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What is it about stories and the acting out of stories in drama that holds such fascination for us? Through the ages, an endless stream of narrative and enactment of narrative has filled some basic need in us and stimulated a seemingly insatiable desire for more of the same. We seem to have a limitless capacity for exchanging experiences, for filling our lives with representations of other people’s lives, for coming to terms with the problems and possibilities of life through a vicarious involvement in other lives, for incorporating the experience of others into our own and vice versa.
But what exactly are stories? What sorts of representations do they embody? What sorts of involvements do they elicit? A story or a narrative is an account of events. But it is not just any sort of account of any events. It is a selection and ordering of events into a meaningful pattern. It is consequential sequence of events. Its typical structure begins with a setting of the scene and introduction of characters in an initial situation, a state of relative equilibrium. It then proceeds to a disruption of this equilibrium, with the emergence of some sort of catalyst for the eruption of tension, conflict, misunderstanding, contradiction, mystery or loss. There follows an exploration of the causes, implications or consequences. Then come various attempts at resolution, which build toward a climax, a high point of tension, bringing revelation or catharsis. It ends with a resolution in a new state of relative equilibrium.
A story may be factual or fictional, comic or tragic, deep or superficial, mythical or mundane, verbal or visual, ancient or modern. If it is fully developed narrative, it is a highly structured and meaningful ordering of experience. It is a far more fundamental activity than we often realise. It is bound up in an intricate and complex relationship with our other activities and with our overall patterns of experiencing and coming to terms with the world.
To a considerable extent, we interpret the world, ourselves and other people through stories. We are continually perceiving, describing and detailing with new people and new situations through remembered images from past stories. We are constantly exposed to new stories, varying types of stories, conflicting stories. Much cognitive and emotive activity is actually a sorting out and weighing of stories. The more integrated, the more intellectually sophisticated and emotionally mature we are, the more actively we are ordering and re-ordering the details of such knowledge and experience as comes our way into a coherent narrative of the story of the world, the story of mankind, the story of our own time and place and the story of our own lives within the context of these other stories. The further this is pushed, the more the thrust is towards weaving all stories into one ultimate story. So much of our discourse is actually storytelling. How often, when asked for an explanation of an action or event, do we respond by placing it in a consequential sequence of prior events? So many theories are actually stories.
Conflicting theories, like theism versus atheism, idealism versus materialism, creationism versus evolutionism, voluntarism versus determinism, are in essence conflicting stories of how the same phenomena came to be.
Every story both presupposes and projects particular images of what human like is all about, a certain picture of the social order in which it plays itself out, and a certain implicit world-view. The most compelling and resonant of these images haunt us, weigh upon us, penetrate our patterns of thought and emotion, not so much directly and overtly, but indirectly and subliminally. The further we probe this process, the more obvious it becomes that narratives shape and are shaped by something larger than ourselves. There is every reason to believe that stories and images play a crucial, if often subliminal, role in the shaping and re-shaping of personality; in the forming and re-forming of a picture of the social order in which personality is realised; in the constructing and reconstructing of a world view through which all ideas and experiences are constantly filtered and re-filtered. Conversely, personality, social order and world-view shape the telling and re-telling of stories and structure the resonance of images.
Historically, the most compelling and resonant images and the stories in which they are embodied have gathered to themselves the force of myth. Myth is, it must be said, a term used in a very messy way in everyday discourse and used in very contradictory ways in academic discourse. It is often associated with primitive ritual and pre-scientific thought, with something essential to ancient Babylonians, Greeks or Celts or with remote Zulus or Navahos, but certainly not to ourselves and our cosmopolitan contemporaries. Alternatively, it is identified with general falsity and misconception, as when a notion is dismissed with the assertion “That’s a myth”. But myth is not necessarily either primitive or false. It can be primitive or modern. It can be true or false, though not in the same sense as a simple declarative sentence of mundane fact can be true or false.
