In Defense of Linearity

I have been thinking about the following excerpt from John Lahr’s review of THE MAN WHO — Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of the Oliver Sacks book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” — for quite some time now:

What we call “I” — the self that we spend a lifetime making and remembering — is really a story that we tell ourselves and that is reflected back to us by the world. When both versions of this narrative are more or less in synch, you have sanity; when they aren’t, you have madness.

If this is true — and although I instinctively believe it to be so, I’m relatively certain there are others who will disagree — then I think it makes (accidentally) a strong argument for linearity in storytelling, against which so many contemporary theater practitioners seem to be dead set.

No matter who we are, no matter what culture we come from, we cannot help but live our lives linearly. This is (obviously) because we move forward in time. We cannot change this. We may remember the past, of course, but in doing so, we are still remembering “in” the moment; we don’t actually return to an earlier time. The same thing is true when we daydream or in any other way anticipate or pre-figure the future. We cannot in any way escape the simple fact that we are slaves to time.

Some would argue that this is precisely what theater is about: by enacting rituals, we get outside of time, connecting with something “eternal.” I would counter thusly: that’s what *some* theater is about, and it’s also what religion is about, and I don’t particularly care for either. I understand the comforts they provide, but they’ve always seemed to me to be somewhat thin and disingenuous, and I just can’t connect with them very easily. Your mileage may vary.

I think there’s another kind of theater that’s about reflecting, in front of us, the linear stories we create inside of ourselves. A theater that’s about taking our personal narratives and weaving them into a larger cultural narrative that binds us together, that reveals us to one another, and that lets us reflect on what’s really going on for us in our hearts and minds. A theater of honesty, I might call it. And I think that theater is often, but perhaps not always, linear.

And despite what some other theater practitioners have argued, I think that’s absolutely fine. Call me un-hip, if you must; I’ll happily accept your jabs and japes… in the linear manner in which they must, by the laws of physics, be delivered.

15 thoughts on “In Defense of Linearity”

  1. Not a comment, but a question: Must it be a straight line?  If the world reflecting back at us is fractured or twisted, would not the line be fractured or twisted too?

    1. I think if we believe that plays should reflect, say, political structures, then perhaps a fractured or twisted narrative might make sense. But the world moves forward in time even as we do individually, so linearity still makes sense to me.

      In any event: my thoughts on this subject are evolving.

  2. Hello Gwydion! Glad to be connecting with you (via our friend Katie)… Here’s my take on linearity and storytelling:

    I agree with the John Lahr quote, but to me it points to a more interesting phenomenon – our obsession with making a linear story out of something (i.e. life, the world) that doesn’t necessarily fit into one. This is at the heart of the observation that the story we tell ourselves and the one that is reflected back to us can only ever be “more or less in synch” (at best). There’s a really great quote by the late playwright Steve Tesich that gets at this as well:
    “Life, it seems, is not meaningless but, rather, so full of meaning that its meaning must be constantly murdered for the sake of cohesion and comprehension. For the sake of the storyline.”

    Through our selective experience, interpretation, and memory of the almost endless supply of input around us from the moment we’re born until the moment we die, we craft a (constantly evolving) storyline that links all of those disparate moments and observations into a MEANINGFUL WHOLE. This is how we make sense of our world, our lives. This is the shared parent of religion, philosophy, and science: “Because ‘A’ happened and ‘B’ happened shortly thereafter, we can infer ‘C’ about the world.”
    It may sound as though I’m making an argument against linearity, but I’m not. While the linear stories we create in our minds might be (one could say) ‘false’ or ‘artificial’, they are necessary to who we are and how we make our way way in the world. And, regardless, our creation of them is compulsive: the findings of Lev Kuleshov are as indicative of the way we interpret the world around us (and theater!) as they are of the way we watch film.

    But I’m also not arguing against nonlinear storytelling, necessarily. What I am saying is that the smart theater-maker (and I’m specifically referring to what I would call the primary storytellers or ‘meaning makers’: playwrights, directors, and designers) acknowledges the fact that the audience will engage in this compulsive act of linear storytelling no matter what you put in front of them. And if they’re good, they use that fact to help them tell the story they want to tell.
    In a sense, I guess I’m arguing that there’s no such thing as a truly ‘nonlinear’ play (if we accept that a play implicitly has an audience – whether a reader or a spectator). Certain plays might resist linear interpretation, but it will always be a losing battle: our compulsion to tell stories about everything around us wins out in the end. It always does.

