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The Open Constellation

Tackling Polyphonic Drama that Resists Resolution

The Goodman Theatre’s adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s colossal novel 2666 was an unusual piece of theatre. As an adaptation, the material was not conceived with all the expectations of an American theatre-going audience in mind (most conspicuously so in its length, which amounted to five and a half hours). To me, the most unexpected and striking aspect was the sheer number of narratives I encountered within the single experience of this play—racing from continent to continent, from academia to the wrestling ring, from Nazi Germany to a small Mexican police station, and across much of the twentieth century. Rather than a portrait, this play was a landscape; its many subjects traversed the shared dramatic space without being overtly tied together. And this quality in particular has kept my mind returning to the same state in which I left the theatre that night—turning over and over, rearranging stories in relation to one another. I find that with each small shift of that mental kaleidoscope, a new pattern of meaning takes shape.

Why is it so unusual to see a staged reality that embraces a multitude of narratives without drawing them together towards some shared culmination? And how capable are we of discussing such work?

In this essay I borrow a term from music to characterize multi-narrative work: “polyphonic,” meaning “having two or more voices or parts, each with an independent melody, but all harmonizing.” Polyphony has been a noticeable feature of several recent examples of an emerging trend in Chicago of “marathon theatre” (for example, The House Theatre’s nine-hour trilogy Hammer Trinity, or The Hypocrites’ twelve-hour compendium of Greek Tragedy, All Our Tragic). But is the “marathon” length a prerequisite for a polyphonic experience, one in which many unique threads can be developed sufficiently to take the spectator somewhere exciting? I continue to dwell on these questions: why is it so unusual to see a staged reality that embraces a multitude of narratives without drawing them together towards some shared culmination? And how capable are we of discussing such work? I was compelled to follow a few threads which have emerged from these central questions.

actors sitting on stage
Lawrence Grimm (Jean-Claude Pelletier), Demetrios Troy (Manuel Espinoza), Sandra Delgado (Auxilio), Sean Fortunato (Piero Morini) and Nicole Wiesner (Liz Norton) in “Part I: The Part About the Academics” of 2666 based on the novel by Robert Bolaño; adapted and directed by Robert Falls and Seth Bockley. 
Photo courtesy of The Goodman Theatre.

In his retrospective work, On Directing and Dramaturgy, Eugenio Barba, founder of the Odin Theatre and the International School of Theatre Anthropology, both in Denmark, employs a term that may both inspire and befuddle the reader, but upon which he insists as a fundamental principle of his theatre: The Dramaturgy of the Spectator. He explains the term with the following:

a performance which could assume a shared sense and at the same time might whisper a different confidence to every spectator. And which appeared diverse every time they watched it. (Barba, 13)

In my own experience, conventional dramaturgy often involves clarifying a unified perspective that the production strives to articulate, thereby orienting spectators toward a shared sense of its meaning. We may gracefully accept or even embrace diverse interpretations as the inevitable outcome of making art, but proceed as if multivarious understanding is an unpredictable result, outside the hands of the creators. Barba’s Dramaturgy of the Spectator, however, drastically repositions the complex process by which an audience makes meaning as, in fact, a compositional element in itself.

I find Barba’s definition useful when I encounter polyvocal works that resist resolution. To engage the audience’ understanding on many differing levels, in which a single expression is directed toward as many meanings as there are witnesses, involves the laying of certain traps, means to compel particular psyches toward different respective paths of comprehension. 2666’s dramaturgy made these demands on me with its dense cluster of narratives; without the traditional hierarchy of plot and sub-plot, this web of criss-crossing stories left me to my own devices to sort through the threads and construct a personally meaningful narrative organization. The unconnected spaces between each storyline could only be crossed by means of an individual reflective journey, by one’s curiosity to discover how the play’s many voices might speak to one another. And as the spectator’s mind constructs the connective path, she may discover the peculiar, personal landscape of associative meaning which must be crossed along the way: The Dramaturgy of the Spectator.

actors yelling on stage
Eric Lynch (Oscar Fate), Alejandra Escalante (Rosa Amalfitano), Demetrios Troy (Chucho Flores), Juan Francisco Villa (Charly Cruz), and Yadira Correa (Rosita Mendez) in “Part III: The Part About Fate” of 2666
Photo courtesy of The Goodman Theatre.

Whether or not you choose to work in a way which disrupts a unified sense of understanding is a matter of individual artistic preference. To some, an experience which sends paths of comprehension out in many directions may sound like the antithesis of dramatic communication. Others may find the opposite; that a kaleidoscopic understanding best suits the complexities of the reality they’re trying to dramatise, and thus channels one’s imagination in a fruitful way. In the latter case, perhaps the subject is simply too vast to be approached meaningfully from a singular point of view. For example, both 2666 and Angels in America (another sprawling, polyphonic work to which 2666 has drawn comparisons) deal with mass devastations of human life (Ciudad Juárez’s mysterious “femicides,” and the 1980s AIDS crisis). In both cases, this fragmentation of understanding may be the only way to point toward the complexity and magnitude of such crises, which seem to defy comprehension.

