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  • On the Science of Dramatic Character
  • William Storm (bio)

The aesthetic representation of character becomes problematic when disparities are marked between that which is imitated and the imitation itself—that is, between the human subject and its artful depiction in literary narrative or drama. Yet such disparities always exist, and are innate, if only because fictional characters are necessarily incomplete by comparison with their models in life. This is perhaps especially the case in theater, where the circumstances of a character's life must be communicated in all of their pertinence in the span of two or three hours only. Indeed, the intrinsic problem of accuracy, or congruency, in characterization can be highlighted by specific differences that exist between the representation of character in the theater and in narrative fiction. In each instance, in play or novel, an author may be exacting in the effort to create verisimilitude in whatever context applies, realist or otherwise. And yet, a basic question continues to exist, more so for theorists than readers or theater attendees, concerning the degree to which the artistic depiction of character delivers a "real" person to the eye or imagination or if such imitation is no more than a sleight of hand, a clever trick that dupes us into believing that we are apprehending people such as ourselves, when in fact the images that we see or imagine are prompted from nothing more than words on the page of a novel or in a script.

While a great deal has been said by way of teasing out the complexities of this issue, it remains a good subject and one that is unlikely to be exhausted any time soon, especially as long as differences abide between theatrical and narrative character depiction—and gratefully they will. The differences are, in fact, fortunate, in that the nature of theatrical or dramatic character is such that the issue of mimesis in narrative fiction, with its own corollaries regarding verisimilitude, is queried by the very existence of characters that are designed for a faithful embodiment on the stage. Moreover, when science is added into this equation, as when a theorist offers a scientific approach to dramatic storytelling or when a playwright fashions the character of a scientist or conceives of a subject or dramaturgical structure that mirrors a scientific [End Page 241] process, the issue of character depiction is tested not only by the contrast between theatrical and narrative presentation but also by the variable factor of science. This additional slant on dramatic character and situation, with its bearing on the nature, potentials, and limitations of both theatrical and narrative mimesis, provides the basis for my inquiry here.

In one sense, the science of dramatic character has an ancestry that extends to the beginnings of a literary theater in the Western tradition. From an analytic standpoint, Aristotle's stipulations regarding character in the Poetics entail both classification and systematizing, as if to define the genus and then the species, moving from generality to the specific instance.1 His strategy, consistently, is to differentiate by example and particular case, maintaining a tone of objectivity in so doing. However, scientific differentiation has hardly been the general rule when it comes to investigations of dramatic characters, which can be understood as unfixed phenomena to say the least. Here, in one example, is an alternative, subjective, unscientific, and character-centered example from Tennessee Williams: "My characters make my play. I always start with them, they take spirit and body in my mind" (72). In this case, the dramatist's perspective is utterly at odds with Aristotle's prescription—that is, with a designation of the traits or ethical inclinations necessary to a character agent's function, set in relation to a particular play's arrangement of events.2

An acquaintance of mine who is a neuroscientist and specialist in the "mechanisms of neuronal plasticity" (I quote his website) has referred in conversation to the "ingenuity of the experiment" as a key to discovery—a phrasing that concisely situates the inventive mind of a scientific investigator against the problem to be solved. There are playwrights, too, whose works might be regarded as ingenious experiments, including (among many) that latter...


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pp. 241-252
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