by E Fuchs · Cited by 87 — Elinor Fuchs. EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play. Since its origination as a classroom tool in the early 1990s, Elinor Fuchs’s essay has.

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Elinor Fuchs EFÕs Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play Since its origination as a classroom tool in the early 1990s, Elinor FuchsÕs essay hasacquired a devoted following, with tattered photocopies circulating in literary o cesand university departments. More recently it has inspired discussions in Internet chat rooms and garnered citations in scholarly journals, despite remaining unavailable to a broad readership. The time has come to publish ÒEFÕs Visit to a Small Planet,Ó an essay that widens our perception ofdramatic worlds. Like good plays, it grows more mean- ingful with each reading. The following walk through dramatic structure is a teaching tool. For the past severalyears I have used it at the Yale School ofDrama as an entry to Reading Theater, a crit- ical writing course for students in the MFA Dramaturgy Program.The ÒQuestionsÓ below are in part designed to forestall the immediate (and crip-pling) leap to character and normative psychology that underwrites much dramatic criticism. Aside from that corrective bias, the approach oered here is not a ÒsystemÓintended to replace other approaches to play analysis; I often use it together with Aris- totleÕs unparalleled insight into plot structure. Rather, it could be thought ofas a tem- plate for the critical imagination.In a Þne article on , Philip E. Larson described the nature ofÒa genuine performance criticism.Ó Ifcriticism Òis unwilling to rest content with the eval- uation ofephemera,Ó he wrote, Ò[it] must attempt to describe a potential object, one that neither the dramatist, the critics, nor the reader has ever seen, or will see.Ó 1TheseÒQuestionsÓ are intended to light up some ofthe dark matter in dramatic worlds, to illuminate the potentialities Larson points to. No matter what answers come, the very act ofquestioning makes an essential contribution to the enterprise ofcriticism. Ñ5

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I.The World of the Play:First Things First A play is not a ßat work ofliterature, not a description in poetry ofanother world, but is in itselfanother world passing before you in time and space. Language is only one part ofthis world. Those who think too exclusively in terms oflanguage Þnd it hard to read plays. When you ÒseeÓ this other world, when you experience its space-time dynamics, its architectonics, then you can Þgure out the role oflanguage in it. Iftoo tight a focus on language makes it hard to read plays, too tight a focus on character creates the opposite problem: it makes the reading too easy. To look at dra- matic structures narrowly in terms ofcharacters risks unproblematically collapsing this strange world into our own world. The stage world never obeys the same rules as ours, because in its world, nothing else is possible besides what is there: no one else lives there; no other geography is available; no alternative actions can be taken.To see this entire world, do this literally: Mold the play into a medium-sized ball, set it before you in the middle distance, and squint your eyes. Make the ball small enough that you can see the entire planet, not so small that you lose detail, and not so large that detail overwhelms the whole. Before you is the Òworld ofthe play.Ó Still squinting, ask about the space. What is space like on this planet? Interior or exterior, built or natural? Is space here conÞned or wide open? Do you see a long passage with many ÒstationsÓ? Do you see a landscape ofvalleys and mountains? Sea and land? Are we on an island? In a cave? In a desert or a jungle? On a country road?Now ask about the time. How does time behave on this planet? Does Òtimestand stillÓ? Is time frantic and staccato on this planet? Is it leisurely, easy-going time? How is time marked on this planet? By clock? By the sun? By the sound offootsteps? What kind oftime are we in? Cyclical time? Eternal time? Linear time? What kind of line? One day? One lifetime? Ask about the climate on this planet. Do we have storms? Eclipses ofthe sun and moon? Do we have extreme heat? Paralyzing cold? Is the environment on this planet lush and abundant, sere and life-denying, airless and suocating? What is theseasonal ÒfeelÓ ofthis world? Autumnal? Wintry? What is the mood on this planet? Jolly? Serious? Sad? Ironic? Sepulchral? Themood is not just a question ofplot (comedies are Òhappy,Ó etc.), ÒtoneÓ also contributes to mood. What is the tone ofthis planet? Delicate or coarse? Cerebral or passionate? Restrained or violent? How are mood and tone created on this planet? Through music? Light, sound, color, shape? What shapes? Curves? Angles?fuchs6

