The Art of Theatre: 2 The Retrospective: Nicholas Wright's masterclass

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The gods it is I ask to release me from

this watch

A year's length now, spending my nights like a dog,

Watching on my elbow on the roof of the sons


So that I have come to know the assembly of

the nightly stars

Those which bring storm andthose which bring

summer to men,

The shining Masters riveted in the sky -

I know the decline and rising of those stars.

And now I am waiting for the sign of the beacon,

The flame of fire that will carry the report

from Troy,

News of her taking. Which task has been

assigned me

By a woman of sanguine heart but a man's mind.

Yet when I take my restless rest in the soaking dew,

My night not visited with dreams -

For fear stands by me in the place of sleep

That I cannot firmly close my eyes in sleep -

Whenever I think to sing or hum to myself

As an antidote to sleep, then every time I groan

And fall to weeping for the fortunes of this house

Where not as before are things well-ordered now.

But now may a good chance fall, escape from pain,

The good news visible in the midnight fire.

Pause. A light appears, gradually increasing, the light of the beacon.

AGAMEMNON by Aeschylus

trs Louis MacNeice: start of play

From the down-left door, Police Sergeant Victor Franz enters in uniform. He halts inside the room, glances about, walks at random a few feet, then comes to a halt. Without expression, yet somehow stilled by some emanation from the room, he lets his gaze move from point to point, piece to piece, absorbing its sphinxlike presence.

THE PRICE by Arthur Miller, Act I

CLYTEMNESTRA's watchman is perched on the roof, eyes peeled for the fires which will signal the end of the Trojan War: it's the simplest of images. Beneath it lie layer upon layer of domestic and dynastic struggle.

At the s tart of the war, 10 years earlier, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia in the hope of winning a fair wind for the Greek fleet, which was stuck in the bay of Aulis. His wife Clytemnestra never forgave him, and has in his absence taken a lover, Aegisthus, the only surviving son (and this is essential) of Thyestes, whose other two sons, a generation ago, were murdered, cooked and served up at a feast by Agamemnon's father Atreus. Thyestes, discovering what he'd just eaten, laid a curse on the house of Atreus - beginning a cycle of crime and revenge which continues (we're in stage-time now) as Agamemnon is killed. His captive Cassandra is killed as well, and essentially that's all that happens in the play: the rest is a rapt augmentation of the past, fuelling and feeding the crime to come.

Try telling the story of Agamemnon, and start with the Watchman, and unless you're very clever indeed you'll get bogged down in seconds. Somewhere around the limp Greek sails you'll give up, go back to the start and begin with Atreus (thereby reinventing the epic). Anything to avoid past clutter.

But Aeschylus makes it deft and light. His basic assumption is that 'story' and 'play' are different. 'Play' begins late, so late that the story is heading for climax from the moment the opening words are spoken. What happened before is buttonhooked in when needed. This is what's called the 'retrospective method'.

Its reach is long: its descendants include Racine, Ibsen, the 'well-made play' and practically all Broadway. But the idea that 'story' and 'play' are somehow separate - that the play is a stubby railway carriage, steaming and puffing at the far end of a long and sinuous stretch of track labelled 'story' - is a difficult one. Jacobethans, Golden Age Spaniards, German Romantics, all played dumb. Modernists of every era reject it. Shakespeare only once tried to get his head round the notion and the result - The Tempest - is the only thoroughly inert piece of writing he was ever guilty of.

Much art goes into retrospective story-telling. Exposition is famously tricky. So is creating a sense of 'beginning' when the story began in truth so long ago. A marker is needed.

Anniversaries help: weddings, funerals, golden weddings are perennial standbys. So is the new job. 'Oh, you're starting today? Let me explain to you how it works' (and swiftly the past unfolds). Departures, arrivals: the island, the house, the holiday home.

The Price - a classic neo-Athenian drama - brings a New York cop to an attic stuffed with his family furniture: image of a cultured past. An ancient dealer confronts him with his Jewish heritage (much soft-pedalled by the playwright).

Terms of sale bring the cop and his achieving brother into a present conflict which is also a very old one. Past and present battle it out . . .

The action is continuous. Miller says the play 'can be performed with an intermission', but he sounds depressed: he'd plainly rather not have to worry about the ice-cream sales. The retrospective play is a single unit: one set, one time-span. A rule much disregarded. But that's the logic.

(Photograph omitted)