    (See what I did there? I applied my own narrative to the reading/viewing process!)

    What do you think?

    1. The first thing I think is that I ought to have let you write this blog post. I’m thoroughly engaged by what you’ve written. And I’m also quite grateful for it.

      Even though I don’t fully agree with it. 🙂

      It’s my belief that the sad fact of our existence is that it’s inherently meaningless, not (as Tesich said) “so full of meaning that its meaning must be constantly murdered for the sake of cohesion and comprehension.”

      I think the making of linear narratives — which I agree is embedded in who we are and is something we do even when presented with a non-linear piece of art — is how we create meaning out of meaninglessness. That’s why we do it, I would argue, so compulsively. Without it, we face the abyss. That’s why storytellers are vital to the soul of a culture.

      I would contrast that impulse very greatly from both science and religion, though perhaps not with philosophy. (The jury’s still out for me on that one.) I do not think they share a parent at all, or not clearly: I think they are three different responses to the blunt fact of the abyss.

      Science, for me, makes no comment whatsoever about meaning. Science is an attempt to dispassionately describe the universe we live in, without any value claims. Of course, science is done by people, and people aren’t perfect, so they sometimes corrupt science with other impulses… but the ideal version of science is unrelated to storytelling.

      As for religion… well, I would argue that it’s composed of two elements: storytelling and ritual. The religious stories that get told are, I agree, attempts to create meaning. But in most cases those stories are so old and codified now that they’re no longer stories: they’re hardened things behind cultural glass, at least for many people. It’s like they’re museum relics: they show us how we ONCE created meaning, long ago.

      Is a piece of ancient pottery — say, a water jug — sitting in a museum still a piece of pottery if it doesn’t hold water any more? Technically, perhaps, but not in a real sense.

      The other half of religion — ritual — is, I believe, an attempt to free us from the linearity of time: to connect us with “timelessness,” and thus somehow escape the obliteration of the abyss. Does it share something, perhaps, with storytelling? Maybe: the use of symbol. But I think that makes them distant cousins, not siblings.

      All of that said: I agree with your larger point that there’s no such thing as a non-linear play, if we assume that a play has an audience. (I do.) “[O]ur compulsion to tell stories about everything around us wins out in the end. It always does.” Very well said.

      1. And I’m grateful to you for such a thought-provoking blog! I want to respond with a few things, and hopefully I’m not veering the conversation too far off course (I have a tendency…)

        First, I feel like you and Tesich are secretly in agreement – but that might just be my biased interpretation of his thought. I agree that the world we live in and the moments we share are fundamentally meaningless: the many, many meanings we attach are of our own creation. When I read Tesich’s quotation, I guess I slip an unspoken ‘potential’ into “so full of meaning”; the quotation for me is about how we’re constantly ‘butchering’ countless potential meanings in favor of the one that allows us to make sense of the moment within our own worldview. Our ‘success’ at this selection process is what determines sanity or madness, as John Lahr says.Now I know this is not what the blog is about, but (if you’ll indulge me) I’d like to make an argument for the shared parentage of science and religion because it’s a subject that’s dear to me. You state that they share no parent, but agree with me that they are both responses to the abyss. To me, that impulse – the impulse to attach meaning to an otherwise meaningless world – is exactly the parent I’m referring to. I think it’s important to remember that the idea that religion and science are diametrically opposed is a fairly recent invention in human history. Many of the early advancements in science were accomplished by monks: they saw no difference between their religious studies and scientific experiments, both were understanding ‘God’s creation’. I’m not a history scholar, but my understanding is that the ‘schism’ between religion and science has its roots in the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. But even that was less a split between religion and science than an attempt to break away from the control a particular religious institution (the Catholic Church) had over science. In fact, as I understand it, the movement was fueled by the concurrent schism being led by Martin Luther and the Protestants. We cannot confuse ‘religion’ with one of its particular manifestations (i.e. Roman Caholicism, Islam) just as we would not confuse ‘science’ with one of its particular applications (i.e.- eugenics, alchemy).Science and religion have always been handicapped by the dogmatic institutions that control them. For an interesting read about what insight into our world gets lost when those dogmas clash, check out Mary Higby Schweitzer’s story: importantly (and this is where I potentially cross the line into madness), I think it is necessary to acknowledge that a belief in science still requires faith. When you visit the doctor, how much research do you do into the medicines prescribed to you? How much research did that doctor personally do? I want to share a story that I was raised with concerning my younger brother, who has Down Syndrome. My brother was born in 1983, my parents knew (thanks to blood tests) that he would be born with Down Syndrome but decided that they wanted to keep him. I know that many parents decide otherwise (I think the abortion rate in these circumstances is around 95%), and I have no judgement against those that do. But I am happy that Mitch has been a an active part of my family all these years: he works two part-time jobs, volunteers at the YMCA, and is involved in sports and theater. Now had he been born a mere 20 years earlier, in the early 60s, the story very likely would have been different. The doctors would have sat my parents down and told them that their son would never learn to walk or speak, never learn to feed himself. They would have painted a very clear picture of a very short future for Mitch that mainly involved him sitting in a corner and drooling. And my parents would have believed it, just as the doctors did – how could they not? And they would have signed my brother over to a state-run institution. They wouldn’t even have seen him; the doctors would have told them it was better that way. Who knows how many parents did just that?Were those doctors evil? Of course not. They were simply putting their faith in the story that other wiser scientists had cobbled together from the limited data they had access to. The same way each of us do, every day of our lives, in a myriad of ways. And sometimes we ascribe different names to these stories (Christianity, evolutionary biology, agnosticism, Hinduism, Marxism, homeopathy, etc); sometimes we find others whose narratives are “more or less in synch” with ours and we form a church, or a political party, a club, or a school. And sometimes we try to share those narratives and what they mean to us through a ritual, a speech, an essay, a book, a painting, a poem, or even a play.Thank you for indulging me on this little obsession of mine. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Adly Guirgis:

        I do know that I am in continuing need of the Spiritual and that I usually go to great lengths to avoid it. And I think I am not alone in that. And I think a connection to the Spiritual is essential to us as individuals and to the world as a whole. I think our survival depends on it. I also think that religion gets a bad rap in this country and that non-maniac-type people who are religious or spiritual have a responsibility to stand up, be counted, and gently encourage others to consider matters of faith and to define for themselves what their responsibilities are and what it means to try and be “good.” It’s not about joining a team or a church or choosing sides or learning a prayer. It’s not about man-made concepts of good and evil. It’s not about doing “enough” or “too little.” It’s not about shame and guilt. It’s about You. It’s about the collective Us. Thomas Merton said, “To be a saint means to be myself.” What if that were true?

        1. (Wow, it really screwed up the formatting there – making what were already mad ravings almost completely unintelligible. Sorry! Maybe look at it as postmodern?)

        2. Well, I was with you (almost) completely until you went with “believing in science requires faith.” I can’t follow you there.

          Science explicitly does NOT want faith. One of the tenets of science is that experimental results have to be repeatable by multiple people under varying conditions or they aren’t accepted. No one is ever expected to receive wisdom as dogma, like with religion.

          Even when I, personally, choose to accept the results of a given scientist, I am not not acting on faith: I am trusting in the enterprise of science. It’s rational, reasonable trust. Moreover, a doctor doesn’t have faith, either. They have an in-depth understanding of the science that informs the choices they made. That’s far from faith.

          I think the doctors who might, speculatively, have recommended terminating that pregnancy would have been relying on what was then the state-of-the-art understanding of Down’s Syndrome. Thankfully, science advances (more swiftly than religion, to be sure), and the same recommendation wouldn’t be made today… and wasn’t for your brother, who sounds awesome.

  3. The one time I wrote something with a nonlinear narrative, the play was basically about people incapable of moving forward, being weighed down by the past — so cutting back and forth across what was essentially three different narratives made sense. But I still held it all together with a story that unfolded in a linear way (otherwise I think the whole enterprise would have been an incomprehensible mess.) 

    Sometimes, I think nonlinear storytelling is like jazz hands when you don’t quite know the dance steps — flash to distract the audience. Sometimes, it’s something deeper.

    I prefer linear stories. 

    1. Non-linear storytelling as jazz hands: you read it here first, folks!

      I think the thing is that, because we are all living in and moving forward in time, all stories are experienced linearly, whether we like it or not.