What is myth then?1 Myths are stories, but not just any stories. They are stories of special symbolic significance. Myths are prototypical stories, concretising the really fundamental themes of human existence; involving archetypal characters and situations; expressing the really basic curiosities, hopes, fears, desires, conflicts, choices and patterns of resolution. Myths are paradigmatic stories, ie, stories that are told and retold as shedding light on other stories, as linking past and present, as bringing the unknown into relation with known. Myths are resonating narratives, embodying the distilled essence of human experience; giving symbolic answers to the most basic human questions, questions of origin and destiny; offering stylised solutions to the most basic human decisions; staking out the choices to be made at life’s cross-roads. Myths are normative narratives, setting out a society’s history, legitimating its institutions, codes and values and envisioning its future development. Myths are synthesising stories, capturing the zeitgeist of a time and place, bringing to a focus what forces are at work, highlighting its problems, and crystallising its values.
Myths are not fortuitous fictions, nor free floating fantasies. They are deeply rooted reflections of a society’s geographical conditions, technical means of production, social division of labour, political structures of power, state of scientific knowledge, etc. Whatever the ways of the gods and goddesses in the heavens, they have always been strikingly akin to the ways of men and women on the earth. They are not factual records of their times, but imaginative constructions of aspects of the collective consciousness that are as revealing in their way as any factual records. Myths are not static. They evolve in rhythms linked to the rhythms of a larger historical evolution. They twist and turn with the transformation set in motion with inventions, migrations, power struggles, invasions, victories and defeats. They are revised with revolutions. They reveal, not some mystified humanity transcending history, but a rooted humanity thoroughly and deeply shaped by the movement of history. Such universality as there is in the human condition emerges in and through the historical process and not in spite of or apart from it.
Mythical themes are those of creation and destiny, birth and death, fertility and sterility, initiation and estrangement, hubris and nemesis, good and evil, danger and flight, war and peace, privation and reward, covenant and betrayal, ignorance and enlightenment, quest and fulfillment, exile and promised land, golden age and apocalypse. Mythical lives are full of prophecy, incarnation, epiphany, mission, migration, metamorphosis, martyrdom and resurrection. Mythical imagery is grounded in the basic realities of light and darkness, sunrise and sunset, fire and storm, phallus and womb, birth and death. These fundamental experiences persist, and yet are greatly transformed, from one age to the next. Myths tend to capture both the continuity and the change. Indeed, they seem to emerge at the interface.
Mythical characters are “larger than life” in that they symbolise something larger then themselves. Their individual lives play a metaphorical role in relation to other lives. Their particular stories have a world-historical quality to them. Because they so strikingly embody something so basic in the collective psyche, their very names reverberate with deeper meaning. How rich are the connotations of: Odysseus, Prometheus, Oedipus, Narcissus, Sisyphus, Dionysius, Zarathustra, Cuchulainn, Adam and Eve, Moses, Job, David and Goliath, Jesus, Socrates, Buddha, Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, Don Quixote, Faust, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Cathleen ni Houlihan. More modern characters lack the same richness of reference, but approximate it in capturing something in the collective psyche that reaches beyond their individual character: the Lone Ranger, Rambo, JR Ewing, Fr. Ted. Not only fictional characters carry this sort of symbolic reference, but certain real historical figures loom so large that their names carry a sort of mythic force: Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Darwin, Einstein, Marx, Lenin, Parnell, Connolly, Larkin, Che Guevara, Mandela. Not only individuals, but groups, the druids or the fenians, can take on mythic meaning,
Places too, both fictional and factual, have mythic connotations: the garden of Eden, the rivers of Babylon, the road to Damascus, Sodom and Gomorrah, Camelot, the Alamo, the GPO. The locations associated with long-running popular serials can gather a kind of symbolic reference approximating the force of myth: Coronation Street, Cicely, Craggy Island. Certain objects and vessels also carry mythic connotations: Pandora’s box, Ariadne’s thread, the Trojan horse, the tower of Babel, the ark of the covenant, the cross, the hammer and sickle, the plough and the stars. Finally, there are mythic scenarios of lost civilisations and future states: Atlantis, Apocalypse, Utopia, El Dorado, Tir na nOg, Nirvana, the 1000 year reich, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the third wave.
There are many threads connecting myth past and present, but there have been many threads broken along the way as well. We must admit that the fabric is tattered, if not almost threadbare, in places. There can be little doubt that science has taken over much of the ground that was once occupied by myth. Myth no longer has the sort of explanatory function it once had. We no longer conceive of natural forces in terms of willful deities when we have become accustomed to the terms of the meteorological report. Despite the whole range of crude to sophisticated theological attempts to reconcile religion and science, there is no way we can relate to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in the same way as our pre-darwinian ancestors. However, we still can relate to biblical stories, as to those of classical Greece and Rome, as giving symbolic expression to centuries of collective memory. In doing so, something is lost and something is gained. Once we see Mary in the same way as we see Aphrodite, we have separated ourselves from our kin flying to Lourdes or Knock, but we have grown. We have advanced in wisdom, if not in grace.
It is a question of how to deal with our myths once we become conscious to them as myths. It is a question of how to acknowledge our traditional roots without violating our contemporary experience. It is a matter of achieving a vision “wherein the innocence of the morning will not any longer be strange to our maturity”2 Some would say that myth has no place at all in our world of modern science. Some engage in a spurious demythologising of contemporary religion. Others try to hold onto the old myths in as near the old ways as they can manage and try to conjure away the contradiction. Scholars, such as Joseph Campbell, have charted the path to such a vision in developing the science of mythology, conceived as a natural history of gods and heroes, which regards none as sacrosanct or beyond the domain of science. Using the analogy of the development of biology as a science, he staked out the rules for a rational relationship to the heritage of myth:
“Moreover, just as our science of biology came to maturity only when it dared to reckon man among the beasts, so will that of mythology only God is reckoned among the gods”3
To mature is to recognise both that it is impossible to hold onto the old myths in the old ways and that it is impossible to banish the old myths in the name of new ways. Religion, whether traditionalist or modernist, forms the strongest bastion of resistance at both ends. Contemporary theologians, such as Bultmann and Moltmann, have attempted to hold on to religion by purging it of myth. This strategy of demythologisation, however is based on a radical misconception of the nature of both religion and myth. Addressing himself to this position, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued:
“Modern man can neither get rid of myth nor take it at its face value. Myth will always be with us, but we must approach it critically … we come to recognise a fundamental convergence between the claims of myth and reason … every mythos harbours a logos which requires to be elaborated.”4
The point, therefore, is not to demythologise, but to remythologise. The point is not to strip religion of mythology, but to strip mythology of religion. The point is to re-interpret and re-appropriate myth in a way that is true to our rationality and modernity,
Myth should never be such as to override our science, but neither should our science displace our myth. Both science and myth making are very basic activities and the contradictions need to be worked through and resolved. With all that science can explain, with all we know about bacteria and black holes, about swarming neutrinos and orbiting satellites, we still need stories which connect us with our historical roots, stories which express the temper of our times, stories which project our prospects for the future. Without any supernaturalist overtones or regressive implications, it is still possible to re-appropriate the mythical imagery of the ages. In a way that makes metaphorical sense, if literal nonsense, atheists speak of the death of God and scientists name planets after Roman deities.
There are still some things about the world, about life at its testing and turning points, that are best expressed in images and stories, especially those with the sort of mythic symbolism which focuses our cultural experience, crystallises our values and extends our horizons. There is still something about certain patterns of behaviour that make certain adjectives like promethean, dionysian, protean, narcissistic, socratic, erotic or oedipal, the most compelling points of reference we can summon in describing them. We find meaning in them in a way that is very modern, in a way that is continuous with, but different from, the meaning they had for ancient Greece. The older images linger on and gather newer references in later ages, bringing the old and new together, sparking off each other and giving each a charge it would not have on its own. Such classical points of contact as touched in Joyce’s Ulysses, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra have a memorably powerful sweep to them.
