme, more upsetting, until they build to one final story that could be argued to act as a kind of climax.


Deborah Pearson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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