      As storytellers, we can give people a narrative that aligns with that lived linear experience, or we can give people (as some are increasingly interested in doing) a bunch of stuff to interact with (as with Sleep No More) or a set of symbols whirling around on stage (as with, say, Black Watch) and let them each retroactively (?) construct their own linear experience out of that stuff. Seems like more and more folks want to do the latter. (Though as Travis Bedard has suggested, it may just be the people I’m hanging out with.)

      While I think the latter is a legitimate mode of art-making, to be sure, I’m just not that interested in it myself… which is all I’m really saying. My use of the “In Defense of” language might be suggesting that I think linear storytelling is genuinely under some kind of attack, and the truth is that I don’t: I think it’s doing just fine. It’s the predominant mode, in fact, of the stories we interact with. It’s just that I’m sensing a fad, either just in my neck of the woods or everywhere, and I don’t want us to take that fad too seriously.

  4. What are we talking about when we say “non-linear.” Your examples are “Sleep No More” which is the extreme of non-linear storytelling, and “Black Watch” which is actually pretty linear. It just has a lot of stage-whirling.

    What about all of those plays that fall in between SNM and perfect linearity. For ex: Gruesome Playground Injuries & How I Learned To Drive?

    I was going to just nod and agree to disagree (another instance of “You say tomato and I say otamoto”). But then you said “I just don’t want us to take that fad too seriously.” Which is fightin’ words.

    While we may experience life linearly, we are not linear creatures. We deconstruct linear experience as we take it in and package it within our selves in a very nonlinear way. Powerful experiences/memories sink to the center of our being. Others are shoved into nooks and crannies, broken down and arranged in a million different categories. And the vast majority of experience is discarded, forgotten.

    And sometimes that’s the best way to talk about human beings/experience–in a nonlinear, deconstructed fashion. And sometimes the dynamic of the play happens in the audience’s rearranging/filling in the pieces.

    I don’t think one form is better than the other. Just like I don’t think theatre is better than film is better than fiction is better than poetry. You choose the form that best tells the story you’re trying to tell.

    1. We always fight about the same things. Can’t we just get along? 🙂

      We’ll have to disagree (as we have before) about Black Watch. To me, it just was at most moderately linear.

      As for your description of who we are: I agree and disagree. I do think we deconstruct our linear experience of the world — break it apart into pieces that we break and re-paint and edit and stow away into crevices of memory. But we still live IN time, moving forward. Our present lives are linear narratives; the past is non-linear. But in thinking about the past, we often (usually?) think about it in linear narrative terms. (Even if we fictionalize most of what we remember, which I believe is the case.)

      But yes: sometimes the dynamic of the play happens in the audience’s re-arranging of pieces. We probably always do this, to some extent. But I don’t think this means it has to be any more than an occasional trick we call upon: one more tool in our tool belt. That, however, is just my personal preference. Well, along with the fact that I think TOO much non-linear work is part of what alienates many theatergoers. That’s a problem unto itself.

  5. I happily join you in the un-hip crowd of linerity/linearness. I too have gotten grief for writing straightforward this-happened-then-this-happened plays but that’s all I can do.
    And I’ll take your lament one step forward. I love it when time moves only forward in a play. But I hate it when the curtain goes down on Act I and comes up for Act II, and Nothing Has Happened. C’mon, really? I’ve been out of my seat, talking to whoever, checking my phone, having a drink, and the characters have been frozen in time? It feels lazy to me, like I’ve been cheated, as though it’s a one-act with a forced intermission. Better to skip forward even a little and allow me to ponder what took place in the characters’ lives during the intermission.
    Like you, I’m happy to admit this is just my nutty preference and there’s room for all of us on the big bus of theater.
    Anyway, we met this summer at the Kennedy Center and I enjoy all the great posts. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Larry!

      You know, I really find it an amazing feat when a playwright adheres to the Aristotelian unity of time. For a play to unfold in the moment, literally, from beginning to end… it’s really hard! I think we forget what an achievement it is.

      1. I have to agree. It’s easy in a movie to make the audience feel “wrung out,” like they’ve been on a wild ride, but to do it onstage in real time is a feat. Figuring out how to make all the information the audience needs come out of the characters’ mouths (and I’m not talking about direct address!) is at the heart of the linear challenge. I love it. It’s hard to do, but if you do it right, it looks easy to the audience, as though you just thought of a story and told it.

  6. Pingback: In Defense of Linearity | Tim Bauer: Playwright/Author

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