The house is one of the greatest powers of
integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams
of mankind... The great function of poetry is
to give us back the situation of our dreams.
- Gaston Bachelard, THE POETICS OF SPACE
Plays run on different engines. So do those who write plays. Most are plot driven. See any Arthur Miller. Some are language driven. See Ionesco. And some are driven by landscape. Not, as in “SETTING,” where the action takes place. Although setting might be the germ for a play, the writer’s initial image, it often becomes a third wheel to action and dialogue. Setting doesn’t drive the action; it’s the obvious place for it to occur. Landscape is not only the jumping-off point, a germ in the writer’s mind that defines the poetic dreamscape; it embodies the meaning and the story as much as any other element. The landscape on its own will, as Bachelard says, embodies our thoughts, memories and dreams. Often this image is what is implanted in our memory long after we’ve left the theater. I couldn’t quote any lines from Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play, but I sure as heck remember the Great Hole of History—a stage filled with coal-black pebbles—that the Abraham Lincoln character shovels into.
This is nothing new for some writers. Richard Foreman, who’s been making his own brand of theater at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church for 30 years, crams the stage with huge playing cards, gold vases, Hebrew letters, newspapers, phalluses, ropes, lights, wheels of fortune, aphorisms, and 1,000 other objects that could have been plucked from lawn sales, thrift shops, or his living-room. Then, after he’s filled his space, he writes the play. Len Jenkin drops his characters into circus sideshows and seedy motel rooms. And in Cat’s Paw, Mac Wellman places his characters in “various commanding vertiginous sites in the New York City area.”
Three playwrights with upcoming productions have structured their plays using landscape as a primary force.
From Sheila Callaghan’s new play, Crawl Fade to White:
Dan is sitting on a lawn chair under a tarp outside
the house. It rains in slow motion around him, upwards.
FRAN: It is done.
A long beat.
FRAN: Yes Dan?
DAN: You are radiant.
FRAN: Am I?
DAN: You always had the smoothest cheeks. Paper thin. Afraid to touch them or my fingers would tear right through your teeth. Afraid to touch you. Apricot pie. A pastry crust between you and I, your glowing fruit inside. Warm. You glow Fran. Beneath this tarp. On this morning.
FRAN: It’s going to be a good year.
How does “rain falling upward” create a psychic mood, endemic to the play? As Callaghan explains, “I chose a suburban tract-house setting because I wanted to give my new play a really stark and unlikely setting…I wanted to familiarize the backdrop more so the strange things happening against it would seem more vital.”
Meanwhile in David Bucci’s play, The Velvet Rut, Bucci tracks documentary filmmakers, rock musicians, a bus driver and other characters through a seedy American landscape:
SETTING: Battle Creek, MI; Pueblo, CO; Oxford, MS; Providence, RI. Each scene/town should be driven by a different production design element: Sc 1-set design, sc 2-light design, c 3-sound design, Sc 4-everything.
Kenny approaches America carrying a long bass case, exactly like Ellis’ but with even more stickers.
KENNY: Is that your guitar?
AMERICA: Yes it is. I’m America Richardson? The singer?
KENNY: America huh? I’m not really into folk music. I play acoustic soul.
AMERICA: I don’t play folk music. I play acoustic soul.
KENNY: Really. My name’s Kenny. Where you headed?
AMERICA: New York City. It’s time. I hear the call. How about you, where are you going?
KENNY: Oh nowhere. We’re doing a few nights in L.A.
AMERICA: Are you in a band?
KENNY: Oh, uh, yeah. You probably never hear of us. We’re from Mississippi. We’re not on MTV or anything.
Bucci’s choice of landscape was based on his personal history: “The four landscapes in The Velvet Rut were pulled from my experiences while on tour with my rock band Enduro. The tours were very low-budget affairs and the shows were frequently in basements, record stores, VFW halls and municipal gazebos. On tour, the physical landscapes of each town varied wildly, but the people living in each landscape shared a specific outsider sensibility. I was most interested in tracking this character landscape through the four physical landscapes of the play.”
Caridad Svich’s play, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell that Was Once Her Heart, is a “rave fable" inspired by Euripides’ Iphigenia In Aulis. She chooses a frightening landscape that evokes a violence hidden from our daily lives, yet one we know all too well is a reality for many.
The frame of an aircraft carrier. Dust, dirt, and a stained party dress nailed to a battered wall. Oddly dyed carnations on the ground. The wall is jagged and impossibly high. Onto this wall can be projected film and video images. A bank of surveillance cameras to one side: the silent eye, red eye.
VIOLETA IMPERIAL: What are you going to do, Iphigenia, with your midnight lipstick and designer sheen? What can you do?
IPHIGENIA: I was kidnapped last year.
VIOLETA IMPERIAL: Eh?
IPHIGENIA: I was taken from my bed, stuffed inside a sack, and tossed in a jeep. I remember my nose bleeding. There was the smell of honeysuckle in the air. I was taken out of the car and tossed onto a hard floor. I could feel the bursis forming themselves on my skin. I kept still in the darkness of the sack that began to stink with my sweat and piss.
VIOLETA IMPERIAL: In stillness lies virtue.
IPHIGENIA: You believe that?
VIOLETA IMPERIAL: It’s a saying.
IPHIGENIA: There were voices in another room. Loud voices, and boots. I could hear a song on the radio.
As Svich says: “Landscape is the linguistic, emotional, psychological terrain inhabited by the character. It is signified by place, be it real or imagined. The land pulls and tears at the bodies of the characters. The characters’ bodies become the terrain. There is fusion and sometimes there is violence. Language skirts and eddies river-like thought the land and escapes through the mouths and minds of the characters. I write from memory, from seeing, from seeing anew. From traveling and seeking and dreaming. The place is first. It roots the world, and the characters, even if the ground is ruptured. The land is where the camera cuts through and dissects the characters, the land is the Frame for the anatomy lesson, which is the play.”
Plays are closest in temperament and function to poetry. If the function of poetry is to give us back the situation of our dreams, then these dramatists do that by creating from very personal experience, memory, and imagination the landscape they want us spending an evening with, and dreaming in.
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.