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Screens, Closets, and Echo-Chambers of the Mind: The Struggle to Represent the Inner Life on Stage

From: Forum Modernes Theater
Volume 25, Number 2, 2010
pp. 65-80 | 10.1353/fmt.2010.0015

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In the following pages, I will examine the intersection between closet drama and monodrama. While these two forms each have their own discrete and unique histories and characteristics, there is, in several conceptual regards, significant overlap between them. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, growing fascination with subjectivity, interiority, and the life of the mind opened the doors to experimentation with new forms of drama that attempted to capture psychical experience in dramatic form. The authors of these experiments continually found themselves facing the same dilemma. On the one hand, they could subject their work to the physical limitations and collaborative nature of the stage, where the contributions of designers and actors, with their very presence and their own creativity might serve to diffuse the author’s singular vision, even as it renders a vision so complete and fixed as to limit the spectator’s ability to play an active creative role in that vision. Conversely, the author might choose to limit their dramatic visions to the non-physical (and therefore boundless) world of the page, allowing it to unfold in the imagination of the reader, and thus form a more direct link between the vision created in the author’s mind and that formed in the course of reading. This article traces the historical background of this conundrum, as well as the theoretical concerns with which it is intertwined.

Nikolai Evreinov and Monodrama

In 1908, Russian author and director Nikolai Evreinov gave a lecture entitled “Introduction to Monodrama” at the Circle of Art and Literature in Moscow. Evreinov’s theory of a dramatic world structured around the inner experience of a single protagonist was not wholly novel, but he was the first to fully articulate a theory for the form. Evreinov defined monodrama as a “kind of dramatic presentation which, while attempting to communicate to the spectator as fully as it can the active participant’s state of mind, displays the world around him on stage just as the active participant perceives the world at any given moment of his existence on stage.” Essentially, Evreinov sought to convey the subjective experience of a strong central protagonist with such power and immediacy as to evoke in the spectator the illusion that he or she has merged with that protagonist, sharing fully in the experience depicted. To achieve this goal, efforts are required of both the playwright and the director/designer. The playwright is called upon to structure his or her play so as to reflect the internal psychical experience of a single protagonist. If the playwright successfully conveys through the text and plot this experience of interiority, it then becomes the job of the director and designer to create a mise-en-scène that approximates the protagonist’s perceptual experience, as Evreinov notes, “The basic principle of monodrama is the principle of the stage representation’s coalescence with the active participant’s representation. In other words, the external spectacle must be an expression of the internal spectacle” (191). If these efforts are successful, then, more than just empathising with the character, “the spectator ‘co-experiences’ along with the active participants” (184). Indeed, Evreinov concludes, “To induce the illusion in the spectator that he is turning into the participant is the chief task of monodrama” (191).

At the heart of Evreinov’s theory is an intriguing, and quite possibly insurmountable paradox. Evreinov notes:

Any psychologist takes it to be elementary that the world around us inevitably undergoes transmutations, due to sense impressions; and the notion that the object of an impression inherently is what it in fact borrows from the subject of an impression is not an exclusively psychological phenomenon. All our sensory activity undergoes the process of projecting purely subjective transmutations onto an extrinsic object. [. . .]

The world around us borrows, as it were, its character from the subjective, individual ‘ego.’ [. . .] And it is modified as we modify, as our mental mood alters: the cheerful glen, the cornfield and the forest that I admire as I sit carefree with my beloved will become nothing more than a bright green patch, yellow stripes and a dark border, if at that moment I am brought news of a misfortune...

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