Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Setting as a Great Actor - (Books: Dickens' Bleak House)

I continue to enjoy Dicken's Bleak House and it's made me think about how a writer sets the scene and how the readers uses it.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when a writer uses those words so that you may sense the walls about you and smell the grease in the air, it is worth the expense because they do something a picture cannot. The picture may be efficient, but it is fixed. The writer, decides where you will be close now or far, that you will glide quickly over this wall, but that you will linger here among the old papers and dusty objects on the desk.

Everyone likes to concentrate on "what." What happened, to whom, what was said, but a scene is only an abstraction until it is happening somewhere. An actor playing a scene wants to know - who am I, where did I come from, what do I want, what do I say, what do I do... and so on (I, I, I...) - but what about poor old "where." You really know nothing about behavior until you know where something is happening. Science tells us that people are made not only by their genes, but by the interaction of genes and environment. The actor needs the same information, after all they are creating a person too. Without "where" there is a big missing piece. As a reader we also use "where" as we create the scene in our mind's eye. Some readers like to skip over long descriptions and get to the plot, and a poorly written setting only encourages that, stripping the scene of an essential that the reader may not directly know is missing, but they will sense it as their mind's eye will either conjure up nothing at all, or replace it with some one-size-fits-all setting that sits at the ready from some television program recently watched or whatever. If it is a bore to read, you end up saying, 'I wish you could just get on with it!' So it is a talented writer who makes you want to hang around while he sets the scene, who makes the setting the whole point:
Mr. Vholes's office, in disposition retiring and in situation retired, is squeezed up in a corner, and blinks at a dead wall. Three feet of knotty floored dark passage bring the client to Mr. Vholes's jet black door, in an angle profoundly dark on the brightest mid-summer morning, and encumbered by a black bulk-head of cellarage staircase, against which belated civilians generally strike their brows. Mr. Vholes's chambers are on so small a scale, that one clerk can open the door without getting off his stool, while the other who elbows him at the same desk has equal facilities for poking the fire. A smell as of unwholesome sheep, blending with the smell of must and dust, is referable to the nightly (and often daily) consumption of mutton fat in candles, and to the fretting of parchment forms and skins in greasy drawers. The atmosphere is otherwise stale and close. The place was last painted or whitewashed beyond the memory of man, and the two chimneys smoke, and there is a loose outer surface of soot everywhere, and the dull cracked windows in their heavy frames have but one piece of character in them, which is a determination to be always dirty, and always shut, unless coerced. This accounts for the phenomenon of the weaker of the two usually having a bundle of firewood thrust between its jaws in hot weather.

Notice, he offers us the point of view of a client in the second sentence. So we become a character temporarily to view this place. This means we are not idle voyeurs but look with a sense of purpose. We're an actor in the scene. Then he gives us another actor: he writes that the office 'blinks!' Did you ever know one could? The office is suddenly a character too.

I read this scene and feel like something has already "happened." I also feel like I want to go wash my hands.

1 comment:

sheila said...

I am not going to remember the quote exactly but here is the jist of it. When I took a workshop with John Strasberg, he talked a lot about sensory work - and how it could be used or mis-used.

He said something like, "A good actor can change WHO they are. A great actor can change WHERE they are."

It really made me think.