response to Shaw on Ibsen

on G.B. Shaw’s essay “The Technical Novelty in Ibsen’s Plays” (with a little Brecht thrown in for good measure):

I don’t think that Shaw’s notion of plays as ‘discussion’ is necessarily incompatible with the Action-based theories of Aristotle.  Indeed, Shaw is not arguing for just plays with people talking about ideas, which Robert McKee or David Ball would find untenable.  Discussion as a play’s motivation, I think in Shaw’s eyes, is more about the nature of ideas themselves, which are deeply rooted in individual’s desires, and therefore their actions.
When A Doll’s House shifts to the discussion mode, the characters are laying their inner subtext bare, so that actions=ideas; Nora’s decision to leave Torvald is not then, because of the untenable circumstances of the plot, but driven by the conflict of her desires with torvald (and society).

Most importantly, when the audience can feel the shift when the play goes south of their well-made-play expectations.  The playwright then has the opportunity to really engage them on an intellectual level.  As opposed to simply the emotional joyride of tension and release that the well-made play offers, this jarring shift forces the audience to look at the play, and the characters situations, from a more mindful, thoughtful place.

This was Brecht’s goal too, his alienation effect was not meant to turn the audience off, but to force them to find distance from the play so they can think about it on a deeper level than plot and circumstance.  That said, I have seen Brecht-inspired (or so they claimed) works that  pushed the audience too far away, so that the only intellectual engagement was on technical or directorial feats.
Personally I think there’s a middle ground between intellectual and emotional goals in the theater, and narrative in general.  I think that by generating a powerful emotional response in an audience, you can stimulate their  minds not just during the narrative experience, but for some time after.

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