In this blog series, I am articulating seven cogent alternatives to the Hero's desire—multiplying not only our sense of what desire can be but also the responses our characters can have to it. Throughout the series, I will provide character examples from existing scripts, which already hold clues to these alternative forms of desire and responses to it. I will cite examples from stage and screen plays. In my previous installment, I looked at the alternative forms of desire for Receiving and Defending. This month, I examine Tricking and Playing—two very different approaches to desire.
The Trickster’s Desire: “I want to transgress.”
In Greek mythology, Hermes stole his brother Apollo's cattle once. He didn’t do it as an act of war, to save anyone from disease or famine, but as a joke. He led the cattle away and then, to cover his tracks, led them back in their own footsteps before heading out in a new direction. Apollo was furious as a Hero; Hermes, in this case, was a Trickster.
Lewis Hyde recounts this trickster tale in his comprehensive book on the archetype, Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. Placing a Trickster at the center of a story does not suddenly transmute his energy—or his desire—into the Hero's. Indeed, often they are at odds. The Trickster's desire is to transgress, which can mean breaking social taboos, crossing between worlds, and/or holding multiple, contradictory truths at the same time. As such, the Trickster refuses easy relegation to a supporting role in the Hero's Journey. Far from "just another archetype," the Trickster has a long history of stories built around his desire all over the world. These stories function differently because at their heart lies a different sort of character.
The Trickster differs from the Hero in multiple key ways. For instance, the Trickster loves the margins and feels comfortable there, while the Hero is comfortable only at the center of his known universe. The Trickster moves freely between worlds and can belong to multiple worlds; the Hero belongs only in one world. (The Hero leaves his world and comes back, but he never fully belongs outside.) The Trickster holds multiple, contradictory truths, but for the Hero, there is only one truth. The Trickster employs indirect means to get what he wants through trickery; whereas, the Hero goes after what he wants head on. The Trickster is of dubious moral character, but everybody loves him. The Hero is an upstanding guy, but he insists that you're either “with him or against him.” For the Hero this means the social world is divided between Allies, whose wills align entirely with his, and Enemies, who directly oppose him. By contrast, the Trickster makes room for everything in between. The Trickster knows that everything is part of the big cosmic joke; the Hero, by contrast, takes himself—and his mission—very seriously.
The best screenplay example of the Trickster is the protagonist in the TV series Columbo. This was a murder mystery series from the ’60s to ’80s with a Trickster detective at its center. At the beginning of each episode, we watch the murder being committed, so what are we watching for ninety minutes? It is not Columbo solving the murder because that has already been revealed. Rather, it is a modern Trickster bringing down the King or Queen—the rich, entitled businessman, doctor, etc. of the era—who thought they could get away with murder because they felt above the law. Columbo rarely brings them down in straightforward confrontations; he tricks them instead. In the episode “Dagger of the Mind,” Columbo tricks two arrogant actors into an admission of murder by planting a single pearl in an umbrella; thus, implicating their presence at the scene of the crime. It is always like this: one way or another Columbo, has a hunch and tricks them into a confession through trickery. A Hero detective would not use these kinds of tactics.
We need more plays with Tricksters at the center, but let's not mistake them for a Hero’s Journey though.
The Child's Desire: “I want to play.”
In his in-depth study Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown defines play by its apparent purposelessness. He notes that "Play is done for its own sake." He further explains, "Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.” While connection, pleasure, or a sense of well-being may result from the play activity, that is not why the person engaged in it. Rather, the focus is on the play activity as an end in and of itself, and secondary results arise from that. This stands in direct contrast with our notion in theatre that characters act only in order to get something from someone else.
In the dominant logic of motives, if a result is achieved through an action, it is retroactively assumed that the action was performed to achieve that result. Thus, in this model, any action can fit into the "means to an end" interpretation. However, in real life there are some things we do simply because they feel good. In these moments, we are not trying to manipulate anybody; we are simply enjoying being with others. Moreover, we all know when we're being manipulated, and it does not feel very good. In fact, the chronic manipulators among us earn the tag “asshole,” or worse. It feels better when people are genuine, have their guard down, and allow us to be ourselves and make our own decisions. Why can't characters do that, too?
I have heard colleagues say things like, “Theatre is manipulation” and “Every human action is done to get something from someone else.” Here, we are no longer talking just about characters; we are asserting something about the real world. As theatremakers, we assume that this world is a hostile environment, and to get anything we want in it, we have to manipulate others. What does that assumption say about us? The difference between doing something to achieve something, and just doing something is vast.
Why do theatremakers so readily embrace the language of manipulation? It fits with the dominant model of desire, and honestly, it makes for good, watchable, and active theatre. It also has us writing, performing, and watching tons of stories with assholes as protagonists. No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is an excellent example of this. This is a brilliant piece of theatre, in part because three terrible people spend the play manipulating one another. However, none of us would want to be stuck in hell forever with these three. So, what are we to do, if we'd like to write/play/see characters who are not manipulating each other all the time?
One answer is to have our characters play together. An existing example of this is the Ballboy in Pig Iron Theatre Company's Hell Meets Henry Halfway. The Ballboy is a child, and not surprisingly, he plays with tennis balls. Walchak's refusal to play with the Ballboy—despite numerous invitations to play—is ultimately what leads him to kill the Ballboy. In his book, Dr. Brown recalls from his research that he, “studied murderers in Texas prisons and found that the absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting their crimes." Arguably, this tightness and lack of play arguably leads real criminals to commit violent acts, and many characters like Walchak as well.
The Trickster and the Child give us two powerful archetypes to work with when writing or interpreting alternatives to the Hero. While the Trickster plays tricks on others to teach them a moral lesson, the Child plays for fun. The Trickster weaves between worlds to play jokes on people who deserve it; the Child engages what is around and discovers what s/he desires through play. Both instances are a far cry from the Hero's serious pursuit of a single, predetermined goal. In either case, play opens up new ways of thinking and being in the world.
So, why can't our characters play together more often? And why do we insist that after an initial table read, we should already be able to name the characters’ objectives? What if we could not name what a character wants, because s/he is playing? This could be fascinating to watch.