Monday, January 9, 2012

Do Plays Need a Conflict? A Lack Thereof in Ferber and Kaufman's Stage Door

I wrote a brief article about Peak Performance's Stage Door for The Montclarion, but unfortunately they were unable to use it. I might post it as one of my lost articles on here. This piece is not the article. I wrote this essay for my blog and it is actually a lot more detailed than the article I wrote for the paper so I figured I'd post this one to give the play some written recognition.

After A Chorus Line, the next Peak Performance I saw on campus is Stage Door, a play written by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. I had to see it for classes and actually read it in my "Introduction to Theatrical Medium" class. It is a very enjoyable play, but I have one complaint about it: There doesn't seem to be a conflict.

Stage Door takes place in a 1930s rehearsal club where young actresses live as they try to find work in New York. We follow the storylines of the characters, especially the lead character Terry Randall. Throughout the play we watch her struggle to keep a job and start her career as an actress. She then ends up getting a lead role with her boyfriend's help at the end. I'm happy for her, but that kind of bothers me because of its convenience considering her man, David Kingsley, is an agent who falls in love with her.

The answer to my question seems to be pretty obvious. Of course a play needs a conflict. Without a conflict there would be no story. Though we see Terry resolve her conflict, the play doesn't necessarily keep you at the edge of your seat until it happens. In Arcadia, the characters try to figure out if Lord Byron committed a murder and who the hermit in a painting is. All of the events throughout the play are clues working up to the ending when all is revealed. In Sweeney Todd, Todd's ultimate goal is to kill Judge Turpin for the negative impact he has had on his life. The audience questions whether or not he will succeed. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family must find a way to California and make ends meet during the Depression. Will they finally settle down and find a place to call home or will they continue to bask in uncertainty? In The Rimers of Eldritch, the characters must determine what happened regarding Skelly Manor's death and much like in Arcadia the scenes are clues to find this out. In The Seagull and A Man of No Importance, the focus is more on character development rather than plot. The conflicts are more inwardly based rather than outwardly. Characters struggle with their own inner conflicts and relationships with others. Will they accept themselves and work out their issues or will they hit rock bottom? The one show that resembles Stage Door is A Chorus Line because both display people desperate for jobs on the stage and show you background stories of the performers that people don't normally think about. However, the difference is, in A Chorus Line, the audience doesn't know who Zach will chose for the job until the very end, so it gives them something to look forward to. Are we supposed to look forward to seeing if Terry gets an acting career by the end of the play? I'm sorry, but for some reason, that is boring to me.

These plays I mention have a purpose and a reason for their existence. They have stories to tell and they want the audience to share in the experience and suspense. The audience solves the conflicts with the characters if the characters and audience members have a strong enough connection. Stage Door doesn't give the audience much reason to care about the characters and plot from my perspective.

A play's solid conflict is the core of a story. Everything that happens in a story surrounds that conflict. In Stage Door, this isn't necessarily the case. My thing is that Stage Door is more like a reality show than a play with conflict. It isn't a play with a beginning, middle, and end, but rather a bunch of written moments documenting the lives of these women, especially Terry. It represents young women in their everyday lives trying to get jobs in the theater rather than being faced with one conflict to resolve (or not resolve) by the end of the play. It looks like a normal everyday setting and the characters are so natural with each other. It is written that way and the actresses portray it that way. This is actually a reason why I like the play. I like the natural flair it has. However, even though each of them have their own agendas, they don't seem to grow as characters much. They interact with each other, leave, and show up again. They go to their jobs and other appointments and seem like interesting individuals to get to know, but because everything is so sporadic and brief, the audience isn't given a chance to care about these characters as individuals, so therefore it is more difficult to feel for them in their struggles. Well, the audience does care if the women get jobs or not, but our hearts don't necessarily ache for them because there aren't much connections between the audience and the characters for this to be so, probably because there are so many of them. All of the characters blend in together, except a select few. You actually want to see this select few more because they seem very potentially entertaining, but you don't, probably because it would require more time and effort to incorporate it all.

If the girls don't get jobs, the audience doesn't feel heartbroken for them but rather say, "Well, that's life." It's not a big deal to me because people lose jobs and have difficult jobs all the time in everyday life, so it's not looked upon as a conflict for a story but rather as something that normally happens. People always work their way up in their careers. This makes the play very bland. The lead character Terry is also very bland and doesn't even change from beginning to end, so there isn't any character development either. She is given the chance to work in film as opposed to theater, but she refuses. In A Chorus Line, the audience learns about the different struggles the characters have endured, so therefore it is more heartfelt. Also, you get to know every character individually and share the journey with them as opposed to Stage Door when you only get to know Terry and share only her journey. Sure they try to show background of other characters as well, but Terry is the only one you truly get to know from beginning to end because her story is the only story the play really follows in-depth.

However, I still like the play regardless of this lack of conflict and powerfulness in delivery. I have a tendency to like plays and other mediums that involve groups of girls together. Madeline, a childhood favorite, The Crucible, and A Children's Hour are among some of my favorites. The fact that the women in Stage Door are very into theater is another reason why I enjoy it.

So the question I pose is, does a play absolutely need a significant conflict for it to be enjoyable?

Well, I guess not, because I straight up told you that I like Stage Door. But I guess what I am arguing is whether or not a play needs that energized spark in order for people to like it and ultimately leave a lasting impression. For example, when I saw Sweeney Todd in Kasser I felt a huge adrenaline rush because it was so amazing. When I saw The Rimers of Eldritch in Fox I felt numb, in a bad way because of the rape scene, but regardless it was still memorable because of how it made me feel. When I saw The Grapes of Wrath in Kasser, I felt numb, in a good way because it was magical. However, when I saw Stage Door, I didn't feel anything explosive like that. I felt relaxed and sat back and enjoyed it. I did the same thing when I saw A Chorus Line in Memorial, but I felt a better connection with that story.

Sitting back and enjoying a play in a relaxed manner isn't a bad thing. That's what plays are for, to relax and enjoy a show as a brief escape from reality. But the thing with theater and art too is it makes you come to realizations about life because of what it exposes, so in this way theater has two functions. Sometimes having such an emotional reaction from a play and therefore obsessing over it afterward, because you like it, can be exhausting, so I guess it's nice to not have every play do that to a person. Sometimes plays have to be tame to juxtapose the plays that are not. The contradicting of both types of plays helps them to stand out as artistic pieces and also helps audiences appreciate and enjoy both in the long run.

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