Sunday, July 15, 2012

Spectacle vs. Character in War Horse

War Horse -- Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo's novel.
A basic question in studying literature is this: Do readers and audiences follow a narrative for the plot or for the characters?  That is, do we read a story or watch a play in order to enjoy the unfolding of events or the intrigue of human personalities?

Of course, we follow narratives for a mixture of both.  It would be hard to have interesting events taking place without interesting people involved in them.  It would be hard to have interesting people without interesting events that reveal their personalities and relationships.  Henry James describes this interaction most famously in his essay "The Art of Fiction": "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"

An example of character-over-incident is the TV series Psych.  The mystery solved each week is perhaps the least interesting thing about the show.  I watch because I want to see the interaction of the characters.  I want to experience the quirky relationship between our heroes, Shawn and Gus.  Similarly, does anyone watch a rerun of Monk because the storyline is intriguing?  Or do we watch spend some time with Tony Shaloub's character?  This is especially illustrated when discussing reruns.  We know who the guilty party is -- there is no mystery -- so why watch?  Because we like the characters.

Jose Ortega y Gossett discussed this phenomenon in an essay on the development of the novel -- "But soon adventures by themselves lose attraction, and what then pleases is not so much the fortunes of the personages as their self-presence.  We enjoy seeing those people before us and being admitted to their inner life, understanding them, and living immersed in their world or atmosphere."

One can see some of this in the summer's biggest movie, Marvel's The Avengers.  Reviews of the film consistently praised the interaction of the characters and their development rather than the spectacle of its special effects.  When I saw it, I grew impatient with the extended battle sequences.  I wanted the film to get back to the personaities, to, for example, the bickering between Captain America (good cop) and Iron Man (bad cop).

This events-or-character issue came to mind when I recently saw the stage production of War Horse in Los Angeles and found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the show.  I was impressed with the puppetry, and I enjoyed seeing the audience become emotionally involved with Joey the horse as if they had forgotten there were men inside the rig/costume.  However, as the play progressed I grew tired of its spectacle and wanted more from its characters.

(I had skipped the film version because I was familiar with what happened to horses in modern combat, and I didn't want to see any of that depicted realistically.)

Charging into battle.
For me the play became a series of events rather than the revelation of anyone's "inner life."  Look!  The horse is pulling a plow!  Now it is charging into battle!  Now it is jumping barbed wire!  Now it is pulling an ambulance!  Now it is pulling a cannon!  Now it is challenging a tank!  Now it is trapped in barbed wire again!

Finally I was watching with my arms crossed.  I didn't want more events.  I wanted some characters that I could get to know, through which I could experience human emotions and psychology.  I wanted to see some humans grow and change.  I didn't want to simply watch people experience the trials of love and loss and war; I wanted to experience it too, and that is done, as Ortega y Gossett and other critics have said, by allowing me into that "inner life."

In between the scenes of Joey in the war, we meet a parade of characters who enter and die rather quickly.  We do not get to know any of them well, and almost all of them are flat, including some rather important ones.  The novelist E.M. Forster is much quoted about "round and flat characters."  He defined flat characters as having just one particular quality that is repeatedly emphasized by their actions or by the narrator.  They have little in the way of complicated motivations.  He wrote, "The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising us in a convincing way.  If it never surprises, it is flat."

We do not get to know the people in War Horse largely because there is no time -- the play is too busy rushing to the next spectacle to develop its characters.

Unfortunately, this problem includes the play's human protagonist, Albert.  Granted, he takes a great risk in going to war to find his beloved horse, but the play does not explore more about the nature of that bond.  He runs about the battlefields talking about his horse and how determined he is find it.  Yet he starts the play as the somewhat whiny 16-year-old son of an overbearing father and doesn't change much by the end of it -- despite the passage of four years and a world war.

But I seemed to have been alone in my unhappiness with the play.  My audience gave the cast a standing ovation.  They enjoyed the parade of spectacle, and I am not criticizing them for their enjoyment -- even Forster says flat characters can be quite effective.  The audience members seemed satisfied that sentiments were depicted for us rather than recreated for us.  For me, that is a key difference between events and character.  Events can show me the appearance of sentiments (love, hate, sorrow, grief, joy, etc.), but it is through character that I can experience those sentiments myself.

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