Speculations On Wellman, Part Two

All plots are not stories. All stories are not plots.

For writers this point may be obvious, but in truth most audiences treat story and plot as if they were one and the same.  The plot is the series of actions (and its structure) by which a story is communicated.  Story exists near to the realm of idea.  Plot is made of bone and earth.  To get a gross idea of the distinction, imagine asking a friend who has just seen a movie, “what was it about?” Although your friend may sprinkle her response with bits of plot (“there’s a nuclear warhead that’s gone missing…”), chances are you will also hear general thematic notes (“it’s kind of about military insanity and government corruption…”) and eventually narrow to something starting to resemble a story (“one person fights the enormous, implacable forces bent on war”).  By contrast, imagine asking your friend “what happened in the movie?”  There, you are likely to get an answer framed in terms of plot.
The ARISTOTELIAN is the story unfolded as plot.
For the vast majority of narrative drama, which Wellman defines as Aristotelian, story and plot are profoundly connected, leading naturally to the confusion mentioned above.  The story is, effectively, the what of the script, while the plot is the how.
The STRANGE is the story perpendicular to the ARISTOTELIAN which unfolds in phase-space, not in time, and hence cannot be told in terms of plot.
Here Wellman introduces a new and important term: strange.  Strange is story.  There is still a what – an important fact to bear in mind when you feel lost in the weeds of an experimental play.  But because this is story in phase-space (which we have established is a continuum defined by infinite possibility and relativity), the how cannot be formulated in a linear, one-to-one relation to the what.  In phase-space, plot is not a sufficient how.  The answer to “what happened?” may be harder to describe for a friend.
So; STRANGENESS is what fills Apparence; and, thus, is what keeps us there, where we find ourselves. CHARM is what draws us in; and, thus, is what is there when nothing else is.
Strangeness, the quality of truly theatrical story, is what permeates the experience of the play (recall from Day One what Wellman means by theatrical).  To return to Bachelard and design: strangeness is both an identifiable aspect of the space we find ourselves in and it is the nature of our contact with that space.  An event on stage may have strangeness, but strangeness is also, and more importantly, our interaction with that event.
Charm is a deceptive new term.  Wellman describes it as working in tandem with the Strange.  Here he says charm “is what draws us in”.  One is tempted to ask what differentiates charm from a hook?  The impression Wellman gives here is that Charm exists primarily as a lure, drawing the audience toward the main attraction. What he appears to be saying is simply that a play needs to grab an audience.  Not exactly a novel proposition.
The charm of using the word charm is that it allows Wellman to define his hooks broadly.  A hook need not be immediately accessible or conventional – though he does not deny, for the moment at least, that it may be.  It need only capture the spectator’s attention.  And, like the Strange, Charm is not confined to one event on-stage.  It exists throughout the experience as the attractive, magnetic force.
David Lynch.  Photograph by Nadav Kander.
Allow a further metaphor on Bachelard and designed space.  You walk along a street until you see a house.  Ordinarily you might pass it, but the house has a certain character on its surface – an eccentric sash of ivy – that compels you to walk towards it.  This is Charm.  Furthermore the door is open and a light is on. This, too, is a kind of Charm.  Once you are inside, you notice the space is giving you a certain feeling.  On inspection, you find that each of the physical objects of the house – the shelves, the sconces, the doorknobs and doorways – possess a quality somehow indescribably related to that feeling, and that your interaction with these objects and your broad sense of the space are reinforcing one another, strengthening that initial feeling.  The feeling is thicker, more complex than the compulsion you felt on seeing the ivy outside, but without the ivy you would never have come in.
In modern drama, the Strange is often challenging and (at least initially) unclear. It needs Charm to support it.  Charm can also give it shape and, through differentiation, meaning.  I think of the ghastly subconscious images in David Lynch that could not work except in his quotidian frames (the comparison is a bit unfair because in Lynch’s case the juxtaposition is the point).
These two forces (Strangeness and Charm) complete and amplify theater beyond the tragic (impossible in our time) and the Comic (now mostly a musty relic of obviousness, obvious incongruity, the Already known [perfected] humor of the GEEZER.
I’ll leave tragic alone for now and pause only to unpack what Wellman says about the Comic.  In looking at the state of modern comedy, he finds all the jokes old, played, predetermined.  We are telling ourselves facts we have all long known. Most gags, underneath a veneer of re-arranged syllables or re-costumed characters, are echoes of old verities.  1+1=2. Though Wellman’s claim here is not especially bold – few would argue that even the very good sitcoms of today are not recycling the forms of old jokes, filling them with enough new material to elicit momentary surprise – his apparent intention to leave this behind is quite radical.
Try to think of something funny that is not a variation on a standard set-up.  Try to imagine a comedic play that does not take advantage of the confusions, lies, exaggerations, and reversals handed down to us since at least the Renaissance.  If Wellman wants a comedy to transcend old forms, he will have to look very far indeed.
Possibly Wellman does not mean to do away with all modern comedy.  Maybe, in talking of a “musty relic of obviousness” he only means the kind of safe, warmed-over light comedies that crowd community theatre stages every year (I’ll stop shy of calling out individual playwrights).  But if that’s the case, his argument has soft, nubbly teeth.  It hardly bears mentioning.  And what do we make of the role of Strangeness and Charm?  Surely it takes less than a revolution to transcend the Neil Simon’s ambitionless descendants.
The theater of the Already Known is Sentimental Melodrama, which is also Geezer Theatre. (Wellman)
I’d drop a chalk mark here as the place Wellman names his enemy and throws the gauntlet.
*Sidebar: whether you find Wellman insufferably pretentious or delightfully erudite, can we agree that he’s not doing himself any favors by quoting himself?
A good percentage of Speculations will be spent railing against Geezer Theatre and the Already Known.  And Wellman sorts the vast majority of theatre under these classifications.  That is why I called attention to Wellman’s previous dismissal of modern comedy.  As we go further, we’re going to find that he’s staking out quite a radical position, and we, as readers, have to decide how attractive or tenable it is.
To get where Wellman wants to go in theatre will mean abandoning much of what has come before and much of what exists now.  As I stated at the outset, it is my goal to approach Speculations from an advocatory standpoint.  My initial reaction, however, to this thread of the work, is that Wellman underestimates and ignores a great deal of worth in his haste to define a new theatre.
I’ll hold here for now.  Coming up next is a nasty stretch in which we finally (maybe) come to understand what Wellman means by apparance.
Hang tight.
Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager