Sunday, December 22, 2019

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2013).

It's part of the stated goal of this blog to take a closer look at the nature of stories in general.  Sometimes this can mean paying special attention to the way they are told.  One way to do it is to look at the narrative strategies used to tell a story.  Narrative strategy itself isn't all that common a word.  You're never likely to hear it outside of a creative writing seminar, or anything like that.  Since there's not a lot of familiarity to go with the phrase, it's no real shock to learn it's the kind of thing few people would bother to give a moment's thought about.  Like a great deal of ideas and concepts that fly under the radar, this doesn't mean they've ceased to exist.  Sometimes it doesn't even mean they''re no longer in use.

A good way to look at narrative strategies is to think of them as part of the bells and whistles that go along with the art of writing.  A particular use of the word could refer to the various techniques the writer has for getting across the desired artistic effect.  A good example is the way Spielberg is able to build up suspense around the main villain of Jaws.  Every scene in that film is about the build up towards the film's Great White.  When it makes its appearance at last, the moment is impactful because the movie spent the last half hour drumming into our heads the threat that it represents.  This is a relatively straightforward example of just one kind of narrative strategy.  There are other ways of telling a story.

One of them revolves around an old English theater tradition.  I suppose the most familiar label for this style of writing is Pantomime.  However, I think I prefer the more open-ended term of the Popular Dramatic Tradition.  The phrase isn't mine, by the way.  It belongs to someone else.  It's the main topic of Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition by S.L. Bethell.  That's a subject we'll get to in a moment.  For now it's enough to point out that the Popular Tradition amounts to a whole way of telling a story that's not so much different as it is out of sight and out of mind.  It also appears to be still in use today.

That's the only explanation I can offer for the existence of something like Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  It's a kind theatrical production I'm not quite sure most folks have seen before.  It's a commonplace across the pond, however.  Plays like this are older than the Bard of Avon and have managed to hang on as a staple of British entertainment long after the old scribbler for the Globe Theater breathed his last.  Pan Goes Wrong just seems to be the latest incarnation of the same Tradition I mentioned above.  It's the kind of play that might appear to offer little in the way of a serious artistic discussion.  The irony is that such a minor seeming jest really can point the way to an old alternative way of storytelling.  That's why I'd like to take some time to unpack this bit of theatrical sport and see what it can tell us about how much we've forgotten in terms of how to both write and pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves.  It might also be a decent enough way to spread a bit of holiday cheer to those who need it.


It's the Christmas season, and at this festive time of the year it is the custom for Britain to revive its annual holiday pantomimes.  This year's festivities are brought to us courtesy of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society.  Their scheduled production is a live performance of the perennial classic, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  This is all well and good.  So far there's nothing much to talk about except what's expected.  The trouble is there might be a bit of a problem back stage.....or two.

To start with, it's difficult to find any real information about the Polytechnic Society in and of itself.  It seems to be an amateur troupe, as far as anyone can tell.  There's no crime in that.  However, even amateurs can often manage to be at least somewhat professional.  The Cornley Players, on the other hand, are a different matter.

First there is Chris, who seems and acts more or less as the ostensible leader of the players.  Then there is Robert.  I suppose the best way to describe him is as the closest person Chris has to a right hand man, or partner in crime, depending on how you choose to look at it.  While they both seem to be in charge, there does appear to be to be a certain amount of trouble within the ranks.  These kind of situations are usually bad for morale.  That's a statement that holds just as true for a group of actors as it does for a regiment of soldiers.  It certainly doesn't help that the trouble comes from the top-down.

While Chris is the man to call all the final shots, it's also clear enough that Robert can't pass up the opportunity to override his decisions every now and then; or at least every chance he can get.  This leads to quite a few headaches between the two, yet it's difficult to tell which of them is willing to be the adult in the room.  Chris, by the way, has delegated the role of Captain Hook for himself.

Things don't get much better from there as we work our way down the cast list.  Jonathan and Sandra have been chosen as to play the lead roles of Peter and Wendy.  It's difficult to know what to say about the pair of them, other than that they are very much a backstage item.  It is just possible that this sort of thing won't interfere with the proceedings in most cases.  The trouble is the backstage drama has a way of leaking out into the action on stage.

