a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy, and everyone is doing it these days.
Theatre has been doing it for donkey’s years; making something look like something else, pretending one thing is another, going left of field and beyond the standard plotline with wild leaps and imaginings, dream sequences, symbolic non-sequiturs and fantasy bubbles, you bet.
In a play called Cleansed (1998) by English playwright Sarah Kane, the stage directions include “a sunflower pushes through the floor and grows above their heads” and “the rats carry Carl’s feet away“. Whoa.
Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959) has a bunch of ‘rhinos’ on stage doing untold damage.
Even Shakespeare was in on it— ‘is this a dagger which I see before me?” Macbeth asks as he sees a knife floating mid-air after he has made a decision to stab kill the king to death. Weird, man. Very few productions of Macbeth that I have seen (except the Roman Polanski film) actually show that dagger floating in front of Macbeth. But we, the audience, can ‘see’ it just fine regardless. And as far as asking an audience to come play along with a crazy scene, look no further than the wonderful ‘O, for a muse of fire!’ speech at the top of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the narrator tells the audience they’ll just have to imagine an entire ‘swelling scene’ of a battle unfolding on the stage with horses and swords and fire, and ‘into a thousand parts divide one man’- in other words, imagine 1000 men where you see only one. It’s a big ask, but audiences have been buying that line for four centuries and counting.
Theatre is magic. Part of the magic is asking the audience to imagine stuff that the area of the stage cannot contain or the budget of the production cannot buy. Another part is imagining ‘the fourth wall’, that wonderful idea that the audience can see the players on a stage, but the actors cannot see through that wall to the audience. The fourth wall is often broken, and the actors see the audience and speak with them as part of the performance, and that’s just more of the magic of theatre, breaking the rules.
Both film and television also now revel in magic. Hardly a show I could name has no unexpected departures from the everyday world, be they dreamscapes or daydreams or very crazy but ultimately meaningful strangeness. Magic realism has become part of how we tell modern stories.
But to my mind, the theatre does it best. Why? Because theatre is right there, in front of you, engaging you in a magic carpet ride. Engagement in magic is the stuff of theatre, and that’s a whole other topic.
So, if theatre is the Queen of Magic, why do I read so many new scripts from new writers that are pedestrian and utterly devoid of magic? Perhaps because new playwrights want to be safe, you know, learn the rules before you break them. Fair enough! Perhaps because new playwrights don’t see enough contemporary theatre. Go study some good theatre! Perhaps because too many writers watch uninspiring television programs that focus on reality. God, stop that! Perhaps they worry that a fanciful script with sunflowers bursting out of the ground, just for example, may be rejected because it’s “undo-able” on stage.
For that last one, I want to just say, quit worrying. Quit worrying about how your work will be produced because, you know what, that’s not your job. Your job is to write. Your director’s job and the producer’s job is to figure out how to make your magic translate on the stage.
Says the girl who has just written a character who is a voracious ‘worm’ who gets sliced in two by a shovel, and another character whose skin is removed and worn as a cloak. How will the director deal with that? magic.