The Death and Life of Drama

The Death and Life of Drama

LANCE LEE
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/705326
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  • Book Info
    The Death and Life of Drama
    Book Description:

    What makes a film "work," so that audiences come away from the viewing experience refreshed and even transformed in the way they understand themselves and the world around them? InThe Death and Life of Drama, veteran screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Lance Lee tackles this question in a series of personal essays that thoroughly analyze drama's role in our society, as well as the elements that structure all drama, from the plays of ancient Athens to today's most popular movies.

    Using examples from well-known classical era and recent films, Lee investigates how writers handle dramatic elements such as time, emotion, morality, and character growth to demonstrate why some films work while others do not. He seeks to define precisely what "action" is and how the writer and the viewer understand dramatic reality. He looks at various kinds of time in drama, explores dramatic context from Athens to the present, and examines the concept of comedy. Lee also proposes a novel "five act" structure for drama that takes account of the characters' past and future outside the "beginning, middle, and end" of the story. Deftly balancing philosophical issues and practical concerns,The Death and Life of Dramaoffers a rich understanding of the principles of successful dramatic writing for screenwriters and indeed everyone who enjoys movies and wants to know why some films have such enduring appeal for so many people.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79674-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. PART I Immediate Issues
    • CHAPTER 1 By the Ocean of Time
      (pp. 3-26)

      The title for this essay is taken from a chapter in Thomas Mann’sMagic Mountainwhere he reflects on some of the paradoxes we encounter in our experience of time.¹ Nothing is more commonplace or harder to understand or more likely to make us feel we are in Plato’s cave watching shadows we confuse with reality. Often we feel a nagging sense, like Neo inThe Matrix, that there is a truer reality above or below or beyond what we experience, and that if our immediate experience is an illusion so too is our perception of time, for that is...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Heavy as Opposed to . . .
      (pp. 27-42)

      Calling a filmheavyis not a compliment:heavymeans something emotionally unpleasant, a downer of an experience. We feel too that such an experience offends against the writer’s art. What in the handling of the inherent conflict of a screenplay that naturally provokes strong emotions in characters and audience makes a story feelheavy, as opposed to weighty or substantial, one worth the emotional effort demanded?

      Typically, John Book inWitnessthinks he’s in control of his fate at the start of the story, that his life belongs to himself and his time is present,now, and also his...

    • CHAPTER 3 Moral Substance and Ambiguity
      (pp. 43-57)

      The Hollywood tradition is confused and uncomfortable with the subjects of morality and intellect in film. But it is fair to ask what morality has to do with screenwriting: films and plays are primarily public entertainments. We can go to church if we want reflections on morality. “I,” a typical screenwriter, might say, “Just want to make money.” She or he can’t protect a script from producers and directors like a stage dramatist can; many hands may be involved in a film’s writing, not all credited. Additional production pressures and the need to repay investment and turn a profit make...

    • CHAPTER 4 Complexity vs. Fullness
      (pp. 58-68)

      To call a film full is a compliment that means we experience a cohesive story, however multithreaded, with a morally meaningful conflict necessarily and probably developed with characters who compel belief. We believe the action in such a film: nothing makes us suspend disbelief in order to go on. The suspension of disbelief is always a secondary phenomenon, a breakdown of the primary belief with which we invest a given story until it begins to fail us.¹ Complexity, however, is felt as a criticism of a film: a dramatic story has not added up, and its pieces lie in our...

  5. PART II The Cooked and the Raw
    • CHAPTER 5 The Cooked and the Raw
      (pp. 71-83)

      The action of an effective screenplay is immediate and emotional: we reflect on the larger meanings of the action when a film is over because of our emotional involvement with characters for whom we have been made to care. But there is a fundamental, common cleavage in how a writer chooses to handle a character’s emotion. Thecookedrefers to emotion experienced through some element of formalization, therawto its direct, unvarnished expression.Both styles communicate emotion with equal effectiveness, but each leads to noticeably dissimilar styles in handling characterization.

      Acookedhandling of emotion always involves a restraint,...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Smart and the Dumb
      (pp. 84-96)

      Just as there are two fundamental approaches to handling character emotion with strong implications for story development, there are two fundamental approaches to handling character growth: thesmartand thedumb. Neither term is pejorative or flattering: thesmartanddumbhandling of growth are equally effective and common in dramatic writing. Both also have implications for story development. A review of the old distinction between flat and round characters and their implication for typing will orient us.

      These terms usually have a literary reference and traditionally sum up the appearance and behavior defining a character. We give fresh life...

  6. PART III The Lost Poetics of Comedy
    • CHAPTER 7 The Lost Poetics of Comedy
      (pp. 99-122)

      No one knows what Aristotle’s lost chapters on comedy contained, so I am free to imagine what such a basic analysis of the essential nature of comedy might be. It will not be one of the plethora of comedy-writing “how-to’s” but instead refer to what comedy is in itself, and how and why its viewpoint is necessarily so at odds with that of tragedy and serious drama generally. Typical comic techniques can be left to a review likeA Poetics for Screenwriters, where mistaken identity, reductio ad absurdum, physical humor, misuse of language, witty dialogue, and irony all get their...

  7. PART IV The Nature of Dramatic Action
    • CHAPTER 8 The Weight of the Past
      (pp. 125-138)

      All knowledge rises from experience, but often on reflection our noonday certainties give way to unexpected doubts and the suspicion arises that whatever reality may be, it is not what we experience immediately. That suspicion deepens as we discover experience can now seemthisbut thenthat. That suspicion hardens to certainty when we add to it our sense of the relativity of time, where time may feel swift to me but slow to you as we go through the same events.

      That suspicion underlies a film likeThe Matrix, where experience turns out to be a virtual reality program...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Weight of the Wrong Decision
      (pp. 139-153)

      The weight of the past with which the protagonist struggles is often made up by life experiences that have steadily gone wrong, as inKramer vs. Kramer or LantanaorA Beautiful MindorWild Strawberries. Sometimes an event thought past, like his father’s death for Hamlet inHamletor the missing drugs for Book inWitness, are found to be vividly alive as the ghost haunts Hamlet and Book is almost killed after he links McFee to the drugs. Sometimes there are past events of which the heroine or hero had no knowledge, as withJulieinBlue, who...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Nature of the Hero’s Journey
      (pp. 154-186)

      All the preceding essays lead toward contemplating the nature of the journey on which our endlessly varied heroes go. That journey is rooted in the psychic realities described by Freud and Winnicott and embedded in the argument we are having with ourselves beginning with Descartes’ extreme dualism, a model that Freud accepted along with the materialist, reductive nature of nineteenth-century science. Nietzsche rebelled against that model, and Winnicott developed an alternative to dualism in the language of contemporary psychoanalysis. Drama comes down firmly against a dualistic view of reality and experience; the necessity for spelling out how that occurs and...

  8. PART V The Death and Life of Drama
    • CHAPTER 11 The Death and Life of Drama
      (pp. 189-218)

      Drama disappeared in the West from the early Roman Empire until its revival in the medieval church. Both births of drama in the West show it growing from religious practice. Drama’s first great flowering in fifth-century Athens died when the religious impulse moved elsewhere in society, although a new form of comedy arose in the fourth century in Menander that influenced the Roman Plautus and Terence, and through them Shakespeare and ourselves. Menander took a great deal of inspiration from Euripides, the last great Greek tragedian, who also influenced Seneca, Nero’s tutor. None of Seneca’s plays were performed in his...

  9. Appendix: A Case Study Ingmar Bergman′s Fanny and Alexander
    (pp. 219-242)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 243-254)
  11. Film and Drama List
    (pp. 255-258)