Act Natural

What does it mean to "write from the heart"?

I.

Every sensitive teenager thinks that one day, they’ll show the world what’s truly in their heart, and then they’ll all understand. I know I did.

I was a theatre kid, so that was the medium I thought in. And at the time, I was enamored with naturalism. When I saw a play that reflected something in the world, and it was something I’d never thought of before, I thought — yes! This is it! I thought if we could just write naturally enough, we could solve everything.

For example, one of my favorite passages was this exchange, from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street:

FATHER LUX. … So, how long since your last confession?
ROOFTOP. My last confession?
FATHER LUX. Yes.
ROOFTOP. The last one?
FATHER LUX. Yes.
ROOFTOP. You mean in a church?
FATHER LUX. Yes. In a church.
ROOFTOP. Right. Well … last one been … well … it’s been … Know what I’m sayin? It’s been been. Definitely been been.

I loved it! By stripping away the fanciful conventions of other plays, and showing people just talking naturally, he was peeling back a layer of convention to reveal something true about people. And the audience responded to that.

I liked Guirgis’ other plays, too, especially The Motherfucker with the Hat, but above all contemporary playwrights, my friends and I loved Annie Baker. She pushed naturalism to a new level. Audiences famously walked out of her play The Flick (which would later win the Pulitzer) because of its slow start and long, awkward pauses between the characters. That was crazy to me — those same long, awkward pauses felt more true to life than anything I’d seen on the stage. It was literally a religious experience for me. I think I said to someone after the show: “I feel like God made me to be happy.”

Of course, we also loved the granddaddy of modern naturalistic theatre, Anton Chekhov1. Even though his plays were 100 years old, they depicted social dynamics that were immediately recognizable. In the first act of The Seagull, one character keeps trying to tell a story about a bass opera singer who hits a low C. He clearly thinks it’s a very impressive story, but nobody else in the room cares. Details of the story aside, we’ve all seen that happen at a party, right? Someone trying to tell a story nobody else wants to hear?

In a performance class, I naturally gravitated to a monologue by Konstantin Treplev, the tortured young writer. This is from Act IV (the last) of The Seagull, after his ambitious avant garde play has failed, and he’s begun writing short stories. I know, I know, bad form to put in a massive block quote like this, but I promise it’s important2:

TREPLEV. I’ve talked so much about new forms, and now it feels as if, little by little, I’ve fallen into the same kind of rut. (reads his manuscript) “The banner on the fence heralded… Her pale face, framed by raven hair…” Heralded. Framed. It’s all so hackneyed. (crossing out something) We’ll start with the hero, when he gets woken up by the sound of the rain, and throw out the rest. This description of the moonlit night is really long and rambling.

Trigorin3 already has all of his little tricks, it’s easy for him. He just pulls out “the broken bottle neck, glinting on top of the dam, as the shadow-dark water turned the wheel of the mill” — and there’s his moonlit night. Of course, I have my trembling, pale light and the soft glitter of stars, and the sound of distant piano dying quietly on the fragrant air. It’s excruciating. (pause)

Yes, more and more I’m convinced that it’s not about new forms or old forms, but what someone writes. What he writes, not its form, what flows freely from his heart.

I took this totally at face value, as my ethos. Just let it flow, baby!

Hey, I could’ve picked worse. I’d still agree with much of what Konstantin says. For instance, I’d still say that cliché is bad specifically because it builds into a world of self-reference, and no longer points to anything outside the work of fiction.

But reading this monologue as a positive ethos seems…incomplete. Because at the end of Act IV, a few minutes later, Konstantin meticulously tears up all his writing and shoots himself.

So if this monologue isn’t a mission statement, what is it?

II.

I don’t mean to say that naturalism is bad. Actually, it offers great solutions to the problems that many contemporary plays fall into.

In 2014, my first fall after college, I saw Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Aurora in Berkeley. Like a lot of bad plays, it seems to have originated from the idea of an academic debate: in this case, Betty Friedan’s second-wave feminism vs. Phyllis Schafly’s reactionary conservatism4. This debate was then transposed into the mouths of the characters.

The result is flat and unconvincing. The characters spend a lot of time talking about feminism, but the ideological conflict never embeds itself into the action of the play. The parlor-room debate feels unnatural, separate from the concrete things that the characters actually want; so we get two half-plays that happen to share a stage, neither terribly compelling. Rapture, Blister, Burn never achieves the immediacy or urgency of a play by Guirgis, Baker, or Chekhov.

Yes, naturalism has much to recommend it as a style. But the catch is that it is a style.