It doesn't help again that Max, who was cast as both Michael and the Crocodile because his Aunt runs the theater in which the play is to be performed, also happens to be smitten with Sandra.  It must have been one of those "at first sight" affairs as far as anyone can tell.  I believe the word he uses to describe her is "soul mate".  As I said, his Aunt owns the theater, which is explanation enough as to why he's allowed to hang around.  The worst part is it's just possible to feel sorry for the poor wretch, as he seems to mean every kind word he has for Sandra.  I suppose it's what you'd call a pity.  I just hope he doesn't cause trouble for his two co-stars on-stage.

Last there's Dennis, Lucy, and Trevor.  Dennis is charged with playing Wendy's brother John.  He's also cast as Mr. Smee, which makes no sense whatsoever.  What Dennis is even doing here in the first place is sort of a mystery to me.  His timing is off.  He has a hard time remembering his lines.  That last bit is so bad that Trevor has had to go and give him a noticeable set of head phones just so he can deliver all the words in their proper place.  To top it off, he comes off as the most like a child without a clue as to what he's doing.

Lucy is different story.  She seems like a nice girl.  The best way to describe her is as the quiet and respectful type.  It's just a shame she's Robert's niece.  For whatever bloody reason, Rob has slated her for the role of Tootles.  This is a mistake.  It's clear that however decent she is as a human being, Lucy is just not an actress.  She has no inclination for the stage, and always manages to get out of her depth in the spotlight.  It's no wonder she's in a state of constant stage fright.  It's enough to make you wonder if the troupe was just that starved for available actors.

And last there's Trevor.  He's the Cornley production manager.  As far as he's concerned, once the lights go down, and the curtain rises, its his stage, and everyone else had just better bloody well remember that!  He was once caught smoking near an open canister of stage gunpowder.  As Princess Tiger Lily once observed: "Enough said".

With all this going on, it's an open question of whether or not the players can even manage to get the act off the ground.  Still, "nothing to be done.  I'm starting to come round to that opinion".  I guess all anyone can do now is to just pay the ticket, take a seat, and let the show go on.  I know I've expressed some misgivings here.  Still, maybe I'm just over-thinking this too much.  I mean after all, what could possibly go wrong?

A Multi-Level Method of Storytelling.

There are two things going on with this play.  That's because Peter Pan Goes Wrong is really telling two stories at once.  On the one hand, you have a performance of the original Peter Pan tale.  Underneath that, the second narrative of the backstage drama keeps interrupting the proceedings.  This seems to be a deliberate dramatic choice on the part of the writers, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields.  They have written and structured their play in such a way that the result is a curious division of attention between two competing storylines.

It starts out as a straight-forward, albiet very flawed, production of the Pan myth.  All the traditional roles one would expect for such a performance are in place.  Lewis, Sayer, and Shields have even gone so far as to allow all the traditional narrative setups to take place.  A theater host, or narrator, gives a formal introduction to help guide the audience into the play.  While the actors arrive on stage as the names of their characters are announced.  In this regard all the motions, and even some of the line deliveries, are nothing less than what the audience expects.  The difference is that it looks as if the entire universe was in a conspiracy to screw the whole thing up.

The narrator's opening monologue is interrupted by faulty wiring, almost causing him to go blind right in front of a live audience.  The spotlight is placed at the wrong angle, so that it shines on a bare corner of the stage instead of the players it was meant to highlight.  Worst of all, the actor's own incompetency keeps getting in the way.  The lead actor's ego is so big that he keeps delivering his lines a moment too early before the narration is finished.  Also the actor playing the pet nurse, Nana, gets himself stuck in a makeshift doggy door.  This necessitates the production hands leaving their designated spot backstage to perform a noisy bit of carpentry involving a hammer and a chainsaw while the actress playing Mrs. Darling is in the middle of a soft lullaby number.

This goes on throughout the length of the play.  The result is a curious case where the audience doesn't find its attention divided, so much as it is forced to be attentive to the story in a different way than the kind we're normally used to.  This will be a novel experience for some viewers.  In this day and age, most of us are used to getting our entertainment in a straight-forward manner.  We like our stories when they go from A to Z with as little trouble as possible.  That's not quite the way Pan Goes Wrong does it.  Or rather, if Lewis, Sayer, and Shields are telling a straight-forward story, then the authors' method of letting their plot unfold is the kind that has no choice in sounding novel and unfamiliar to modern ears.  There's an irony involved, however, in the sense that none of what the playwrights are doing is exactly new.  It's a practice that dates back to Shakespeare.

