Friday, October 19, 2007

Honest Endings

I just finished re-reading a play that raises a craft question for me. How do we create honest endings for situations that in reality are on-going?

Say you write a play that deals with a family's struggle raising an autistic child. Well, the autism isn't going to disappear - the issues the family faces are life-long. So how do you create an ending - a sense of closure that clearly tells you the piece is over, without creating an accidental feeling that the struggles themselves are over?

I'm looking for actual examples here. What are some plays that you've written or read that dealt with ongoing struggles and how did they end? More to the point - how did you create a satisfactory ending rather than just stopping the piece. I mean, when the lights come up, the audience goes home, but that doesn't mean there was a satisfactory ending. Just an efficient stop.

A random thought on theory: people often place theory and practice in opposition. More than one writer on this blog has said in effect: "This is fun, but I've got to go make theater now." Theory is not just abstract thought, although we often treat it that way. To create a theory is to observe phenomena and then attempt to explain the reasons why the phenomena occurs. In an incredible simplification: Darwin observed the diveristy and similarity of species. And observed and observed. And evolutionary theory was created to explain that diversity and similiarity. To come up with the reason why.

And so, when I ask for concrete examples, that's the step I'm trying to take. Instead of pontificating (which is not theorizing), I'm asking us to make observations and try to relate those observations together.

So - like I said. Endings that honor the ongoing nature of a particular struggle. Who's got one?


Paul Rekk said...

I love endings -- although I tend to focus on them in film more. I often find myself about 2/3rds of the way through a film that I'm enjoying when the thought'll cross my mind: "Ok, now how are they going to end this?" It's not that I've been taken out of the film or that I'm trying to guess the ending, but that a well-timed and toned last few minutes (and there are so many possibilities!) can leave you holding your breath for a few extra seconds while the credits begin to roll. Those are some of my favorite second in the world.

Personally, I'm a fan of endings that do just break off in a certain sense of unresolve. I don't need full closure -- the reminder that things are moving along without me is often good enough. And I think that's a sort of ending more widely used in film than in theatre, which might explain my preference. And of course, now I can't come up with any specific examples to support myself. I'm no good in the spot, Aaron!

I guess you're stuck with pontificating from me -- hopefully someone can drum up some examples in my place.

As far as my own work, I often end up coming around full circle. My ends and my beginnings are usually very similar, sometimes word for word. It's an effect than ends up being more versatile than one would expect, and thank god, because I keep finding myself returning to it unwittingly.

A sidenote: In the right situations, I'm also a big fan of the no curtain call approach. More than a few times I've had the aftertaste of a play ruined by the smiling "It's Over!" faces.

Scott Barsotti said...

A play I wrote a couple years ago called "Jet Black Chevrolet" was put up by Curious Theatre Branch in '06, and it had one of your honest endings, I think.

In the play, a couple has lost a son in Iraq, he went against their wishes and died after a short time on the ground. The wife is severely agoraphobic and hasn't left the house in months or even picked up the phone or newspaper, she believes her son is "missing" as was the case when last she opened her ears. Her husband knows the truth.

Throughout the play, they both have hypothetical but real-though-imagined conversations with their son, both remembering him and thinking of him very differently.

At the end of the play, the wife is unwittingly exposed to the truth that her son is dead, and even acknowledges that she knows, but continues to speak of him as though he's still coming home. The final image is of her son standing behind her with his arms around her shoulders, asking when it's ok for him to come back, to which she replies, "Whenever you want."

The moment has some definite finality, and some who saw it described it as very sad and even creepy, but doesn't resolve the issue. The issue of living without their son will be an ongoing struggle and source of tension and grief, but the change we've witnessed is in the mother/wife, who in learning of her son's fate has actually been driven to an even deeper, more intentional, perhaps more emotionally dangerous denial. But we don't get to see that part.

Tony said...

I've always loved how Stridberg's The Dance of Death ends.