Susan Sontag pointed out (in “On Style,” natch) that there is no such thing as writing without style. You could write something as plain, soulless, and mechanical as possible, but even that would be a style. So you’re making a choice no matter what; the point is to make the right choice for what you want to do.

When I was younger, I thought naturalistic theatre was, one-by-one, tearing back the veils that prevented us from seeing the world as it was, and that once all the veils were gone, we’d arrive at the True Form of Honest Expression. That we were approaching some ultimate Something, step by step, by writing freely from the heart.

But looking back on the stuff I loved, I clearly see conscious style at play. The dialogue between Father Lux and Rooftop, above, is heightened in a certain way; it leads you to find a certain moment of recognition. Factually, we learn that Rooftop is ashamed at not going to church, and that he’s not a very good liar; in the way he expresses this, we’re endeared to him. But all this doesn’t somehow “just happen;” Guirgis engineered this scene to create this effect.

Likewise, after seeing Annie Baker’s The Flick three times, I’ve seen the woman behind the curtain. Behind the naturalistic dialogue, you can find the standard machinations of a constructed plot at work. Certain pieces of information are carefully set up in Act I, so they can be deployed in Act II to comedic or tragic effect. (I could swear someone had a name for that kind of thing.)

The Seagull is a play that is, in equal parts, repulsed by and irresistibly drawn toward traditional forms. Its characters try to get away from themselves, but end up falling into stock archetypes: the tortured young writer, the tortured aging writer, the pretty young ingenue, the fading grande dame. We don’t need new forms for new forms’ sake, but because without new forms, we’re stuck with the same damn old forms. Much as we might like to, we can’t go back to having no forms; the only way is forward.

To be clear, none of this is a condemnation! I still love these plays, and someday I hope I’ll corral another group of friends, and see The Flick a fourth time. The point is that none of these plays are magically siphoning out the Nectar from the Tree of Truth. Each of these playwrights saw certain things in the world, and made canny choices about how to present them in the form of a play.

Konstantin was right both ways. Great writing comes from a heartfelt observation, but a new recognition is provoked by the shock of a new form.

III.

Maybe you don’t write, or go to the theatre — which is a shame, if you don’t — but you should care about this anyway, if only because these same truths apply to everyday forms of communication, too. You cannot achieve some pure, direct transmission of your feelings. And if you can’t let go of that idea, you will hurt people.

I often see people, usually but not always younger people, try to dump their thoughts out onto the Internet. If they’re like teenage me, they hope (consciously or subconsciously) that if they dump their thoughts out in a pure enough form, that other people will just get it, that they’ll finally be accepted. This attitude isn’t all wrong; vulnerability has its virtues. But vulnerability also has its limitations.

When I was a teenager, I frequently told a particular embarrassing story about an unpleasant sexual experience I’d had. I was younger than most of my peers, and I found it hard to fit in. Telling this story made people like me. I usually told it at parties, but once, I told it to a room of maybe one hundred people, most of whom were strangers to me. They laughed, even though they didn’t know me; I wonder now whether it was out of politeness, or discomfort. The first time I told the story, when it surprised me too, it might have been genuinely funny. By that time, it was something I did to get a reaction.

Despite all this vulnerability, I wasn’t really a good person. I would often miss social signals from my friends, sometimes because I didn’t know better, and sometimes because I wasn’t paying attention. Sometimes I offended people, badly. But I didn’t know how to take responsibility for that. The only thing I knew how to do was act more vulnerable.

My vulnerability was a style. It wasn’t the “real me.” It was a technique I’d developed to interface between me and a world that was difficult for me. This technique was great at expressing some things. It was very bad at dealing with others.

So.

The bad news, first: nobody will ever know you in a direct, unmediated way. The teenage dream is dead. You can still be mad about it, if you like. I know I always will be, a little bit.

The good news: you can act however you want. There are a lot of archetypes out there, and even if you don’t want to play straight to type, you can mix and match. Yeah, even an artisanal blend of archetypes is just an approximation. But the experimentation is the fun of it.

And there are still moments of grace. You’ll find sometimes, there’s this thing that you really want your friend to get; and you reach for a particular mode, and you think, how am I going to explain this, and just when you start, suddenly, your friend is laughing. Because she already knows.

1

Probably not coincidentally, Annie Baker’s works include an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

2

This from the Curt Columbus translation, which is still the best I’ve seen.

3

An older, successful writer, and romantic rival to Konstantin.

4

If you think this is a silly debate to relitigate in 2014, I don’t disagree with you. But there’s some aspect of human nature that makes these conservative attitudes compelling, especially when it’s your life on the line and not just a theoretical discussion. A better version of Rapture, Blister, Burn would make the audience feel that.