Thursday, May 21, 2009

Show Me!: That Bad Boy, Narration

I recently saw Grey Gardens for the first time, and its use of narration (or maybe a better term would be a character addressing the audience) for half the story had me intrigued. Here are some reflections on the choice below:

Narrator: Cody tried everyone he knew. Nobody believed him. He realized that he would have to face his transformation alone. Being alone in your time of need is a terrible feeling, and Cody felt it.

The first play I ever wrote was for my high school creative writing class. In it, I used a narrator to act as glue between the parts of the story, dispensing such nuggets of wisdom as the one above. Yes, it was an intentional line of dialogue, but unnecessary nonetheless. In fact, when I taught creative writing, I saw how easily my students would use narration as crutch in playwriting and finally got to the point where I wouldn’t let them use it.

The use of narration in writing a play is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Stage adaptations of long narratives tend to require narration to condense a 300+ page novel into a two-hour play, though it is a fine line. The first time I learned this was in watching a production of Great Expectations as adapted by Barbara Fields. The production had so much narration that I began to feel like I was having a bedtime story read to me rather than experiencing a compelling production of a great plot. There’s something wrong when the narrator tells you that Pip ran away while you are watching Pip run away.

A great example of the use of narration in a musical is Jane Eyre. In the novel, Jane tells her own story, and she does so in a way that opens up her own emotions to the audience, at times addressing them, such as in the famous, “Reader, I married him” line. The musical adaptation required the narration to help convey the breadth of the storytelling—stretching through Jane’s childhood at Gateshead, her time at Lowood School, her life at Thornfield, her return to Gateshead, her sojourn to Moor House, and her final return to Thornfield. Never is Jane required to spend great lengths addressing the audience, and when there is need for telling of events, the chorus is employed in a way that creates mood and atmosphere, communicating ideas without simply throwing them at the audience.

An example of when narration is superfluous is in the Broadway version of Jekyll and Hyde, where the narration that opens Act I and Act II could be entirely removed without affecting the plot. It was an interesting choice, considering the opening of each act in a musical is considered to be a place to grab the audience’s attention and pull them in, but the use of narration starts things out didn’t work in this case.

In reading the libretto of Big River, the weakness of the show appears to be the extensive use of narration. I’ve never seen Big River in production (a local high school was set to do it, but the school board nixed the idea), but it has entire paragraphs of Huck talking to the audience about what he’s done or is going to do. It reads as if you don’t actually see much happening. Instead, the story is being summarized and the audience is given vignettes to flesh out the most important points. The result is a show with great music holding together a weak book (Though, to be fair, adapting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the stage would be no easy task. As they say, there but for God, go I . . .)

The danger of narration is resorting to verbalizing a story rather than dramatizing it. One of the writer’s adages is “Show, Don’t Tell.” If the narration acts as a transition into the Show, sometimes it’s needed. But the story is being told to you—particularly when it could easily be shown to you—that’s when it gets to be too much.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 10, 2008

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