Let me get this right out there--I abhor direct address in most plays. It's a cop out employed by far too many playwrights, both established and obscure, in far too many plays. Unless you wrote Our Town or The Glass Menagerie, you will likely be better served by taking a hard, cold, preciousless look that narrator or those speeches directly to the audience and finding a way to accomplish the same thing within the action of the scene. Put this one next to voluminous stage directions for head scratchers of theatrical devices.

That said, I'm becoming fond of a rewriting exercise that can help track forwards in your play, clue you into a structure, and reveal those niggling audience questions that you are forced to answer so the wayward audience mind will silence itself and accept the story unfolding. The idea is to take a pass through a play and insert a narrator along the way, explaining to the audience (And right now that's you, pally) what it needs to know. If Exposition Man the narrator is such a common playwright crutch, it makes a kind of backward sense to concretize what you need to prop your play up, even if only to remove and replace it with a more organic alternative. That's like 9 mixed metaphors right there. You're welcome.

It's so awesome let's try. Here's a passage from an old play of mine that desperately needs such assistance presented by my own personal narrator, Virgil.


Scene 3

Noon, next day. Melvin is wearing Andre's pajamas. He is trudging about, making pudding, while eating what little is left of the large bowl of pudding he brought in the previous scene. Consequently, he's a little green.

Andre struggles through the front door, keys in hand. Aside from assorted cuts and bruises, he's wearing a coat over some of Nellie clothes.

Nellie is in Andre's room, playing with her diorama.

Melvin: You don't look so good.

Andre: You neither.

Virgil the Narrator: Andre, with purpose, carries hiimself pitifully, preparing for Nellie to happen upon him in a sorry state of affairs. He will not be outdone by Melvin in these, the Ineptitude Olympics.

Melvin: Can I have some of your tap water?

Andre: You're asking me?

Melvin: I didn't want to be rude.

Virgil the Narrator: "What's he up to?" Andre immediately wonders. On the surface, what's tap water? Is he trying to make peace? It seems a harmless enough request. Seems.

Andre: You want some tap water.

Melvin: I'm not feeling very well. I guess I ate too much pudding.

Andre: I want you to drink all the tap water you want.

Melvin: Thank you.

Virgil the Narrator: Not too long ago, during a radio contest, someone died from drinking too much water and not taking a pee break. Neither Andre nor Melvin knew this, however.

Melvin gets up and searches around for a cup.

Virgil the Narrator: Andre won't waste his best performance on Melvin. Perhaps he should make some noise...something to get Nellie's attention. She must be in the other room, right?

Andre: She still in there?

Melvin: Yeah. She's resting.

Virgil the Narrator: This upsets Andre. Who is this interloper who is telling HIM how Nellie is? The nerve.

Andre: How do you know?

Melvin: Do you have a cup or a glass I could use?

Andre: How do you know she's sleeping?

Melvin: I didn't say she was sleeping, I said she was resting.

Virgil the Narrator: A rare moment of attention to detail from the otherwise flighty Melvin.

Andre: I heard sleeping.

Virgil the Narrator: No doubt a result of some horrible event that left Andre so visibly wounded. There's blood, you know. Right there above the ear. And again near the collarbone. Andre's blood.

Melvin: Is there a cup around here?

Andre: I think I got my brain hemorrhaging.

Melvin: Is there a cup I could use?

Andre: A cup? yeah, it's right in front of your nose.

Melvin: Can I use it?

Andre: Yeah, use it. You don't have to ask.

Melvin: Just wanted to make sure.

Virgil the Narrator: At this point, you must be wondering why Melvin is so fixated on a glass of water. Is he so overtaken with thirst he can't sort it out? Is he knowingly competing in the Ineptitude Olympics? Is he simply dumb? Does the playwright even know?

Andre: You think she's mad at me?

Melvin: Cold water is on the left?

...

 

While it pretty much turns any play into Strange Interlude, from this little tidbit I received a couple tidbits of something or other. Obviously, Andre is the driving the scene since Virgil is fixated on him. I was pretty sure I knew that, but it's worth verifying. Virgil also clarified Andre's intention at a moment and even gave me a more active alternative--"Perhaps he should make some noise..." I like that--in order to exact maximum sympathy, the gold medal in the Ineptitude Olympics, he'll want to find a way to incite Nellie to happen upon him in such a sorry state of affairs. A little further down the scene I have Andre knocking on the door. Why have him give up this intention? Maybe he can try harder to be caught unaware, casual-like, covered in scrapes and bruises.

Virgil was also kind enough to point out an area that seems kind of inspecific or wandering. If he felt the need to jump in and pretty much apologize to the audience for the lack of clarity, that could either be the voice of the playwright's insecurity or a red flag. I'm not really sure which from the preceeding snippet of dialogue, but it's something to keep an eye on.

The rules of the Retroactive Narrator are these:

  1. The narrator narrates in present tense, as the action is happening right now. It's not "Andre immediately wondered", it's "Andre immediately wonders". The idea is to flush out as much "right now" commentary as strikes you.
  2. The narrator's voice should be rather specific; I don't think you need to create an entire character backstory here, but it's natural to seek and find a specific voice and feel that feel right in the play and keep you entertained. There's nothing wrong with entertaining yourself, should you be able to do so.
  3. The narrator is talking to a full audience and is perfectly happy to upstage the action. Fuck 'em if they can't compete. Be charming. Be forthright. Be all that your narrator can be.
  4. The narrator can take sides or be neutral; stay loose and let him or her decide. That alone will be interesting.
  5. I think it's okay to break every rule of engagement, including having the narrator refer to the playwright, director, theater, audience, anything he or she wants to acknowledge. It's an exercise, so you don't have to worry about your Brechtian or Pirandellian influences.
  6. After you are done with the exercise, the narrator should be removed. No deciding later, because he was such fun to write, that he should remain a part of your play. If it needs to be in the play, put in the action of the play; let the Marketing Department worry about the presentation.

 

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