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Remember, you canÕt just decide the planet is wintry or dark because you think itwould look more interesting in snow or smog, at least not yet. Make sure youÕre alert to whatÕs there; there should be actual evidence on the planet for what you report. YouÕre not done. In most dramatic worlds there are hidden, or at least unseen, spaces. Ask questions about them as well. What are their characteristics ofspace, time, tone, and mood? How do they relate to the represented world, the world you can see?Finally, while youÕre looking at this planet, listen to its Òmusic.Ó Every dramatic world will have, or suggest, characteristic soundsÑofmourning, celebration, chil- drenÕs patter, incantation. It will alternate sounds ofhuman and landscape, or sound and silence. Listen for the pattern ofthe sound. II.The Social World of the Play:A Closer Look You are still not ready to examine the beings who inhabit this world. Before you inquire into their individual traits and motives, there are other things you need to know.Keep squinting at the planet. Is this a public world, or private? What are its classrules? Aristocratic? Popular? Mixed?In what kinds ofpatterns do the Þgures on this planet arrange themselves? Do you see groups in action, isolated individuals, both? Is there a single central Þgure, sur- rounded by a group? Are Þgures matched oin conßicting pairs? Are you seeing (andfeeling) the tension ofinterlocking triangles? How do Þgures appear on this planet? Are they inward or two-dimensional?Subtle? Exaggerated? Are they like puppets? Like clowns? Like you? (Are you sure?)How do Þgures dress on this planet? In rags, in gowns, in cardboard cutouts?Like us? (Are you sure?)How do Þgures interact? By Þghting? Reasoned discussion? Who has power on this planet? How is it achieved? Over whom is it exercised?To what ends is it exercised? What are the language habits on this planet? Verse or prose, dialogue or mono- logue, certainly. But also, what kinds oflanguage predominateÑofthoughts or of feelings? And what kinds offeelings? Is language colorful or ßat, clipped or ßowing, metaphorical or logical? Exuberant or deliberate? And what about silences?III.What Changes? You have gotten a feel for this world. Now look at it dynamically, because it moves in time. Within the ÒrulesÓ ofits operation, nothing stays the same. What changes in this world?Look at the Þrst image. Now look at the last. Then locate some striking imagenear the center ofthe play (the empty box in KydÕs is a goodexample). To give an account ofdestiny on this planet range over these three markers. Why was it essential to pass through the gate ofthe central image to get from the Þrst to the last?efÕs visit to a small planet 7

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What changes in the landscape ofthis world? Does it move from inside to out- side? From valleys to mountains? From town to wilderness?What changes in time? Does time move from dusk to night? Night to dawn?Morning to midnight? Through four seasons ofa year? Through the stages ofa human life? Or the stages ofeternal life, from Creation to Last Judgment? What changes in language? In tone, mood, dress? All ofthe changes you discover will ofcourse contribute to and reßect on char- acter, but each trajectory should be seen as a signifying system on its own.What changes in the action? Have we moved from confusion to wedding (thebasic plot ofromantic comedy)? From threat to peaceful celebration (the basic plot of [traditional] tragicomedy)? From threat to disaster (the basic plot oftragedy)? From suering to rebirth (the plot ofthe Passion play)? From threat to dual outcome, su er-ing for evil persons and vindication for good (the basic plot ofmelodrama)? What doesnÕt change? Is there a stable or Þxed point in this world? An absolutereality? God? The grave? Squint one last time. Putting together space, time, the natural world and thesocial world, elements that change and those that donÕt, you are discovering the Òmyth.Ó Plays are full ofarchetypal placesÑcastles, gardens, forests, roads, islands, green worlds, dream worlds, storms, night scenes, and on and on. Ifthe play starts in a palace, goes on to a moonlit forest, and returns to the palace the next day or night (which is it? day or night?), what does that progression tell you? How is the Þnal palace scene condi- tioned by the night journey into the forest? Is the world ofthe play at the end ofthe play a transformed world? Or is it the same world returned to Ònormal,Ó with minor adjustments? Worlds stand or fall on your answer. 8Diagram ofthe circles ofthe sphere, refraction, and parallax. Illustration: Sir Robert Stawell Ball

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IV.DonÕt Forget Yourself Seeking what changes, donÕt forget to ask what changes in you, the imaginer ofworlds. Ask, what has this world demanded ofme? Does it ask me for pity and fear? Does it ask me to reason? To physically participate in the action on the stage? Does it ask me to interact with other spectators? To leave the theater and take political action? To search my ethical being to the core? Maybe this world means only to entertain me, why not? But how does it make this intention known?V.Theatrical Mirrors Important as these internal systems are, dramatic worlds donÕt just speak to and withinthemselves; they also speak to each other. How many performances are signaling to you from inside this world? How many echoes ofother dramatic worlds do they sug- gest? How do these additional layers oftheatricality comment on what you have already discovered?VI.The Character Fits the Pattern Only now are you really ready to examine the Þgures who inhabit this world. Every assumption you make about a character must reßect the conditions ofits world, including the way psychology functions in that world. You can arrive at the most inter- esting version ofany question about character by Þrst exploring the features ofher theatrical planet. Characters only as they inhabit, enact, fulÞll, engage a succes-sion ofsites, actions, and objects under a speciÞc set ofconditions. They are constituents ofa complex artistic pattern. Find the pattern Þrst! Warning: DonÕt permit yourselfto construct a pattern that omits Òsingularities,Ó puzzling events, objects, Þgures, or scenes that Òdo not Þt.Ó Remember, there is noth- ing in the world ofa play by accident. . Assume that thedramatic world is entirely conscious, determinate, limited. Give an account ofthat world that attempts to consider the role ofevery element in that worldÑvisual, aural, temporal, tonal, Þgural. Become curious as each element is revealed as a player in the play. . Ofcourse you can construct meaning in this world in many di erent ways. Con-struct it in the most inclusive way you can. There will still be more to see.Note1. Philip E. Larson, ÒFrench Farce Conventions and the Mythic Story Pattern in : A Performance Criticism,Ó in (Oslo:Universitetsforlaget AS, 1985), 202.efÕs visit to a small planet 9

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