the American Repertory Theater in Boston, and it reminded me of a writing issue that
arises in books I read and plays I see. The play, by Eve Ensler of The
Vagina Monologues fame, is described as a comedy, and
there were many funny moments of satire (most notably parodies of Oprah and
Barbara Walters). The primary messages, though, are dark indeed. I won’t go
into the plot further except to say that it was a struggle between two of the
characters that repeated in variations. The other characters were what-I-call
serving characters, or foils. The vast majority of the dialogue is a polemic
spouted by the main character regarding atrocities wrought by humans: global
warming, poverty, sweat shops, consumption, trash, and pollution. The play was,
in many ways, brilliant and meaningful, and had much to recommend it. However,
by the time I hit the 40 minute mark of the three hour play, I was jaded and
bored. As my husband put it, “This play feels like someone is jackhammering in
obsession with one thing. In the literary context, this is when the writer
fixates on one plotline, or character, or theme, shrinking the world of the
book. Think about it. How many YA books have you read that revolve around only
the main character’s concerns, or where the dialogue reflects only the bottom
line of the plot, or theme.
Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clarify that it is the writer’s monomania
that is the issue, their compressed vision. Chekhov was a playwright who wrote
about characters with monomania. There are characters obsessed
with billiards, the past, birds, philosophy, utopia, lovers, the trees. But Chekhov’s concerns
were vast and filtered through every nuance of the dialogue. Chekhov’s plays
are brilliant in the characters’ mental wanderings, and the metastory. Here is
Nina in a play within the play of The Seagull: “Men and lions,
eagles and partridges, antlered deer, geese, spiders, the silent fishes
dwelling in the water, star-fish and tiny creatures invisible to the eye–these
and every form of life, ay, every form of life, have ended their melancholy
round and become extinct. . .” (Chekhov). The characters’ interests carry the
script to far-flung ideas. And in Chekhov, there is no such thing as a serving character.
Each one is fully developed in their own life purpose and plot line, as we all
are. A classic example from The Cherry Orchard is Fiers,
literally a serving character—a faithful servant, but, figuratively, the most
important symbol at the heart of the play, a metaphor for the passing of Russian
aristocracy. At the end, he is forgotten by the family to whom he’s devoted his
life, locked in the house and left to die, as the cherry trees are chopped down
around him. Even so, he is worried about them. “And Leonid
Andreyevitch will have gone in a light overcoat instead of putting on his fur
character details, I begin to ask questions: Why does this character have no
memories from the past? Why don’t they have hobbies? Or music they like? What
are the quirks of the mailman who delivers each day, or the crossing guard?
What objects are in their room? What are they writing their school report
about? Is it Darwin? Is it eco-terrorism? Or Chopin? How can that play
into the piece? Why does their mother not have any plot of her own, or
memories, or a career? Who is shoveling the snow outside? Who is the mayor of
the town? What is going on politically? What is the story behind the statue in
the town square?
message, or plot, or one character (who is coincidentally a lot like us), we
might consider looking out the window; or reading a magazine about birds; or
talking to some strangers on a city bus. We might ask our neighbor for their
stories and listen for a long, long time.
Kelly Easton's novels have won many awards, among them, the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award, the ASTAL Middle School Book of the Year Award, NYPL Book For the Teen Age, Kentucky Bluegrass Masterlist (Hiroshima Dreams); an ALA Quick Pick listing, and nomination for the ABE award, 2010 (Aftershock); Atlanta parents Best Book, and NYPL Book for the Teen Age (White Magic); a Boston Author’s Club Award, Westcherster’s Choice Best Book, CCBC Best Books selection (Walking on Air); and a Golden Kite Honor, Booksense Top Ten (The Life History of a Star). Her newest book, The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes, is a Jr. Library Guild selection.
Kelly Easton is retired from the MFAC faculty.