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Desire Multiplied

The Trickster and the Child

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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.

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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.

Architectural immersion, i.e., fitting new designs around the found history of the original building to hold on to and even highlight history and a building’s previous uses is also integral to the historically layered and ghost-like feel of the Courtyard.

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.

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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

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Irene Loy articulates six cogent alternatives to the hero's desire.

Desire Multiplied 

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Many of my plays involve a trickster secondary character; I am just now completing a play where the heroine is a trickster. I love the trickster character-she's so fun to write!

Thanks for this - long have I waited for my peers to begin to question the simplistic and reductive notions with which we frame our stories in the theatre. To my view, it begins with our accepted interpretation of the Aristotelian "Drama is Conflict" model, that we've all been raised with and trained in. Not that I dismiss conflict as a part of storytelling, but rather our unquestioning dependence on it to make our stories seem interesting needs challenging. "Conflict" - one of the great shiboleths of our practice, that is held onto in a way that amounts to a kind of fundamentalism. Drama might have conflict at its heart - I'd like to think the theatre can be so much more. Bring on the tricksters - so we can free our stories dominated by self obsessed, manipulative psychopaths and sociopaths and the turgid psychologising of "desire". I, for one, am bored shitless by it...if I see another piece with actors in white face and underclothes giving vent to "desire" or a foursome of disfunctional arseholes, of whatever socio-economic status, locked in a room tearing strips off each other for 2 hours....ho hum....

Same as above, my apologies for the delay in my response, am just seeing this! I'm happy to hear this topic has been on your radar as well. I agree that the prevailing model is both simplistic and reductive, and that theatre can be so much more. I think the focus on manipulative characters has amounted to a sort of "belly button gazing" which playwrights are given license to do. As noted above, too, I think that different worldviews or approaches can lead to conflict, in and of themselves (without having to manufacture conflict for its own sake). Other thoughts?

In recent times I've dusted off a few key ideas that have sat at the back of my mind and gathered in notebooks over the years and attempted to reflect on and dissect....things that seemed to have no currency in the contemporary theatre landscape, either in theory and practice. Long story made short - these reflections lead me to read, over a 6 month period, over a dozen books on playwriting, starting with William Archer's "Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship", through to an number of texts written, I assume, for Creative Writing courses. A tour through the commonly accepted notions/conventions of writing for the stage. By some turn of fancy I then began to read everything I could lay my hands on in relation to Farce and then via studies on Eduardo de Filippo, I eventually read works on and by Dario Fo.Augusto Boal comes into the frame here somewhere, though not in the usual context of Forum Theatre etc, but rather, in pursuit of the phenomenon of the joker and questions about the relationship actors have with their audiences. I was also particularly challenged by his idea that Tragedy is coercive, prompting questions about the nature of the stories we tell and how we tell them in the theatre. I was puzzled by the sense that I have long had, that a lot of theatre I have watched and heard for something like 40 years limits the relationship, holds it bound within a set of conventions that ultimately determine the tropes we use in our story telling, in genre, production and eventually in actor training. I looked back to where I started as a student of theatre & film but most particularly as a street performer in my early days and realised that with my move indoors as I entered the domain of "straight"or "legit" theatre I was feeling some kind of loss of connection with audiences/spectators. It took me some years as I served my theatre apprenticeship: directing, producing, writing and teaching performance skills to begin to question the very kinds of stories we were telling in the theatre on Australian stages. In my own productions and writing I began to tear apart the models I had been taught to revere and emulate - predominantly the "Character-with-an-objective" three part narrative structure, in an essentially domestic setting, manipulating others to achieve his/her goals with strategies and tactics, driven by some inner psychological force contained within a linear narrative underpinned by the binaries of cause and effect, good and evil, right and wrong etc. And what a shock to realise that so much writing for the theatre tries to squeeze the diversity of human experience, the complexity of our many and varied stories into a rather limited set of moulds. Just a few late night thoughts. Cheers.

I certainly hope this article stimulates further comments because I found it fascinating, useful, and offers questions well worth contemplating. Even in well worn territory of obvious manipulative objectives in a theatrical piece, investigating where the dynamic of play can be incorporated could bring forth some provocative possibilities. I do wish the author had provided a few more examples from well known plays to augment her points. I do have a response to the author's question/comment "Why do theatre makers 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." Well theatre makers, from the earliest story tellers around campfires, embrace the language precisely because it fits the model of desire. Desire, as any good Buddhist will tell you, is one of the basic challenges of the human being to contend with in this world of samsara. Our addiction to desire, and its many, many, many forms, fuels everything in earthly life, from sleezy sexual perversion to discovering vaccines for various diseases. So it stands to reason that in the land of story telling that language would be predominant. And what are the qualities, or hues of manipulative language (and of course action). Let's look at the word manipulate. Various hues of this include: Influence, control, impress, maneuver, shape, alter, guide. These examples of manipulation surround another primary quality inherent in story telling. Conflict. Conflict implies tension between opposing desires. It also implies contrast. These are the foundations of all drama and comedy: the tension of conflict between opposing desires navigating its trajectory of movement in an attempt toward resolution. So a question I am left with to contemplate, and perhaps others will contribute insight to is: How can I significantly incorporate play into my story telling without compromising the underlying building block of conflict to the point where the story loses momentum, becomes too relaxed, or just pain boring.

Thank you for this thoughtful response! I am a bit of a Luddite and did not realize I had comments on the post; I should have checked sooner! These are great questions to ponder on this topic; I have also wondered, after developing characters whose desire moves differently, how best to portray conflict without resorting to manipulative tactics for the characters. The best I have thus far is that conflicting worldviews go a long way toward keeping that tension in a story. Thoughts?