The interaction is on many levels and to diverse purposes. Within popular culture, there are numerous examples, as when the Starship Enterprise encountered Apollo, who lamented for what later ages had lost amidst what they considered to be progress. Within academic discourse, there has been the appeal of Oedipus for such thinkers as Freud and Lacan and the appeal of Prometheus for such thinkers as Marx and Engels. For various mass movements, old images have continued to be a potent force. Nationalist movements, in the pattern of Irish republicanism’s connection with the Celtic revival, have testified to the fact that a nation’s sense of itself emerges, not only in its political response to the present, but in its mythical appropriation of its past. Left wing forces have drawn upon imagery garnered from centuries of slave revolts, peasant uprisings and proletarian strikes. Reference to events such as the Paris commune, the Easter rising, the October revolution, the battle of Jarama, Paris 68 and Woodstock have a mythic force. Right wing forces too have linked a mythic past to present movements and future glories in fascist appeals to Teutonic myth or the glories of ancient Rome and in the survivalist version of the black death, as they wait in their bunkers for destruction and regeneration to come full circle. Nearer to home, there is the loyalist refraction of present anxieties and conflicts through the glories of King Billy and the battle of the Boyne, as orange youth join their orange elders in building bonfires and following marching bands.
Old myths live on in new ways and new myths grow out of new times. But there is a great distance myth past and present. When we look at the societies that gave birth to the most compelling myths, we must realise that these images had a rooted meaning and a unifying power that no images, old or new, can have for our society. There can be no contemporary everyman. There can be no contemporary drama of ethical dilemma and decision that can call upon the same clarity, the same binding assent, as the medieval morality play could in its own world. In more simple, stable and self-contained societies, there is a clarity and cohesion in their modes of representation and codes of behaviour in which myth looms so much larger and is so much more actively and commonly affirmed. In our more complex, more mobile and more open societies, there is no such clarity and cohesion. There are so many conflicting accounts of origin and destiny, so many diverse modes of representation, so many antithetical codes of behaviour, that no one of them can have such binding force.
Such images as have any sort of mythic force do not loom so large and do not command such active and common assent. Often it is residual imagery, drawing a lingering power from systems of representation grounded in other times and places. This is the case with Ireland’s continuing adherence to traditional catholicism and new right’s revival of the mythos of early capitalism and fundamentalist christianity. When it is emergent imagery, drawing its force from the growing edge of contemporary consciousness, it is likely to be bleaker and more individualistic: the alienated man, alone in the urban crowd, waiting for Godot, looking back in anger, rebel without a cause, wandering dazed the day after the holocaust, or powerless in a world of virtual reality and omnipotent computers. For a brief interval, the emergent imagery was more hopeful and more communal: rebel with a cause, marching on the Pentagon, burning draft cards, gathered around the campfires of the resistance, exploring consciousness three, demanding power to the people, organising the revolution, building Woodstock nation. Another storyline seemed to be opening up.
However, by the 1980s, seemingly smothering all other stories and sources of stories, came the unprecedented popularity and near universality of the cults of Dallas and Dynasty. There was constant reference to its characters and images in everyday discourse and in other forms of popular culture the world over. There was the accompaniment of production and transmission with all sorts of ritual and lore, orchestrated journalistic gossip, guest appearances of stars on talk shows, in which actors meshed with their characters and discussed plots with their hosts with the most remarkable suspension of disbelief. There were bookmakers taking bets on who shot JR, Dynasty dolls selling for $10,000 each, contests to win a trip to Dallas and a walk-on part and a presentation of one square inch of Southfork to Gay Byrne by the Dallas Rose in the 1985 Rose of Tralee pageant. Even if no single series has achieved the same iconic status as Dallas and Dynasty in the decade since, the dominant narratives of globalised popular culture are still coming from the same source.
Much of it is commercial marketing and media hype, but it raises the question of the difference between myth and pseudo-myth, of the line between myth making and myth faking. It might seem a sham to put Dallas, Baywatch and Friends in the same category as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Upanishads, the Bible, the Tain or Canterbury Tales. It might seems incongruous to speak of JR Ewing alongside Achilles or Cuchulainn or to compare Ally Mc Beal to Aphrodite or Persephone.
