Whatever Happened to the Plot?
As far back as Aristotle, plot was recognized as an essential element of a play. Plot, according to Aristotle, consists of clearly defined problems the characters have to solve. This is also known as conflict.
It used to be pretty easy to find the plot in a play. Hamlet has to figure out how to take revenge for his father’s death and kill Claudius. Tom has to find a way to extricate himself from his beloved sister with her glass menagerie and his mother with her idealized memories and her thwarted ambition. But nowadays it’s not so easy.
Take Daphne’s Dive, a new play by Quiara Alegria Hudes now at The Pershing Square Signature Center. The play is set in a bar where locals hang out for company, conversation and the occasional drink.
Daphne, a survivor of sexual abuse, takes in a young girl who has endured similar treatment. Daphne’s sister, sexy and sophisticated, and married to a local macher turned politician, hasn’t forgotten her modest roots. An all-purpose activist immolates herself for no apparent reason. An artist makes collages with his neighbors’ garbage.
Each of these characters has opinions. Often they conflict with those of others in the bar. So there’s lots of discussion and argument. But we never get the feeling anything is going to change or be resolved as a result of these arguments. The talk is mostly for the entertainment of the audience.
Humans, the much-acclaimed new play by Stephen Karam, is not much different. Here the setting is an apartment in lower Manhattan where a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner.
Grandmother has Alzheimers. Mother and father have marital difficulties. One daughter is dealing with colitis and heartbreak. Another daughter can’t get her career off the ground. None of these problems is going to be solved over turkey, but that doesn’t stop the family from talking about them.
Reed Birney, Sarah Steele, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck and Arian Moayed in The Humans
Much of the conversation in both these plays in funny. Sometimes it’s quite moving. But it’s a strange twist in audiences’ expectations of a play that slice-of-life now passes for drama.
Perhaps mistaking talk for action is just a sign of how helpless many of us feel these days. We listen to politicians talk about whether or not the United States should erect a wall across our border with Mexico, even though we know there’s not the slightest chance that wall will ever get built. Two would-be candidates who basically agree with each other debate the details of policies neither will be able to enact.
Today many people are more comfortable on Facebook than face-to-face. Young men and women send text messages to friends sitting across a table. The virtual reality we consume is more compelling than the everyday reality we live.
If theater holds a mirror up to nature, is it any wonder actors on stage are no more agents in their make believe existence than we are in our very real lives?