Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Dining Room


Busy weekend. But I was able to take the time out Sunday afternoon and see the school play, A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room." It's a series of vignettes set in a dining room, across times from the 1920s to the present.

//Note: this is one of those "stacking wood by the fire" posts, in which I discuss an input and what I've gotten out of it.

I went in thinking that the dining room was a literal dining room, one place, and that the storyline would follow one family across generations. But as the number of vignettes piled up, I realized that there were too many different people in overlapping times for the dining room to be one, specific dining room. Rather, it was literally the Dining Room, an archetypal place representative of the "WASPs of northeastern America" and the dramas and everydays of affluent suburbia.

Or at least that was how I interpreted it.

I'd like to analyze the form of the Dining Room, because I prefer classic over romantic thinking (see: Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig) so structure is inherently more interesting for me to analyze than the external details (though I appreciate both).


Short break for the classic v. romantic explanation, which I found in ZitAoMM.

Classical thinking is fundamental, pattern-recognition, differentiating, focusing on what things mean and not what they seem. This is Apollonian thinking, "left-brain" (though the brain is not nearly so modular), my kind of thing.

Romantic thinking is most holistic, looking at the surface of things, appearance as opposed to form. Dionysian, you could call it.


Now for my actual analysis.

With apologies to my lovely friends who participated in the play: I found the first act more engaging than the second. Not because of the acting, which was excellent throughout, but because the pacing in the first act felt more natural and varied.

The vignettes fell along a spectrum of comedy and drama (less or more serious), and in the first act the comedy was more integrated, with lighter scenes mixing in with the serious scenes that discussed family arguments or infidelity or senility.

The second act did have some very funny scenes, but my own tastes run counter to unrelieved family drama scenes--an adult daughter coming back to her parents' home after the dissolution of her marriage, well-acted but followed immediately by a family honor argument, and then funeral plans? It was like eating a very dense, sweet cake: good but a little overwhelming.

So vignette-based works need variation, or perhaps variegation, in order to maintain a high level of engagement and prevent audience fatigue. Another factor contributing to the homogeneity of Act II was that the vignettes all could have taken place in the same time period, essentially; that removed a layer of anticipation of "where's the next scene going to take place?"

But is there a limit to the variation you can introduce before it becomes counterproductive? I believe so. What a work of performance art tries to maximize is audience engagement (I present this as a hypothesis; we shall argue it another time), and audience engagement doesn't increase linearly with how much variation there is.

Instead, the way I experience performed art (music, drama, etc), engagement rises with variety...to a point. Then, if things become too varied, too noisy, interest drops off.

At a macro scale, randomness is not generally a benefit. People like stories more than facts, and works that have a direction, that grow, that build toward some climax, that have tension and pacing and form, are more satisfying than works with no interest in the way components are arranged.

In this, The Dining Room succeeded: the second act did seem to have a sense of greater striving toward some end, with longer scenes and more serious subject matter...notice that these are the very things that made me criticize it a few paragraphs ago. Balancing variety and direction is tricky.


Stepping back a moment from the system, the form, to look at the surface. This is the "romantic" viewpoint, concerned with how things appear, how they seem.

I enjoyed the play. I thought some moments were hilarious, and some scenes particularly resonant. The vignette form has potential for lots of play. Each segment was a window into someone's life, and the variety of them shone bright like a collection of jewels. A technique used more in the earlier parts of the play that I particularly liked was overlapping scenes: characters from two scenes would be on stage at the same time, acting independently, each scene layering and adding richness to the other.

(I appear to speak once again of form. Ah, can't escape it.)

As usual, I'm wondering how to apply this to writing. The overlapping scenes would be difficult to pull off without seeming gimmicky--and it definitely wasn't gimmicky in TDR, in fact it was used to splendid effect. A series of stories revolving around a central location would also be more difficult, without it in front of the readers…that was a cool double-vision effect of the play that I don't know how to reproduce in writing: the fact that there is exactly one set, physically in this location, and yet it becomes a time travel capsule as different characters interact with it and within it differently.

I'm not sure how a project based on the form of the Dining Room might pan out. But I think that by now, I can claim a good ability to recognize interesting ideas and premises and forms when I see them, and this--a series of vignettes, differing in time and subject, centering on a location that transcends reality to become archetype--has, as a real estate agent might declare, potential.

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