It's here that the idea of a Popular Dramatic Tradition can help us gain a better understanding of what's going on with productions like Pan Goes Wrong.  The key fact to bear in mind is that the story we are viewing is like a recipe of incompatible elements mixed together.  The original Pan story is a good example of the straight-up fantasy.  The second drama, that one that tries to stay backstage, while always interrupting the primary performance, is instead a down-to-earth realist romance played for laughs, with plenty of elements for comedy mixed in.  It's the type of story you might have seen one of those classic English comedians like Dudley Moore, Jonathan Price, or Michael Palin featuring in back during the 70s and 80s.  Normally these two types of drama have a kind of crowbar separation between them, with neither genre being on any good speaking terms with the other.  There may be some schools of criticism that hold it's impossible to mix and match genres in a successful style.  If that's the case, then what Pan Goes Wrong presents us with is an impossibility made manifest.  It's a story that is both fantastic and realistic.

The way out of this impossibility is to remember what the Popular Tradition itself means.  According Samuel Leslie Bethell, "From time to time and from place to place the drama varies its position on a scale between the two extremes of absolute conventionalism and absolute naturalism.  At either extreme it would cease to be properly dramatic.  Absolute conventionalism would work in symbols bearing no necessary relation to the things symbolized, and absolute naturalism would reproduce a 'slice of life' with more than photographic fidelity.  The former would be devoid of emotive power, like the symbols in algebra, whilst the latter would lack both intellectual and emotional organization.  Actually the drama is never completely arbitrary in symbolism or completely and unselectively representational, although the difference, for example, between Everyman and A Doll's House, is sufficient for the terms 'conventional' and 'naturalistic to be applied to them respectively....most of (Everyman's, sic) characters personify abstract human qualities; Good Deeds, Knowledge, Strength, Discretion; but in A Doll's House everyday people are presented in everyday surroundings, the dialogue is conversational, and the actions such as might take place in a contemporary household (13)".

"The position of" a dramatic farce like Peter Goes Wrong "is somewhere between these two practical extremes.  (Its) characters are not merely personified abstractions, but, on the other hand, they are not precisely like real people (ibid)".  While the backstage drama might be down to earth in terms of presentation, its easy enough to recognize a lot of the stock characters that inhabit a typical Romantic Comedy.  I.e. Max is the sad-sack loser with the heart of gold who deserves to win the girl Sandra away from the empty-headed Jock character whose slated to play the lead role of Peter (even though Max is somewhat better at it).  In the strictest sense its hard to find a definite amount of realism anywhere in the production.  This is brought home during the scenes with the actor playing the actor who is pretending to be Hook.

These scenes are a major clue to understanding the logic behind the play.  Before the play begins, Chris, the play's director, makes a point that he has no intention of putting on a pantomime, but rather a "traditional Christmas vignette".  To which Robert responds, "Oh no it isn't".  This exchange is, in fact, the standard call and response setup in an English pantomime.  Its also a setup that comes back to haunt the characters later on in the play.  When Chris appears on-stage as Hook for the first time there are several comedic screw-ups that happen, including Dennis's headphones malfunctioning to the point where instead of helpful line promptings, all he can get is local music and news broadcasts from whatever radio stations are in the area.  However the important part is when the following dialogue exchange happens:

Chris/Hook: Revenge is a grand thing!

Audience Member: ...Oh no it isn't!

Chris/Hook: ...Yes it is.

Audience: Oh no it isn't !

Chris/Hook: Oh yes, it is.

Audience: Oh no it isn't!

Chris/Hook: Yes, it is!

Audience: Oh no it isn't!                                                               

Chris/Hook: Yes it is!!

Audience: Oh no -

Chris/Hook: Yes it is!!  Yes it is!!  YES IT ISIT ISYES IT ISCourse it is!  This is not a pantomime.

Audience: Oh yes it is!

Chris/Hook: NO IT ISN'T!!!  Shut up!

(The Audience starts to boo the actor)

Chris/Hook: Don't boo me!

(Audience heckling increases in volume)

Chris/Hook: How would you like it if I booed you?  Boooo!  Boooooo!  It's not nice, is it?