I had the opportunity to speak with Seth Bockley, co-director and adaptor of 2666, about the process of bringing to the stage a work with such intriguing narrative qualities.

Amber Robinson: I’ve noticed one word popping up across critical responses to this play, several writers refer to the many “digressions” of the piece. I’d like to unpack this term, “digression,” which may carry some unspoken assumptions about dramatic structure. For instance, in The American Theatre Journal: “The more profound challenge Bockley and Falls faced was dealing with the countless digressions, which add thematic depth but do little to advance the story.”

How do you think about the digressive qualities of 2666; does it really feel like an obstacle to be overcome in order to tell the story?

Seth Bockley: I do think that we suffer from the tyranny of unity, the notion that a play ought to follow the road unswervingly, to deliver us to a crystal clear destination. And I actually don’t think that’s accurate to how people perceive narrative art. I think that it underestimates the audience, and belittles them, to imagine that they somehow require this singularity of narrative.

The fact is that most of our audience fell deeply into a world that is enormously digressive in a very mysterious way. And it was so apparent when talking with theatregoers (most of whom are not Bolaño scholars or some sort of rarified arts appreciators), the vast majority of them fell into that world and enjoyed swimming in it. Going along these blind alleys and weird side trips into the middle of a dark forest was wonderful for a lot of people.

And it’s also not an issue of “eating your vegetables”; it’s not some sort of painful trip to a museum where you’re dragged to see some pretentious art that you don’t understand. It’s actually very entertaining, and, in fact, very engaging to be digressive at times. I think that the audience wants anything but to be bored at the theatre. And that’s it. Whatever narrative expectation we impose on our audience, audiences are far more open minded than we sometimes give them credit for.

I think we also confront an aesthetic bias here, because many works of naturalistic drama are extraordinarily digressive, in the way the subject matter or behavior of the characters takes you to unexpected and sometimes completely unnecessary areas. And yet somehow that is perceived as a “natural” part of the form, whereas to suddenly shift character identity or location, we again become subject to the tyranny of Aristotle’s unities, to the idea of a living room play as considered to be neater or easier to follow, and I just don’t think that’s always important to audiences. And it’s certainly not to me as an artist. So again, I just think it’s important to say that this work is very digressive, but a lot of works of narrative (theatre, television, and film) are extremely digressive as well, and that can be very pleasurable.

Of course there’s nothing inherently virtuous about digressive work, or to use your term, polyvocal work.

Two actors on stage
Mark L. Montgomery (Hans) and Alejandra Escalante (Lotte) in “Part V: The Part About Archimboldi” of 2666
Photo courtesy of The Goodman Theatre.

Amber: Right, because this discussion could also be turned around and used as a false justification for simply bad work—that if people don’t like a particular example of polyvocal work it’s just because they don’t understand something that breaks the traditional dramatic unities.

Seth: Right, let’s talk about that for a second. There are experimental forms, and part of an experiment is trying something, and then it’s up to the interpreter to respond. Speaking for myself, I’m certainly not interested in experimentation or polyphony for the sake of itself, I’m always interested in form and content matching, or speaking to one another. If I had to just pick one thing, why does a piece work well for me? It is because the form and content have something original to say to one another. And have something original to say, period. I think what certainly can be a pitfall is when there’s not enough tension in the interaction between form and content, or when the form is taken to be more important than the content and the artists have convinced themselves that they’re saying something that they’re not. I think that’s perhaps the primary pitfall of experimental theatre.

I would also say that I think of theatre as a narrative art form. I think that’s what distinguishes theatre from performance art, or dance, etc. (that’s just me, other people have different definitions). I’m a storyteller; that’s why I do theatre as opposed to other forms, and I’m interested in telling stories well. So the story drives the form. When something works well, polyphonic or otherwise, there is that sense of a harmony or an interesting tension between the story and the form.

Amber: In adapting this novel for the stage, you were faced with the challenge of preserving a sense of narrative polyphony, while also making choices to cut content. Was there a guiding thread that you followed through the process? What distinguished the “essentials” from the elements that were cut (or is there some other way you would describe this)?

Seth: You mention the word cutting...rather than thinking about cutting, as in snipping out everything unnecessary…that’s not strictly how we did it. Bolaño was an experimental poet who lived in the world of twentieth century poetry, a universe of quotation, of cutting and pasting and found text, and we tried to preserve that Bolaño-esque spirit of inspiration and juxtaposition, of taking pieces and putting them next to each other. I think of it more as a sense of mash-up, of wildly moving and overlaying. We grabbed stuff and put it together in ways that felt exciting, juicy, essential, and saw what they said to each other.

