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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 acquired a devoted following, with tattered photocopies circulating in literary offices and 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 "EF's Visit to a Small Planet," an essay that widens our perception of dramatic worlds. Like good plays, it grows more meaningful with each reading.
The following walk through dramatic structure is a teaching tool. For the past several years I have used it at the Yale School of Drama as an entry to Reading Theater, a critical writing course for students in the MFA Dramaturgy Program.
The "Questions" below are in part designed to forestall the immediate (and crippling) leap to character and normative psychology that underwrites much dramatic criticism. Aside from that corrective bias, the approach offered here is not a "system" intended to replace other approaches to play analysis; I often use it together with Aristotle's unparalleled insight into plot structure. Rather, it could be thought of as a template for the critical imagination.
In a fine article on Hedda Gabler, Philip E. Larson described the nature of "a genuine performance criticism." If criticism "is unwilling to rest content with the evaluation of ephemera," he wrote, "[it] must attempt to describe a potential object, one that neither the dramatist, the critics, nor the reader has ever seen, or will see."1 These "Questions" are intended to light up some of the dark matter in dramatic worlds, to illuminate the potentialities Larson points to. No matter what answers come, the very act of questioning makes an essential contribution to the enterprise of criticism.
We must make the assumption that in the world of the play there are no accidents. Nothing occurs "by chance," not even chance. In that case, nothing in the play is without significance. Correspondingly, the play asks us to focus upon it a total awareness, to bring our attention and curiosity without the censorship of selective interpretation, "good taste," or "correct form." Before making judgments, we must ask questions. This is the deepest meaning of the idea, often-repeated but little understood, that the study of art shows us how to live.
I. The World of the Play: First Things First
A play is not a flat work of literature, not a description in poetry of another world, but is in itself another world passing before you in time and space. Language is only one part of this world. Those who think too exclusively in terms of language find it hard to read plays. When you "see" this other world, when you experience its space-time dynamics, its architectonics, then you can figure out the role of language in it.
If too 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 dramatic structures narrowly in terms of characters 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 "world of the play." Still squinting, ask about...