As a writer and a person I think a lot about structure and mess. As a person I think about it because…well every morning I wake up and there it is. Our room, which, however many times I pick up my clothes and re-shelve my books, and wipe dust off the surfaces, regains its untidy aspect almost immediately. I clean and then I turn my back and there it is all over again, the discarded clothes, old letters, a handful of change, BART tickets, the phone recharging, photographs, earrings, scraps of paper with a few cryptic scribblings, the last months’ worth of New Yorkers which I haven’t read yet...
This is life where the law of entropy wins despite our best efforts (and okay I don’t always try all that hard to fight it.)
And then there’s art, where we (artists) are trying to structure things, impose a pleasing order, construct a “plot” on top of this chaos.
I thought about this again when I read the complete script of Sons of the Prophet, a brilliant play by Stephen Karam which was reprinted in American Theatre magazine. I love this play! And if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you what it is “about.” It’s about a lot of things: fate, family, grief, being gay, guilt and consequences, the universality of suffering, sports, media and commerce, small towns, Lebanese-American identity…
There are no neat wrap-ups in Sons of the Prophet, no good guys or bad guys, and at the end of the play nothing is resolved. The hero with the mystery ailment is still struggling with his failing body—his illness has neither been properly diagnosed or cured. The kid whose prank resulted (possibly) in a death is neither punished nor exonerated. Everyone just kind of limps on.
Karam’s dialogue reflects the entropic theme of the play. Characters interrupt each other constantly, characters speak in fragments and ellipses, and one character usually begins to talk before the last one has finished speaking. Sentences are left unfinished, awkward moments are left awkward and no one knows how to navigate the big things in life, like intimacy, or taking care of the frail and helpless.
Why do I find this kind of work so satisfying? I think because it mirrors my own life. None of my personal plot-lines have resolved either. Yes, things have happened, big things—marriages, births, deaths,--and little things, publications, illnesses, job changes—but the fundamentally mysterious nature of existence remains a mystery to me. And mostly what goes on day-to-day is just this intriguing tangle of voices and memories and wisps of conversation and impressions and anecdotes.
I haven’t had the courage to make a play out of these things, which are more like poetry than a “well-made play.” Because I am naturally a rather floppy kind of person, I have really wanted to master structure, wanted to learn it and play by its rules. Structure is essential. But there are several kinds; one is the overt scaffolding of plot, which we can all recognize: inciting incident, conflict, hero’s journey, resolution.
The other is a more-deeply-buried organic organizing principle which pulls images to it the way redwoods attract the fog which nourishes them, by some mysterious natural process. This more internally-driven structure obeys the laws of the subconscious rather than the conscious mind and leads to conclusions which are imagistic and open-ended. Like life.