It's about a bitter old married couple. They suck in anyone in their path of destruction like a tornado and repeatedly try to kill one another through whatever means they can think of. After they have failed enough times to exhaust themselves they sit in oppoosing rocking chairs. One puts a hand on the others. One asks "what now?" The other respondes "Shall we try again?" They both smile as the lights go down.

(Strindberg obviously does better than I.)

Scott Barsotti said...

Hmm...what about something like Pinter's "Betrayal", where the last scene of the play is the first of the story? We end the show and leave the theatre with not just a sense but a knowledge of what's to come...or is that just a gimmick that tricks the audience into feeling smart and satisfied? "Ah yes...we know how this goes."

The situation isn't necessarily ongoing, it has a finite end (we saw it in the first scene, apparently). The struggle is on its way in the world of the play, though in real time we've already experienced it and seen it unfold.

Paul Rekk said...

Craig Wright's "Grace" uses a somewhat similar tactic by opening with the climactic ending scene. As the audience becomes enrapt in the story, they place the beginning to the back of their mind. Then the events come back around again and the audience is torn, knowing what will happen but also hoping against hope Wright grants them a reprieve and lets things play out differently.

It's not really the same idea that you were talking about, Aaron, but effective nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Specifically regarding the autism idea

-A protagnoist has to come to a realization about the circumstance even if the circumstance doesn't change. That realization is the resolution hence the end.


ian mairs said...

I think Aaron poses a pragmatic question. A certain person with the initals CS would say "If there is something you perceive wrong with your ending, then there is something probably wrong with your beginning." It was kind of Kung Fu and his master answer that made me want to haul off and ....
But spending more time with it. That answer is actually consistent with what I try to follow. Someone else said in a workshop I took "you make a deal with the audience the first ten minutes of the play of how they are going to watch it."
And looking as some work I really have enjoyed I knew pretty early on "this is not going to have much a resolution, I need to focus on what is being explored or bandied about." If I am watching a clever play which is dependent on my enjoyment at revelations and conclusions, my expectation is that it will be resolved in this fashion and when I feel "let down" by the ending it is because the writer created an expectation which wasn't satisfied to my mind.
Alot of my plays are about how you can't escape your family. Several of them (like three or four) begin and end with the same picture but what has happened in between that time has hopefully informed the picture and given it some texture.
But people walk out of them sometimes and are puzzled. But life is puzzling and mysterious and I am not so worried about the ending. I don't go to an Altman film for the plot.
Any of this making a connection?
Hope so. I really enjoyed reading other entries.

David said...

Hi Aaron, just a quick thought, as one who has written a comment or two on this blog to the effect of, "This has been fun, but now I need to go and write."

It isn't so much that I think that theory and practice are separate, even irreconcilable things... or that one is more valuable than the other. Put simply, and for me only, it's just a question of the amount of time I have available to write.

When I am, occasionally, forced to make a choice between reading, considering and writing about the topics under discussion here, or going to my writing "space," picking up one of the pieces that I'm working on currently, and applying some of the theories and questions that have been discussed here, I'll generally choose the latter.

It doesn't have anything to do with what I think are the very valuable, practical discussions of theory on this blog. I do think that the theories discussed here should be put into practice, and that we should attempt to further understand the things we're writing through discussions of theory. It's simply that, with limited time available to me to write, and most of that going to paying clients, I have to be very protective of the time I have left to do my "creative" work.

And by "protective," I mean protecting myself against myself. I have a major tendency to get carried away with such discussions (here and elsewhere), because I find them fascinating. As a result, I often find myself bumping up against a firm client or personal deadline. At other times, I get so excited about what I'm reading here, that I need to take the ideas that have been under discussion and work them out on the page, myself.

To be clear: No offense taken, and I don't think any was intended. I just thought I'd clarify what I meant when I've written, previously, that I was going to "take my marbles and run!" (Smile.)

Ah, the limits of electronic communication...

Devilvet said...

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I miss coming here and going euuuuuu....
something new


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