Saturday, July 14, 2007

Punctuated Equilibrium

Tracy Letts' August: Osage County has me questioning some of my basic assumptions about story structure.

Osage County is just about three and a half hours long, including two intermissions. And while I personally didn't experience the transcendent "it felt like no time at all" that some audience members have claimed, it was all in all an engaging time in the theater.

There are some production questions I would raise in another forum, but I'm trying to stay on the right side of my self-imposed rules against reviews. What interests me here is the structure of the story.

Despite the dominance of the matriarch of the family, I would say there is no true protagonist. Likewise there is no single dominant story arc, no central spine of action. True, all the action is set into motion by the family returns to the homestead - so it is sent in motion by a single action. But unlike protagonist driven work, each of the subsequent choices do not link together in a chain of causal action.

Normally, I would find these kind of story structure to be flat, meandering. But somehow, Osage County remains engaging.

One of the tactics I see is what I'm calling "Punctuated Equilibrium," to borrow poorly from evolutionary theories. Each of the characters in Osage county are locked in some sort of stasis. Throughout the course of the play, each of those characters takes a stand or makes a choice - and the stasis is broken. This periodic punctuation definitely keeps us engaged. But these choices are not chained together - in some cases they operate almost independently. As a result, instead of story structure that looks like this:

We have a story structure that looks more like this:

There seem to be a fair number of some people call "ensemble plays." I've heard ensemble plays defined as a work were the characters act as a collective protagonist. But I've not really been satisfied with that definition. Could punctuated equilibrium be a valid way to look at ensemble story structure?


ZanS said...

If "punctuated equilibrium" can mean a character's learning something new about his relationship to others in his primary social group(s), I'd say yes.

Osage County has one character, the family, which is kind of what ensembles tend to resemble. What made the play click for me were the discoveries and non-discoveries, i.e. did F. Guinan's character ever realize Rondi's infidelity?

To me this play was a character study as seen through a fly's eyes; many different facets exposed, some through action, others through inaction. I wouldn't have any idea how to chart it.

Before reading Jones' review, I thought of it as an O'Neill play set in the modern southwest with a touch of Shepard, and T. Williams thematic mendacity.

Aaron Carter said...


Your comment about "through a fly's eyes" got me thinking. What we usually chart in a play is the onstage action. But we rarely chart the audience's arc.

I've never thought of them as two distinct things before, but maybe this switching from facet to facet generates enough forward momentum in the audience that our interest is held, even if there isn't rising tension on stage.