I was listening recently to this scene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxdH-1VX7VI) from Stephen Sondheim’s Company (yes, I’m linking to the version with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert; yes, I consider the version with Raul Esparza better; no, that is not the point of this post!), and reflecting on the chaotic interaction between Harry and Sarah. As the scene progresses, Harry and Sarah fight ever more bitterly about each other’s drinking and eating in a desperate attempt to take their minds off indulging the same. Their dialogue is worthy of a Rossini opera – the husband and wife are constantly interrupting each other, completing and competing with each other’s stories as the scene rises to a half-climax, they give in and have their brandy and brownie, respectively. What struck me about this scene is how Harry and Sarah deal with their desires, their competitiveness, even, perhaps, with their marriage, by constructing such a complex narrative that their feelings disappear within.
Many relationships in Company follow the same pattern. Peter and Susan are the perfect couple, yet they’re breaking up, yet they stay together after the divorce. Marta is rarely pleasant to Robert, but she’s possibly the girlfriend who respects him most. Robert himself both loves and depends on the rest of the characters, tries to emulate them, and yet leaves them at the end of the play. These complexities are part and parcel of human relationships; in a piece like Company, however, they’re more than that – they’re the turning mechanism of the narrative, the conceit that keeps our attention on the piece while subtly revealing the deeper themes of it – friendship, partnership, the back-and-forth tug of our desire for independence and our desire for the company of others.
Watching Company reminded me of a play I saw recently, Distracted. Distracted adopts complexity and embraces chaos to deal with a different, but no less intricate, host of issues – raising children, mental health and our perception of normal behavior, the politics of race, gender and social class in a young family, the implications of using medicine to “cure” the brain. Like Company, Distracted does not shy away from confusing and often contradictory situations in life – is your child acting up, being him or herself, or suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder? Are you the one who decides? Is their doctor? Is their teacher? Instead, the play embraces these situations and emphasizes them by having a few actors play many parts, by breaking the fourth wall and by adding a frenetic, chaotic pace to the action that keeps the viewer on their toes even as it subtly constructs a meaningful narrative about raising kids and human imperfection and love.
It strikes me that a good way to describe contemporary drama and fiction is this embrace of chaos and complexity. Instead of the ancient golden triad – unity of place, unity of time, unity of theme – we get (and maybe, over time, learn to demand) more places, more times, more themes. We read fantasy novels with fifteen-ish primary characters (A Game of Thrones), twelve-ish of whom die off at unpredictable times; we watch shows and play games that defy understanding without a novel-length metatext (Lost, Neon Genesis: Evangelion). We have become obsessed with unraveling a many-dimensional web and staring at a wall of dots looking for patterns until our eyes hurt. This is neither good, nor bad – just like every other way to approach the world before us, and every way going forward, will carry no moral label. It just is. It does feel good, however, to point at the evidence foregoing and claim, aha, This Is What Has Been Going On In Works of Art Since Nineteen Eighty. Until, of course, someone finds a contradiction or a flaw in my argument, and down it goes 🙂
As a postscript, and because I like Modernism, I would like to draw a contrast between what I see in Company and Distracted and what I see in Modernist pieces like Joyce’s The Dead, Lawrence’s The Fox, some poetry by Ivan Bunin, and other works circa late nineteenth / early twentieth century that revel in detail and complexity. The web of social interactions Joyce writes is no less complex than the one Sondheim writes; however, I think the effect of the former is painting a specific, if massive, picture; the effect of the latter is introducing so much noise that any coherent vision remains at best a subjective interpretation, a partial view. Gabriel in The Dead has an epiphany of sorts – he feels love for his wife, he escapes for a moment the tangled woods of social engagement, he reflects upon mortality in a serene way. Robert in Company may be said to have an epiphany, but the only thing he sees, clearly, is that there is no answer to his dread of commitment (because commitment can be scary and difficult and in the end lead to loneliness and rejection), that there is no clear picture of how one Ought To Have Company (there are millions of candidates, represented by his friends, each equally flawed). One possible reading is that this lack of answer weighs on him so much that Robert kills himself; I prefer to think that Robert chooses to walk out (whether of his apartment, or his life), as a free person who knows, at last, that his fruitless quest for the right answer, the reduction of all this complexity Sondheim has been throwing at us for the last two hours, does not exist.