photo by Joe Mazza and Brave Lux

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Confusing to Be? or, Analzing Code Name: Astrea

Let’s talk about Code Name: Astrea.

Basically it’s a play trying to do too much in too few pages. The fundamental conflict I tried to set up was between Aphra Behn and the narrator (The Man), who turns out to be Harold Bloom. Since Behn his often held up as a woman able to make her own way through life and the first female professional writer, I wanted to point out that male critics, like Bloom, who degrade her and her talent are in essence telling her story. In other words: who gets to author Aphra Behn’s life?

I thought doing this in the form of a movie trailer detailing the more intriguing parts of Behn’s history would be an amusing way to get this idea across to an audience. However, Behn’s life involved far more than I should have tried to pack into four pages. Her marriage—if it existed—and her husband’s death; her bisexuality; her loyalty to King Charles II; her service to him as a spy; his refusing to pay her; her time in debtors’ prison; an anonymous sponsor paying her debts; her writing career; her death; and her reception by modern critics. It almost takes a page to write the synopsis, but I thought I could write a four-page play to encapsulate it! I think the meaning was unclear to most people. However, the audience was certainly amused; they laughed throughout, and most spectators were 18-22 year old undergrads with no knowledge of theatre history. So something about this worked. I’ll argue it was the form as much as the content.

It may be difficult to picture—reading plays is certainly its particular skill—but the image of a woman at a table writing, a sheet held up between two people, and a narrator on the other side of the sheet from the woman’s table, created a dynamic playing space. The sheet read as a continually shifting scenic element: first a screen for the movie, then a stage object like what’s used to hide puppeteers, a sheet on a bed, and finally a death shroud. With the exception of the death shroud, all these changes occurred without the sheet moving. The perception shifts were solely in the spectators’ minds. I was very pleased with this, and I think it speaks more to the Kantor influence of my background than the realist education.

Another aspect of the play that worked better in production than on the page was Behn’s struggle for control with The Man. Every time she attempted to wrest control away from the narrator, she wrote in a composition book. This tied her writing and her ability to control the discourse of her life together nicely. It may have been a literal metaphor since I ultimately hoped to write about Behn’s writing, but it functioned well, and it was clear that she lost power to The Man when he took her book at the end.

Making Charles II and the Dutch Prince ridiculous through the cardboard crown and an outlandish accent, and using the same actor to play both, also kept the audience engaged. Behn was played much more straight—the most realistic actor in the piece—which made the cartoonish King and Prince seem like dual sides of the patriarchal powers of Europe in the 1670s.

Finally, the end of the play was very clear. Even for those who did not know Harold Bloom, the character’s literary politics and his dismissal of Behn were read as I hoped by the audience. The image of her and her writing table being covered by a sheet made a striking, if perhaps cliché, picture of Behn being dead or perhaps an antique of furniture.

Least clear was the relationship between Behn and the Young Woman. I doubt most of the audience understood they were lovers. My actors did not at the beginning of rehearsal, and I realized then there wasn’t enough in the text to make it clear, but my piece was already too long. I have since rewritten it with more text between Behn and the Young Woman and I believe the new script works much better. It’s still probably more information packed into a short script than is ideal, but it brings up a question:

Is it a problem if an audience does not get everything from a script as long as it is engaging and hangs together?

Obviously one does not understand Shakespeare or Beckett the first time through, so need new writers hold themselves to a standard of writing simply enough for audiences to get everything? My rhetoric here, clearly, points towards my answer. Alas, I am not Shakespeare, but had I his talents I would not want to waste them “being clear.”

Ultimately I like the humor of this piece, the use of the sheet, and the fact that it is very much “in the moment,” i.e., the characters, though talking about history, are very focused on goals in the moment of the narrative. I think its main weakness is that it’s too short and, perhaps, too confusing. If anyone would like to see the longer, rewritten version, simply request it in the comments and I’ll post it.

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