Dimensions of a Play

In February, I posted about about the dimensions of character in an oh-so-accessible post entitled A String Theory of Character. Simply put, that post explored the idea that richness of character is determined by the directions in which the meaning of a single action can resonate. When a one-dimensional character acts, the meaning of that action is simple. When a multi-dimensional character acts, the meaning echos in a number of often contradictory directions. The action is simple, the meaning is complex.

A hopefully simple example: a man blinds himself. Without the context of dimensions, it is simply a violent, incomprehensible act. But as the man is a king, the act takes on political dimensions. As he is a man of destiny, the act takes on metaphysical dimensions. As he is an infamous mother lover, the act takes on erotic and familial dimensions. And as is he is a genuinely good and supremely confident man, the act takes on moral dimensions, too.

A single act that echoes in many different, often contradictory, dimensions. And what goes for richness of character goes for the world of the play, too. One of the first questions I think about when approaching a play is how many dimensions are present? In how many directions can a single act echo?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a supreme example: there is the meta-world of the theatre itself, the fairy world, the political/legal world of Theseus and Athens, the world of the lovers, the mechanicals, the play within the play that combines them all; each of those with its own set of moral, physical, and emotional rules, each with their own language. I also believe there is a seventh dimension, one of transcendence, touched through Bottom and Titania’s union; working on the play I sometimes felt the dim shape of an eighth dimension hidden in the relationship between Puck, Oberon, and the world of shadows.

And when the play is done right, and all seven + dimensions are open, an action in the play can echo in seven different directions, so the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania is a reconciliation of magic, law, love, of the play itself, of theatre; and an end to the possible union of human and divine that their discord created. You could argue the dimension of gender adds an entire, more painful dimension to this reconciliation, as Oberon has won her love back in a misogynistic way. Additionally, the dimension of loss, introduced to the play through Titania’s love for her dead Votress, adds an ambiguous note to the reconciliation, as who can say if it is good or bad that she has moved on from the memory of this woman she loved so much?

It may seem strange to consider a dimension of loss on the same footing as a dimension of law, but we are interested here in the directions in which meaning can move.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be the supreme example, but Flux is drawn to plays that are multi-dimensional in this way. Jacob’s House, our upcoming production, has at least five dimensions: family, as the siblings gather to interpret their father’s will; memory, as they argue over the slippery legacy of their parent’s actions; manifest destiny, as the lives of their parents seem to have stretched over the course of America’s bloody history; hunger and fullness, and how ideas of morality wrestle with primal hungers; and divine blessing, as the characters deal with the gift and curse of being touched by the divine.

A single action in Jacob’s House, if we do our job right, will echo in at least these five directions, and so a series of very simple things will happen, but what they mean will move to an increasingly rich ambiguity that is Flux’s home turf.

It has always seemed to me that plays the obscure the story, and make the journey unnecessarily difficult to follow, are playing a shell-game where confusion masquerades as complexity, and vagueness is made up to look like ambiguity.

I’ve always been drawn instead to stories that take me down a road I know well, to a room I’m familiar with, to a door I’ve seen before, but when I open the door, I realize I don’t know the road or room or door at all, and I’m falling in darkness, and just when the light above has almost dwindled entirely, the play hands me a pile of feathers and says, ‘quick, make these wings’.

What plays do you think have that richness of dimension?

1 Comment on "Dimensions of a Play"

  1. psalmsbyme · March 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm · Reply

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