The whole exchange is a gag from start to finish.  However it is it's very nature as a comedic setup and payoff that might cause the viewer to overlook the more complex nature of the scene we've just witnessed.  A closer look reveals several things going on at once.  On the one hand, we have a scene from the Pan story playing itself out.  On another, that same scene is being interrupted by the audience.  This brings out a further layer, where the actor playing Hook must try to bring the audience under control.  The actor has to use the character to break the fourth wall in order to let the story continue.  The problem is while he's doing that, his very need to stop the performance in mid-sentence draws our attention to the artifice of the whole production.  This is sometime a paradox where the suspension of disbelief must be shattered in order to be re-affirmed.  At the same time, he tries to reply to the audience "in-character".  This blurring the distinctions between the character and actor creates a mutable scene where it's unclear if it's Chris or Hook threatening the audience.  In addition to all this is the awareness that even this whole scene is part of the fiction, and not meant to be taken as literal.  It is all just part of the show.
What we have is a scene with multiple layers to it that require a similar multi-tiered level of response from the audience.  This response is mostly a survival from older periods of creative writing.  Bethell, for instance, is able to trace the method employed by Lewis and Sayer as far back as the Renaissance period.  There is the distinct possibility that the practice is far older than this.  Bethell refers to this artistic technique as "a capacity of the Elizabethan audience, which I regard as fundamentally important: the ability to keep simultaneously in mind two opposite aspects of a situation.  The pleasure apparently aroused in the Elizabethan theater by the concurrence of seeming incompatibles is related to the vogue of 'conceited' writing, especially as practiced by the so-called 'metaphysical' poets (26)".  "The mixture of conventionalism and naturalism demands a dual awareness of play-world and real world: upon this depends the piquancy of a play-within-the-play (27)".  This multiple awareness form of reading a story also applied to how conventions of character were either portrayed, or else filled in and expanded upon by individual authors.  Bethell's work on this subject does raise the question of whether something valuable has managed to get lost somewhere in the passage of years.  It may be that our current narrative expectations are bit too spoiled in terms of the kind of stories that are available for telling.  the good news is that this doesn't appear to be the case in certain levels of society  The idea a popular multi-level approach to reading and writing has somehow managed to hang on in Britain's theatrical tradition, and this is what is put on display in the course of Pan Goes Wrong.   

Conclusion: Not Just a Theater Tradition.

On the whole, Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a harmless bit of light entertainment.  It was meant to be performed as a lark, and perhaps that's the best kind of reception to give it.  However, that's not quite telling the whole truth.  Mindless entertainment crowds out all the serious art by about 99% to 10.  That's just a fact of life.  However, does that meant that a story must be an empty shell, just because it appears light on the surface?  I've had occasion every now and then to come across entertainment offerings that looked light weight on the outside, only to reveal that their threadbare masques were still able to carry some pretty heavy thematic material.  What makes this particular pantomime stand out from all the rest is the way it surprises you with a style of writing that has perhaps been out of the spotlight a bit too long.

What makes the Popular Dramatic Tradition of writing so valuable is not its sense of novelty.  The way I see it, if anything can hold a legit claim to be older than Shakespeare, then it's kind of a mistake to call it new or novel.  The best you can say about it in terms of novelty is that with enough passage of time, everything old is new again.  No, the real value with this multi-level style of writing is that it forces both writer and reader to pay attention to the words, and what they are trying to say on a number of levels.  The whole thing amounts to a form of writer and reader response that has become too much of a lost art in this day and age.

The importance of a work like Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that it is a good example of this multi-level form of creativity.  However, even if we grant the possibility of such a way of composing and responding to any given text, the fact remains that it's not the sort of realization that would be readily apparent to the great majority of audiences.  It also wouldn't change the fact that perhaps it's an idea that deserves a fair hearing in the court of public opinion.  The best course of action that I can figure is to find some way of just putting it out there, of introducing it to the public at large, and then letting others decide whether its the kind of avenue they'd like to take.

Even if that's possible, I still can't see it being much of anything except a small enthusiasm or trend in the creative arts.  The main reason for that is because public perceptions is like a glacier.  It can shift and change with time, yet those changes are always gradual, and trying to induce an immediate change by artificial means too often tends to wind up with the the proponents buried under the ice and soon forgotten about.  In that case, it's enough to just state the fact and let it linger in the background until sooner or later it starts to make its way to the forefront of public awareness.  The best way to do that is to give audiences entertainments that utilize this method of writing, and therefore require this special form of reading.

"To sum up," said Bethell, "I believe I am justified in asserting that there is a popular dramatic tradition, and that its dominant characteristic is the audience's ability to respond spontaneously and unconsciously on more than one plane of attention at the same time.  I shall call this the principle of multi-consciousness (29)".  The only thing left to stress is that its mistake to limit this level reading and writing to just one medium.  In other words, it's a mistake to confine it to just the stage.  It can have its place on the printed page, as well as others.  What it all comes down to is a way of paying attention, and applying it to the creative arts.  A play like Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a good example of where to start.

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