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Theatre Topics 14.1 (2004) 375-376
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New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting.By Paul C. Castagno. New York: Routledge, 2001; pp. ix + 186. $19.95 paper.
Paul C. Castagno's New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting addressesthe gap between traditional pedagogy and contemporary practice. Castagno argues that while traditional playwriting texts "rehash" Aristotle's Poetics, prescribing rules for "correct playwriting," the "best playwrights" not only subvert these rules but invent new paradigms (1). Inspired by the work of a group of writers known collectively as the "language playwrights" or the "new playwrights," including Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Constance Congdon, Eric Overmyer, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jeffrey Jones, Paula Vogel, and Matthew Maguire, Castagno's goal is to codify the new playwriting practices into a "coherent, working aesthetic for playwrights" (ix).
New Playwriting Strategies is divided into two parts: "Strategies of Language and Character" and "Strategies of Structure and Form." At the outset, Castagno introduces the reader to a set of terms that he develops through the remainder of the book. Appropriating twentieth-century theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "dialogism," Castagno articulates the "organizing principle" of this new dramaturgy. In essence, the "dialogic play" is marked by self-referentiality. It interacts with itself "as if the various components were in dialogue with each other" (2-3). The playwright's juxtaposition of the text's multiple voices results in a "dialogic clash" that become "the stuff of the play, superceding character development or traditional conflict" (5). Unlike Castagno's "dialogic play," the "monologic play" (read traditional American realist play), expresses a single, unifying point of view, assumes an uninterrogated objective reality, and valorizes an epistemological individualism that translates into "character-specific dialogue" and requires method acting (13). In contrast, the dialogic model focuses on how language works to create reality rather than mirror it. Dialogic strategies speak to a postmodern sensibility, both in their celebration of plurality and in their challenge to an objective reality and unified self.
In Part II, "Strategies of Structure and Form," Castagno explores ways in which the dialogic principle shapes larger structural units, from the "beat segment" to the scene, the predominant "building block" for most contemporary playwrights (129). Two of the most useful chapters examine monologue, a noticeable omission in many playwriting tests. Castagno's analysis of new monologue forms, multiple narrators and voice-overs, for instance, that blur the distinction between telling and showing, furnish playwrights with more creative choices for structuring time and space than writing "blackout."
The book's theoretical scaffolding invites readings on multiple levels. On one level, New Playwriting Strategies is a critic's sourcebook. On another, it is a writer's toolkit. Castagno interweaves these levels seamlessly. His cogent reading of a scene from Eric Overmyer's The Heliotrope Bouquet, for instance, turns on his analysis of Overmyer's use of the "equivocal character," a device Castagno defines as "one actor shifting between two or more significations" (80). Released from the law of character consistency, Overmyer is free to [End Page 375] explore the human tendency to project an absent "other" onto a present relationship. Physical and verbal "triggers" signal the actor to move into and out of the characters of Joplin's former lover and his current wife, dramatizing Joplin's mental state. The device foregrounds the constructedness of human identity, mediated not only by memory but also by accidents of time and place. Playwrights interested in non-narrative approaches to memory and dream will want to add this technique to their repertoire.
New Playwriting Strategies is filled with useful charts comparing the monologic play with the dialogic play, as well as plenty of classroom-tested exercises. How valuable are the exercises? Very. While the "equivocal character" exercises seem more suitable for advanced students, Castagno's "character clash" exercises teach beginners how to write dialogue in the moment. One exercise entails writing a two-character scene in which one character wins and the other loses, then rewriting the scene with a third "'genre' character" (a character from another historical period, from literature...