By the standards of the great classical myths, their characters are so shallow and so glib, their imagery so stereotyped and debased, their plots so superficial and contrived. They produce neither illumination nor catharsis. They carry no parabolic conviction. They do not embody the values of a whole society. Nevertheless, they fulfill at least some of the functions of the myths of the ages. Television has brought forth a population of archetypal figures, which elicit a certain kind of personal involvement and constitute communal points of reference. They express in their own way something about the temper of their times. It is true that they are commercially packaged products for mass consumption, but their commercial success is dependent on capturing something in the mass psyche which responds to them.
In addressing this question, Martin Esslin has argued that Lucy, Kojak, Archie Bunker and the Fonz might cut pale figures set side by side with those of Odysseus, Achilles, Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, but their genesis as the outcrop of the collective unconscious has not been so different. The pantheon of archetypal characters in the ever recurring situations of television serials, he has contended, accurately reflects the collective psyche, the collective fears and aspirations, neuroses and nightmares of the American population, as distinct from the factual reality of the state of the nation.5
The collective psyche, of course, is no monolith. The factual reality of the state of the nation, in the case of the US in the 1980s for example, evoked diverse, if overlapping, responses from different sectors of the population. It was a time of divergent, even antithetical, myths. Even in terms of what was within the range of what Hollywood was able to detect, package and disseminate, Rambo, Dallas and Hill Street Blues each indicated something different about the collective fears and aspirations, neuroses and nightmares. Each was a part of the collective dream life of the culture that created it.
The picture becomes even more complicated, as these images enter the dream life of other cultures and interact with their own indigenous images. The Irish audience for example, watches ER, as well as East Enders and Fair City. Their ensemble of characters spring from very different roots and set off very different resonances, but they coalesce in the Irish mind to form some sort of composite picture of a person living in the early 21st century. Ironically, the Irish character created for television who has resonated most widely in the international arena is Fr.Ted Crilly. After all the angst associated with catholicism, farce has been the face of catharsis.
Hollywood has continued to prevail over all other sources of cultural production. The whole world is still watching what comes from the US and references to The Sopranos and The Simpsons are universal points of reference and even illumination. Many found the cartoon world of Springfield to be a more insightful exploration of the terrain of contemporary experience than more intendedly realistic portrayals. Bart Simpson stepped forth as one incarnation of a contemporary everyman.
Television at its best has been conscious of its role in creating contemporary myth and its continuity with past myth. Perhaps the most elaborate orchestration of this has been Northern Exposure. With immense intricacy and irony, characters interpreted the contemporary through primitive, classical, medieval and modern myths. Joel dreamt of Sisyphus bequeathing him the rock to be endlessly rolled up the hill. Chris thanked Maurice for being Apollo to his Dionysias. Marilyn Whirlwind told old Inuit tales to explain the dynamics of life in the late 20th century. Ed, the apprentice shaman, found in Hollywood films the most natural source of explanatory stories. The whole cast of characters were constantly dreaming the present in relation to past stories.
Myths are collective dreams. Myths are the products and producers of the larger recurring dreams, which seem to give meaning to the facts of everyday life. Myths build up from old dreams and in turn are the building blocks of new dreams. Myths are generated by collective fantasy and in turn generate further fantasy, both individual and collective. Myths both feed off popular imagination and feed back into it. Over a period of years, we build up a store of images, drawn from a host of sources. We find ourselves rambling through time, rummaging about in them, reviewing them, revising them, re-arranging them, reflecting upon them, re-incorporating them. Some of these are more memorable than others, popping up again and again, haunting us even when we are off guard. Those that touch something in us and spark off it tend to recur more and more and become most thoroughly incorporated into our consciousness. Those that touch something in many individuals and keep sparking off it and become terms of reference are on the road to becoming myths. Northern Exposure dramatised all levels of this process brilliantly.
There are various levels of dreaming. When asleep, the images flow in free association with a minimal amount of restraint from logical or empirical considerations. When awake, the images still often flow in a kind of free association, but usually in a way that is more consciously controlled, more logically coherent and more empirically grounded. For most, it is left at that, with images emerging and dissolving, fusing and fragmenting, being absorbed both above and below the threshold of consciousness, contributing to their picture of themselves, other people and their world. For most, the images exist in a juxtaposition that retains a modicum of logic and a sense of reality, but a juxtaposition that brings the imagery to no higher order. For some, however, the images float wildly, cut off from logical and empirical constraints until the individual gets lost in a realm of fantasy and loses the grip on reality that is necessary to bring fantasy and reality into a healthy relationship or into a creative achievement. For others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the imaginative process is most active, most self-conscious and most disciplined by rationality and reality, bringing the flow of images to a higher order, gathering them into a creative synthesis and raising dreams to the level of art.
The creative person does not burst forth with a great project, painting, novel, play or film ex nihilo, but brings to a sharper focus what is hovering around in fuzzy and unfocused juxtaposition in others. All true art strives towards myth, in the sense of expressing the zeitgeist of its creative moment.
Dreaming, whether it issues in madness and myopia or in art and myth or simply in everyday fantasy, tends to dramatisation. The play of images moves in the direction of an imaginary enactment of scenarios. Dreaming or imagining is often the dramatisation of consciousness itself, with internal conflicts being played out in various ways and experimentally resolved. A person’s fantasy life is often the internal drama of multiple impulses, being cast as programmatic identifies, which confront each other in various ways in alternative scripts. In this sense, anyone with a lively imagination, ie, anyone who engages in an active experimentation with images is an incipient playwright. When this internal process is externalised, we have the birth of plays and playwrights. When this loose and individual process is tightened up and socialised, we have come to the level of what is in the strict sense drama.
What then is drama? Drama is the enactment of a narrative. It is a highly structured ordering of experience. It is, in fact, a highly structured experience in itself. It is both about heightened experience and a heightened experience in itself. It involves a ritual entering into a story, both by those who present it and by those to whom it is presented. Drama is a highly schematised and condensed focusing of human experience in its moments of greatest intensity, in its moments of crucial choice and catharsis. It is a highly stylised and ritualised presentation of the human situation at the crux of things, at the crossroads, at the turning points. Drama is based on a causal arrangement of facts and events and an extremely rhythmic organisation of time. It calls for a particularly intense concentration of attention and organisation of psychic energy. Once seated in a theatre, cinema or in front of a television set, with the expectation of the elements of drama, we do not want to be presented with events at the level and pace of everyday life or at random. When the action is too slow, too loose, too flat, too rambling, we tend to become bored, anxious or resentful.
As to where to draw the line between what is and what is not dramatic, it is not so simple. The line certainty does not coincide with the line between fact and fiction or the line between plays and real life. There is the genre of the drama-documentary. There are numerous studies showing how news, features, sports, adverts and virtually all of television’s genres are also organised along dramatic lines. There are situations in real life that are more dramatic than those of many plays. There are people we encounter who are more dramatic than characters we see on stage or screen. We are all the time acting out the stories of our own lives, sometimes very dramatically, when we come to points of heightened experience and concentrated focus.
There is drama wherever and whenever there is the convergence of the elements of narrative, enactment, heightening and condensation. Across all its forms and genres, whether fact or fiction, single plays or series, comedy or tragedy, historical or contemporary, there is drama in the crucial situations of life which arouse curiosity, stir conflict and bring about catharsis. Drama revolves around situations of moral choice, crime, enigma, enlightenment, rivalry, vengeance, ambition, power struggle, natural disaster, deception, madness, loss, alienation, reconciliation, revolt, conflicting ideologies, historical transitions, identity crises, clash of old and new ways, rural-urban contrasts, male-female relations, reproduction, family tensions, social problems, political upheavals.
Drama has undergone numerous transformations:
· shifting its centre of gravity from the communal chorus to the lone individual.
· swinging between realism and romanticism, naturalism and expressionism, socialist realism and avant garde formalism;
· evolving through festival, theatre, radio, cinema and television.
But perhaps it is the medium of television that has wrought the greatest transformation in drama or, more significantly, in the role of drama in the rhythms of everyday life.