Going Into the Woods, by Christine Boese
A Monumental Writing Task: Are YOU up to it?!
For those of you who don't know or don't remember Stoppard's play, here's the skinny. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern journey out of a limbo of coin flipping to be originated as minor, MINOR characters in Hamlet. Like the backstage scenes in Noises Off, poor Gildenstern and Rosencrantz wander around in Elsinore with the actors and servants, getting only glimpses and hints of the "main" action.
I won't even attempt to summarize Stoppard's clever irony and quick bantering dialogue. It is a witty, chatty play that seems to wander around in search of itself. Yet because we know Hamlet, we already know how it has to come out. What we don't know is how it will get there.
Which reminds me of a book by Marilyn French from the early 80's. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. French brings forth an analysis of Shakespeare's "masculine" and "feminine" plays. The book is called "a feminist's view of Shakespeare," but the current breed of feminists would probably dismiss it as essentializing in its assumptions of what is masculine and feminine.
Regardless, the ideas I bring away from the book have less to do with masculinity and femininity than with a division of style within Shakespeare's plays: between the more linear plots, tragedies mostly, and the more episodic, hypertextual wanderings in the woods of the comedies. The latter can be frustrating to folks weaned on plot progression. Characters come together, talk a bit, leave, re-enter in different combinations, banter wittily, mix and match, deceive, dissemble, and muck up the works. The point can only be found in the spirit of play, which is what one usually does in the woods.
Thinking about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I was struck by bigger and bolder ideas, the kind that would make Faulkner blush. Imagine a sprawling, beast of a novel. Imagine its characters. Now imagine that each character gets its own full length novel, and they are all woven between each other with richness, cleverness, wit, and dazzling art. Wow! That would be "Kool!", as Beavis might say to Butthead.
As in the Woods, there would be many paths, to accommodate the person who picks a character and follows her around until the end, then starts over with a new character. But like in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sometimes the various stories would share common action, as when Stoppard's play intersects with Hamlet for a bit. Story lines would branch apart and come together. Think of the combinations!
Readers can also switch characters/story lines midstream, warp the space-time continuum, create custom flashbacks, get to know a fictional universe the way a kid gets to know the woods -- by bits and pieces, collecting innuendos and hints. Exploring.
But there's the challenge. If we fall too deeply into non--linearity, readers will never go near our woods. If they can't see the connections early on, they will not engage. There have to be some rewards. My screenwriting workshop advisor used to ask us over and over, "What's the payoff?"
Go ahead. Be as postmodern as you like. Avoid closure all you want. But you better give me a reason to want to read this junk. Lead me on a little. Withhold information. Leak out small doses of linearity. There is something important we get, after all, from plot.