World Building

Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.

‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.

‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.

The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.

Why is world building so vital to good story telling?

As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.

The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.

No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.

The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:

can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass:

Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.

However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.

Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.

Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’

Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.

With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman [1949] written by Arthur Miller can also be paraphrased as “Death of the American Dream.” The celebrated play is considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

The play examines the life of Willy Loman, a businessman who is losing his grip on reality. Willy’s dissolution lies in his belief that a “personally attractive” man in business deserves material success.

This fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability are highlighted by his childishly dislike of the success of others won by hard work. Willy cannot accept the disparity between dream and reality and this leads to  his rapid psychological decline.

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His sons Biff and Happy are yet to make anything of their lives while Willy’s neighbours and older brother are successful. The family dynamic between Happy and Biff with their father Willy is one of disappointment and delusions. The son lie to their father about their plans for success while Willy reconstructs reality through flashback reminiscences of better days.

Willy is rude and unkind to his wife and neighbour, those most kind and caring to him. We learn that Biff’s lack of desire to pursue the American dream of business success, was birthed by learning his father was deceitful and philandering. Biff prefers to be an ordinary man with an ordinary life working on the land with his hands.

Willy refuses to accept the reality of what his sons tell him, preferring to slip into imagined flashbacks of what really happened in his past.

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Set in post war America, Death of Salesman was written into the twin sentiments of modernist melancholy and post-war optimism. While the United States experienced economic boom and rising middle class prosperity, socially and spiritually her people were struggling with existential crises.

The narrative shares timeless truths in relation to individual and national identity, capitalism, ideals of success and notions of integrity, morality and hard work.

 

 

 

 

Much Ado About Nothing

Queensland Theatre Company [QTC] recently produced Much Ado About Nothing and set the play in a contemporary beach-side home of wealthy widower Leonato, with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. Here they celebrate the visit of the Prince of Aragon, and his friends Count Claudio and Signor Benedick, men who are returned from service in the Royal Naval Forces.

The production was director Jason Klarwein’s mainstage directorial debut and to his credit, is raucusly funny and accessible. With a clever revolving set, the addition of live musical numbers, some audience interplay and a talented cast of actors – the production effectively wrings meaning and comedy from every turn.

MUCHADOLISTING

Much Ado, tells a lively and relateable tale of romance and betrayal and draws out the tensions between the the enslaving powers and institutions of love and the allure of freedom and independence.

Shakespeare’s greatness lies in part, to his masterful use of language and poetry and in part to his nuanced insights into human jealousy, love, hubris, revenge and vulnerabilities. As such, transplanting the story to a contemporary context only serves to highlight the humorous truths and insightful understanding of human beings through Shakespeare’s plays now some 400 years old.

What is most striking about Shakespearean staples such as Much Ado, is that they are not dissimilar to soapies or cheap penny-novellas in essence. They are made of the same stuff – star crossed-love stories, dilemmas of mistaken identities, machinations of wicked antagonists and the dysfunctions of family and culture.

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But what makes them different to mere pulp fiction?

Instead of succumbing to cliche, Shakespeare shines light onto seemingly every facet of broken humanity to reveal the humorous, tragic, poignant and transcendent elements of love, revenge and redemption. Much Ado for example, reveals from the mouth of Beatrice remarkably insightful feminist dialogue on the plight of a woman in love and marriage, her resistance to being owned by a man and caged like a bird.

It is commonly accepted that Shakespeare plagiarised common medieval plots for his plays and innovated on their bare bones structures. Watching the delightful comedy, set in contemporary time and place, laughing outright at the scathing burns and witty insights of the characters whether knowing or unknowing – one is reminded that classic does not mean new, it just means “truer” and “more timeless.”

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So today, we remake Shakespeare, just as in his day, Shakespeare remade medieval and classic court tales. The beauty of classics is that there exist layers of truth each subsequent generation can appreciate.

 

 

O, For a Muse of Fire

Henry V,

Act I, Scene I. Prologue: Enter Chorus

Chorus:

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

So starts the prologue to Shakespeare’s history, Henry V. In metanarrative the chorus goes on to call attention to the fact that this is but a company of actors, upon wooden boards, within a humble “cockpit” of a theatre, conjuring the magnificent histories of England and the battles of France and England at Agincourt.

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…………… But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The audience is asked to populate, through their imaginings, the vast armies,  cavalries of horsemen in the battle field, one or two actors transformed into hundreds of characters, and within a few hours, the happenings of years of historical events, all within the “narrow girdle of these walls”

the globe

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

………

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

………

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” the chorus speaks to the audience, removing the veil of pretence between the two, breaking the “fourth wall”. The adult audience is being asked to enter into the play, to become a part of it by supplying the props, sets, scenery and extraneous cast. The audience is actively PLAY-ing.

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This holidays I am at home with three neices, between 2 years and 8 years of age. I see them move between games and conversation, pausing casually to nibble imaginatively on a wooden piece of cake painted brightly. One sits dialoguing with her dolls,  the other role playing with costumes. Their pace is constant, like tightly wound tops they move without ceasing,  activity after activity, sometimes absorbed, sometimes quarrelsome. They are a marvel of imaginative involvement, mostly content unless tired or hungry.

All the time I see them learning. Learning to hit a ping pong ball for the first time, swinging and missing, and slowing learning coordination.  When restrained too long amidst adult conversation they grow restless and sulky, wanting desperately to keep on playing. Play, play, they want to play. The little knowledge I have of early education is that play is essential to childhood learning. It is a marvel of nature that children are compelled to play, to imagine and to explore. Difficult things are learned daily, a fearful world is explored and mysterious customs of the adult world, far beyond comprehension absorbed by imitation.

I reflect on the year of learning I have experienced – I would describe it “painful”, marked by “failure”, “hard work” at times “discouraging” and mostly “tiring.” When did we lose our sense of PLAY when learning new and difficult things? Why is not every new endeavour covered all around by imagination and role playing?

Furthermore I view a world troubled by international events, politics, religion, commerce, power. How can we as adults enter the “cockpit” of the Globe Theatre, and learn the messy business of life from a company of rag-tag actors and artisans? How can we thump each other with wooden swords, and die deaths from vials of poisons, bleed with ribboned blood and then rise at the end to bow and exit stage left? How can we play out our conflicts and not hurt each other deeply

How can our life and learning by led by “a muse of fire”?