I remember a few years ago going to the RSAMD to watch a student production of Howard Barker’s The Bite of the Night – it was staged in the Chandler Studio and ran for over 3 hours. There were at least 2 intervals possibly even a 3rd (but I might just be making that last one up to add to the epicness of it all!). The audience stayed for the whole performance and seemed to settle in for the length with a certain degree of enthusiasm. I mention this now because it flies in the face of conventional theatre wisdom – audiences will become restless if made to sit for more than 2 hours without an interval; they should be released around 10.30 at the latest to get the return buses and underground home; a play which starts at 07.30 and finishes after 11.00 will not draw an audience, and so on – and to an extent this is true. It also a self-defeating prophecy, of course. Audiences become habituated to what theatre provides for them.
This audience – myself included – reveled in something else, however. Not the 2nd or even 3rd interval (what a novelty!), not the very late finishing time (after 11.00!), nor even the sense that as an audience we had somehow grown together in the habitual ease of seeing our faces across the playing area (it was staged in the round) like disembodied masks – it was in that strange joy of being allowed to journey with these characters and their torments for longer than we normally were allowed to. I remember walking out of the RSAMD and having to ground myself back in this reality because not only had I been out of it for longer than I was used to in the theatre, I had also spent time with these characters on an almost novelistic level (if only impressionistically).
That experience has stayed with me in the way Witkacy’s quote has stayed with me (among many other influences). The play itself is a remarkable piece of writing but in a sense it became more than the writing because of the time we journeyed alongside those characters – and that throws up for me a crucial element in my writing now. I am talking about that structural dynamic which underpins playwrighting and which on an almost subconscious level allows us to craft a world and a story already bound in some degree by the conventions of the theatrical apparatus – you all know what I mean: if I write a play with 2 or 3 characters and set it in a small space (a bedroom, a flat, a cell, and so on) it will stand more of a chance of being picked up and staged. The delimitations of this apparatus is not a criticism in itself – indeed it has a self-discipline I am in awe of to be honest – but there is in this something of a temporal limit also. That the length of the play, the time allowed to these characters, is also part of that apparatus.
A play with only 2 characters and one with only 8 is still woven into that aesthetic in that it generally will have a playing time of less than 2 hours.
Plays which occupy a stage for longer are perhaps deemed old fashioned – even anachronistic, perhaps, as if that length of time allotted to characters is no longer relevant. And yet that night in the RSAMD not only did dozens of characters exist for over 3 hours, we, the audience, accommodated them. I mean, that 3rd interval was almost like having breakfast in a seaside resort at the end of a week.
I think it was that experience which helped me think deeper about character, about delving past conventional psychology, unraveling the surface mannerisms of emotion and action, unpeeling the skin, as it were. It was that depth of time (I know I am mixing synchronic and diachronic here) which unlocked a need in me to write outwith the pale. That meant that these characters of mine were already past that 2 hour or so playing time and still journeying as if only at the begining of their tale. These characters were already played out as it were and only now begining to act.
Hence these strange and grotesque crowds which populate my plays: the torturer who secrets a map inside his face only for a revenger to unpick his stitches while he still lives; a woman who fades into a wardrobe to drown herself in the past; a librarian who defends a burnt-out ruin for no other reason than to resist the advance of history; an architect who walks up an Impossible Staircase only to erase himself out of reality; an archeologist on an alien planet who murders himself and is condemned to live out the rest of his life on that planet known as Unearth; a Spanish noblewoman who plucks out her own eyes and swallows them even as simulacras of herself flood about her and replace her; and so on . . .
My mum says I don’t get out much. My friends say I should stay in more.
If that audience is to accommodate a different skin in itself and out there on the stage then I think it can only do that if these characters have already unseamed themselves and are now in the process of stitching on a new map. That is the journey, I think. It is certainly one I seem drawn to as a writer hovering over these blank spaces, these whites skins which have yet to be mapped . . .