Thursday, 31 May 2007

Magic Moments

I was going to go to the opera the other weekend (Tosca was on at the Nottingham Royal Centre), but events conspired against me. So, to console myself, I bought the Benoit Jacquot film version starring Angela Gheorghiu (catch me, I'm swooning).
And I watched it yesterday evening, blubbing like a big fool.
Anyhoo, several things struck me. So here are some random Tosca-inspired observations:

Time of Life:
At the beginning of Act III, Tosca is up on the ramparts with her lover Mario. He's about to be shot at dawn. However, Tosca has struck a bargain with the evil Baron Scarpia, and she explains to Mario that the executioners will be firing blanks; Mario must fall to the floor, feigning death, and then they can go off together. They sing of their love for each other and of the wonderful life they will share together.
Well, Scarpia wouldn't have been so evil unless he had lied to Tosca, and the executioners will be using live ammunition. BUT, the audience doesn't know this, and nor does Tosca, and nor does Mario.
Here, the audience is invited to project into the future, to embrace hope. Tosca and Mario really will spend their lives together in lovers' bliss! Without this moment, without this image planted into the audience's mind, without this context of rise and fall, Mario's death will have a much lesser impact.

As we write, we have a good idea of where we are going. This knowledge is often something that we do not want to share with the audience. We can misdirect the audience. We can place ourselves into our characters and believe what they believe and write with that conviction such that we might convince our audience that things will be wonderful.
It's a very powerful and easy to apply technique: it requires only that we forget ourselves as authors and enter the real-time world of our characters. Just as you sit there imagining that you have a future, there may well be a runaway truck coming for you as I type. Imagine the effects of gifting you with that knowledge now. Imagine the different effects upon the narrative and the reader's experience.

I don't know anything about acting: I can well imagine that it requires the same discipline and determination as writing to achieve well. And, like writing, the techniques often stay hidden from the casual onlooker until they are performed badly.
As Tosca explains to Mario about the bargain she has struck with Scarpia, the camera closes in on their faces, framing them cheek to cheek. What Mario does not yet know is that Tosca has murdered Scarpia (one of the greatest 'choices made under pressure' of all time, agonized through the magical Vissi D'Arte aria). So I'm waiting for the moment that Tosca mentions the blade, and watching for Mario's response: at the mention of that word, he should begin to understand what she has done.
However, and as we see above, an actor in character should not know anything that is in the libretto to come: at this moment, I would expect Mario's eyes to widen, for him to react to the word 'blade'. Whilst Roberto Alagna has a terrific voice, he often fails to respond as I would naturally expect him to. He, the actor, knows every word of this opera, and he knows how it will end. But the character Mario does not, must not.

Through our life's experiences, we have come to expect call and response, action and reaction. As authors, we should understand what our characters understand, we should read them as a reader will be reading them.

One Look:
The rifles fire and Mario falls to the flagstones and Tosca is well impressed with his acting. Tee Hee. At this moment, she (and the first-time audience) still believes that Mario is alive and he is going to stand up and brush himself down and take her away to some beautiful cottage in some peaceful part of the world.
As he leads the execution party away, Scarpia's also-evil henchman Sciarrone turns to Tosca and does this horrible leer thing, not far removed from the famous Voight leer from Anaconda. This is a purely visual moment; not something that you would normally discern in an opera. But that twisted smile makes a massive impact: it is the first moment the audience realizes that something is wrong. That leer made all my hairs stand up, not least because I'm used to Tosca only realizing that Scarpia has cheated her from beyond the grave at the moment when she tries to rouse Mario.

All three observations pertain to knowledge within a time frame. The author must understand that his knowledge is different to the reader's. As far as the reader is concerned, nothing exists beyond the moment. Even if the author is skilful at creating anticipation, the reader's knowledge still does not extend beyond the here and now. This is the time frame of the real world, of the audience, and it is very different to the time frame of the story. If we are to write for a reader, we must remember that this reader lives moment by moment.
There are moments when the reader begins to understand something, and these are very powerful moments; they can be created from the smallest of actions, the most economical of sentences, the tiniest of inferences.

No comments: