Some thoughts on the usefulness of the stage as a writer’s laboratory

I take a break this week from my series on Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin to consider the usefulness of the stage to a writer.  Since I’ve been a part-time amateur thespian for about half a decade now, the subject has been simmering on the back burner of the brain for quite some time.  And it was moved at last to the front burner by this fascinating little post by Doug Wilson.

A couple of caveats before going further: What follows is quite stream-of-consciousness and very speculative.  I haven’t done anything like thinking this through in earnest, not yet anyway.

So what can writers of literature generally, and of fantasy in particular, learn from the world of the stage?  What has the Bird and Baby to do with Broadway and the West End, or even the Globe?  According to Tolkien, not much:

In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words. . . . It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it. . . . Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.  Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama . . . Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited.  Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.[1]

Having once uneasily portrayed a talking animal on stage – C. S. Lewis’s Lion, no less – I heartily agree with Tolkien on that point.  And the more majestic the animal, the more buffoonish the counterfeit is bound to be.  That is why a man can succeed quite easily in buffoonish lion portrayals – as in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Wizard of Oz – but is bound to flop when required to convey anything like the majesty of a real one.

Fantasy and Drama, then, if not absolutely distinct, are pretty close to being absolutely distinct.  So far I am in hearty agreement with Tolkien.  But he goes much further:

For this precise reason – that the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld – Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art.  Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature (as many literary critics plainly do), or form your critical theories primarily from dramatic critics, or even from Drama, you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage-plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things.[2]

Well, certainly.  Yet at this point I have to ask whether that preference is warranted.   Anyone who has read Genesis 1 and thinks it true (on any level) would have to say that it is.  Characters, “even the basest and dullest,” bear a particular glory which even the most majestic of things does not: namely, the image of God.  Indeed, we read at the beginning of the epistle to the Hebrews that the very Word by whom God wrought the world and upholds it is the “express image (Grk. charakter) of his person.”[3]

Therefore it’s precisely at this point, by forcing a writer to focus attention on characters, and especially by forcing them to focus attention on what characters do and say, rather than what they feel and think, where “pure story-making” can benefit most from an earnest consideration of the stage.  I get that Tolkien’s argument here is aimed chiefly at critics, and makes the fair point that critics ought not evaluate the works of one genre by the conventions of another.  But for those of us who are actually writers of stories, I think it a useful exercise to at least consider how our scenes might succeed even when constrained to the limits of the stage.  I can think of two reasons for this: one nuts-and-bolts, and one theological.

I’ll start with the nuts-and-bolts reason.  I am quite confident that such an exercise would improve the dialogue we write.  Clichés and generally cheesy lines[4], which may pass by unnoticed when read silently, will be exposed for what they are when read aloud, and especially when delivered on stage.  And dull, confused dialogue, which might be carried along by other things on a printed page, will absolutely flop when delivered in a theatre.  To be fair I’ll make the point by picking on an author whose work I admire most highly, Jane Austen.  Sense and Sensibility is a terrific novel.  But I have appeared in a stage production of it.  Now, in the stage adaptation our Theatre company used, much of dialogue was taken from the novel verbatim.  And the quality of that dialogue was a running joke among the actors.  This was due, in part, to some of the cast’s prejudice against early nineteenth century English; but even for those of us who were devoted Austen fans, a fair amount of what we actually had to say on stage made us cringe.[5]  And so I think it’s fair to say that, good as Sense and Sensibility is, the work might well have been improved by imagining how the dialogue would have worked onstage.

I’ve hinted at the theological reason for the usefulness of considering our written scenes as stageplay in the above quotation of the epistle to the Hebrews: The Author of the great play in which we are presently acting is also that play’s leading Man, who did not find flesh an undue constraint on the telling of his story.  For that reason, great stories come into their greatest glory not just when imagined but when actually beheld.  The imagination is best employed not when making things up out of whole cloth, but when straining to illumine and catch a vision of the glory of flesh and blood man made fully alive.  Thus, the “constraints” the stage places upon a story – having only men and women to say and do things that can be heard and seen – are hardly constraints at all.  Or, at least, they are constraints in the best sense, like a track is a constraint to a train.  So, even when we do not ultimately place our stories – the finished ones – on those tracks, they might at least benefit from being placed on them during some stages of their construction.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, in The Tolkien Reader 70-71 (1966).

[2] Id. at 72.

[3] Hebrews 1:3.

[4] When I see cheesy lines in plays it makes me think that we should include warnings to the lactose intolerant in our programs.

[5] After finishing the run of Sense and Sensibility I pulled my Austen collection off the shelf and started evaluating the stage-worthiness of the dialogue in some of her other works. I was happy to find that both Pride and Prejudice and Emma fared much better than Sense and Sensibility.

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Posted on November 5, 2011, in Authors, Characters, David Mitchel, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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