***

I’d like to acknowledge that fragmentation of narrative across a spectrum of voices is no longer a radical concept in drama. While drama that departs from Aristotelian unities is far from conventionally mainstream, these structural ideas have been around for quite some time. For decades, artistic currents collectively defined as post-modernism have been crashing against our notions of narrative unity. We can find yet more drastic examples in the work of writers such as Charles Mee or Caryl Churchill (to take two quite successful examples from the world of English-language drama), in which radical incongruity and distance is employed not only between narratives, but stylistic choices as well, pushing the spectator’s dramaturgy yet farther along a personal constructive journey.

We still see the ideals of the ‘well-made play’ exert an enormous influence over our discourse. … And thus we encounter a dilemma for artists whose imaginations are excited by the way contrasting, conflicting voices may speak to one another within the same work…

Yet still, the more content and style become fragmented, the more we see such work herded under the umbrella of “experimental” or “avant-garde.” It’s a designation that may be employed to excuse the anxiety experienced by one who struggles with its demands on their perception; a code word for “I don’t know how to talk about this,” and is rarely accompanied by a more specific discussion of the particular qualities of the work. Despite some relatively codified and disseminated alternative structures which have emerged in recent decades, we still see the ideals of the “well-made play” exert an enormous influence over our discourse. While personal aesthetic taste and interests will always vary, the ability to engage thoughtfully with this type of material is another matter. And thus we encounter a dilemma for artists whose imaginations are excited by the way contrasting, conflicting voices may speak to one another within the same work, by the way this can lead our imaginations toward unexpected places. If we accept Barba’s challenge of work which “whisper(s) a different confidence to every spectator,” we intentionally create an audience that may have difficulty discussing such work, because it is a choice that discourages consensus. If we believe that such an experience can be exciting and nourishing to our artform, we must push to continue expanding the parameters of this conversation.

So how does one speak with clarity in and about a language designed to lead its listeners in a web of divergent personal journeys? Is the term “clarity” oxymoronic when used to describe such work? I do not believe so. I have experienced kaleidoscopic works that provoked a tremendous response in my imagination. Like stargazing, such work attracts us to a scattering of brilliant points of light, but leaves to us the task of building the constellations which bring a shape to the surrounding darkness. The brighter each point shines, the more intensely it radiates with suggestive force, the more my imagination is compelled to project thoughts toward it. And while the shapes I trace between points may look quite different from another’s, we are drawn to gaze in wonder at the same glowing, mysterious sky.

Two men sitting at a table
Artistic Director Robert Falls (Co-Director and Co-Adapter) and Playwright-in-Residence Seth Bockley (Co-Director and Co-Adapter) in rehearsal for 2666. Photo courtesy of The Goodman Theatre.

Sources

Barba, Eugenio. On Directing and Dramaturgy: Burning the House. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.

Barker, Jeremy M. “5 Novellas, 5 Hours, 5 Years: The Goodman’s ‘2666’ Adds Up.” American Theatre. Theatre Communications Group, 10 February 2016. < http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/02/10/5-novellas-5-hours-5-years-the-goodmans-2666-adds-up/>.

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Beautiful analogy for the experience I felt witnessing one of the most energizing pieces of theatre I've ever seen. 2666 was incredible, to me, for all the reasons which you enumerated, and I'm always so excited to find others who feel the same way; often, I feel like an outsider for appreciating and wanting to create work like this. I think part of that comes with the stigma of "avant-garde" or "experimental" art. Just as audiences use those terms as a way of protecting themselves in a way, I wonder if theatremakers, too, utilize those phrases when they want to give audiences an "out" for not understanding a work.

Can storytelling be clear when each audience members' experience differs but they ultimately feel like the piece coalesced in a meaningful way? I believe so. The notion of a constellation forming from the stars is a truly wonderful way of putting it.

Thank you, too, for introducing me to Eugenio Barba's notion of Spectator Dramaturgy (something I've come around to through some of my own work on pieces of theatre which challenge traditional forms). Nice to see it written up in a concise, direct way.

Brent - yes! Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful reply.

I couldn't agree more - for every example of fragmentary, "post-modern" work that's energizing and illuminating, there are at least an equal number in which the mosaic of narratives just feel arbitrary, or too obvious, and therefore pointless. And yes, several personal encounters immediately come to mind when you say that we as theatremakers sometimes use terms like "experimental" as a shield to deflect deeper criticism of unsuccessful work! I wanted to point out 2666 as a great example of the way fragmentation of narrative can remind us of how complex the world can be while still luring us to engage with it. But the form itself is not inherently virtuous, as Seth very concisely put it. And that's where the artistry comes in! As with any artform, no formula exists, and it's an ongoing struggle to try to create work that can be both provocative and accessible to an audience.

I highly highly encourage you (and everyone) to read Barba's "On Directing and Dramaturgy" - it pervaded my thinking while I was writing this essay, and his insights on creating highly complex theatrical worlds for the audience to explore are some of the most inspiring things I've ever read.