From The Library: Backwards And Forwards

[Originally posted 06.18.12] 

On the assumption that readers are looking for ways to dive deeper into the world of theatre and the workings of the Undermain, from time to time we’ll be posting comments on some of the theatre-related books we consume.  These will be longer than our newsletter “What We’re Reading” thumbnails, giving those interested a better view of work out there and how it bears on us as theatre artists.

 For our first featured book, I’ve chosen David Ball’s Backwards And Forwards.  Ball formerly ran the Duke drama department and taught at Carnegie-Mellon (he also acted as dramaturg to the Guthrie Theater), and his book has become a fixture in academic play analysis courses.  What Ball purports to do is clarify a method for understanding the operation of dramatic literature.

The subtitle of Backwards And Forwards is “A Technical Manual For Reading Plays”.  This is apt for several reasons.  Firstly, Ball treats plays – good plays, that is – as consciously designed machines, which must be disassembled to their constituent parts and considered on a mechanical level in order for a reader (and ideally a director) to master their workings.

 The second reason Ball’s subtitle is so appropriate is that his emphasis on the technical defines his method.  Ball finds much fault with general, loose analysis of plays, in which — to borrow his example —  Hamlet is a play about a melancholy Dane who cannot decide whether to kill his uncle.  To Ball this is sloppy dramaturgy (what proof is offered?) and a dangerous basis for production (even if it were true, what does it tell you about how the play should work?).  What Backwards And Forwards offers instead is a guide for precise reading.
Ball describes plays as a series of actions.  He divides these actions into triggers and heaps.  The image suggests a fired pistol with the resultant “heap” of a dead body, and what he means is that an initial action in a play (a trigger) will result in a second action (the heap), just as a falling domino will inevitably set some other domino into motion.  The heap itself will become the next trigger, until a plot chain resolves in a new stasis.  Plays, in Ball’s account, are nothing more than an arrangement of triggers and heaps.  Some plays trade in large external actions (Lady Macbeth learns of a prophecy, and so she decides to conspire with her husband), while others may involve highly subtle, even hidden causal chains (the language games and power grabs in Beckett, for example).  In good plays, no trigger is without a heap, no heap without a trigger.
Using Hamlet as his test case, Ball helps readers to painstakingly pry apart the actions that make up what we call “the plot” of the play.  First, this is done moving forward through the text.  A ghost appears but does not speak.  What does this cause?  Later Hamlet joins the night watch.  How does the ghost react?  Hamlet follows the ghost.  What does he find?  By such tracking, every individual moment of the play is understood in relation to others, and slowly, a cumulative understanding of more general concepts (such as theme or tone) is developed.
A novel twist in Ball’s method of analysis is to check all findings by retracing the actions of the play from the end to the beginning.  Ball advocates on later readings to start with the final heap, then find the trigger that led directly to it, moving backwards until the entire chain is established.
Backwards And Forwards is a remarkably smooth read.  Ball’s more quantitative approach to textual analysis is a refreshing antidote to the more abstruse, frequently turgid work you find in academic literature and also to the facile interpretations of plays that are common enough in conversation but deadly if put into production.  The book has its faults, however.  Chief among these is a cheerfully patronizing tone whenever Ball refers to the hypothetical naïf who was not wise enough (like you and I were) to pick up a copy of Backwards And Forwards and heed the wisdom within.  To be frank, the book occasionally smacks of academic backbiting.  Push through however, and you find a mercifully readable and dead-useful guide for serious playreading.Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager