Features Essays Published 5 March 2011

The Necessity of Narrative?

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

And yet the writer remains unimpressed throughout – bored and over saturated by the very act of story telling. The audience leaves the theatre aware that they have been pulled in to a narrative by the same principles that the piece itself condemns. And yet the “controlling idea” (another term often employed by McKee) is clear and cohesive – there is a moral to the story: Narratives are a problematic way of processing experience. The content and form of the piece contradict each other. The piece successfully proves its point by employing the very device it criticizes. Narrative emerges from the experience as dangerous, effective, possibly inescapable… A kind of victorious super villian who seemed vanquished in the first act but returns before the end credits stronger than ever.

Both The Author and Tough Time Nice Time are critical of our desire to be comforted by a narrative about a politically traumatic situation, but somehow in proving this point, the creators’ weave a well crafted story – stakes get gradually higher, the audience is pulled along by a desire for a final moment of satisfaction, and that moment is provided. What then, have the shows done? They have criticized storytelling through a masterful act of storytelling. Is this radical (politically or artistically) or just an extremely clever exercise? In any case both pieces were praised by members of both the performance sector and the new writing sector, seeming to belong to two worlds that the Arts Council separated long ago.

Although philosophically I take issue with narrative, when watching theatre, I have often found myself taking issue with pieces that ignore its principles completely. The rules of storytelling are possibly as old as the sense of self, but following or recreating those rules on stage is not simple. Well structured stories are difficult and time consuming pieces of work, no matter how radical the form they are told in. Past this, the principles that good stories adhere to, a building pace and structure, a coherent “controlling idea”, relatable and consistent personalities, a final arresting image, can easily be applied to some of the strongest pieces of non-narrative theatre I’ve seen.

And of course a story for the sake of a story can be cheap. Hooking an audience with one (even a bad one) is easy enough – look to any reality tv show or soap opera for proof. We are hungry for that final moment of resolution, and will often sit with a story of any quality until it finally ends. But once it is over we are able to gauge immediately where the holes in its logic are and whether it was worth our time. By employing narrative or choosing to ignore it you take a risk either way, with the former, because the audience knows the rules better than you do, and with the latter because they don’t.

Finally, I sometimes wonder if the real reason we need stories originates from the fear that our lives may never find a final resolution in any way that we will be conscious of. If this, mortality and the confusing nature of an ongoing existence, is what is really behind our desire for storytelling, then perhaps we should just see it as a neurotic quirk of the human species. A kind of coping mechanism or security blanket. In a world where our desire for story (through history and the media) has edited out so many lives, so much suffering and joy, is it theatre’s place to pull the security blanket out from under us to expose an actual truth? Or is that just sloppy story telling?

Deborah Pearson is co-curator of Forest Fringe.


Deborah Pearson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.