Last night I went to see Disgraced at the Bush. Turns out it was lucky that I’d gotten a ticket way in advance, because the run is completely sold out. I suppose winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama helps with that a little. It was A Good Play. It was well-wrought, it was topical, it had wit, it had a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar, all things you want from your Thursday night drama. And yet…and yet…it left me cold. I know what it was gunning for, but it didn’t get me like it wanted to.
Towards the end – the meat, the fight – I found myself successfully mouthing the next line before it came up. The route of the argument was well-trodden, and the characters started to become punch-line mouthpieces. But it wasn’t just that. When the lights came up*, many people around me seem to have found it wonderfully dramatic whereas I felt something was off about what I’d just seen and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it that this felt like a rant rather than a genuinely dramatic exploration? I’m very guilty of this in my writing, so perhaps it’s something I have a particular sensitivity to.
I recall at a BBC Writersroom workshop last May I was discussing my drama pitch for Twenty Million Shirts (a drama circling around the disappearance of England’s first British Asian football star, dealing with themes of guilt and identity) with Paul Ashton and he asked me to consider “why would anyone find this interesting?” i.e. “The issue of identity here might be interesting to you coming from a minority standpoint, but what’s the draw for everyone else?” At first I was a bit miffed – people would find it interesting ‘cause they’re humans, DUH! – but when I calmed down I could see that he was merely trying to get me to not let the ISSUE overload the DRAMA. The issue might get people through the door, but drama keeps people in their seats. What is it that you’re doing with the issue that makes it compelling?
I then went through the script again and made another writing pass to more firmly seat it into its genre, which was effectively a detective story. That (hopefully) helped me build a more gripping story with universal resonance.
Back to Disgraced, this morning I realised that I could not shake the fact that though the play dealt with exactly the sort of thing I was innately concerned with, I found it difficult to empathise with the protagonist, Amir. In fact, I found myself nearly entirely emotionally unengaged with the character. Did I find him more of a mouthpiece than a person, and so didn’t internalise his plight and get my much wanted catharsis? Why? After all I did find his internal conflict compelling and the character had layers. Was it that he was a high-flying lawyer? His main exterior problem was that the insinuation that he has a Muslim heritage is preventing him from making partner. Yet partner or no partner, he’s still wearing six hundred dollar shirts like it ain’t no thing. Whilst Islamaphobia blunts his ambitions slightly, money buffers him from the worst of it.
Perhaps it was also the way his identity conflict was outwardly dramatised. I went to see The Reluctant Fundamentalist on Monday and the person who I saw it with remarked that they didn’t really care about the protagonist’s identity problems. With that film, I was a bit more onside because the protagonist had several moments that let you warm to him but I understood what my friend was saying – there was certainly a block to empathy in there somewhere. Again, I wonder if this is because the character also does quite well for himself, or if the issue crowded out the drama, or if we couldn’t understand the stakes.
What then, is a good way of dramatising identity confusion in middle-class ethnics? I feel that HighTide’s minstrel-dangling show Neighbors, seemingly paradoxically, dealt with this conflict with great subtly and charm. Too many times I felt that Disgraced took the easy route of offence and shock as the way in which to jack the drama. It felt like characters made leaps to the point of highest friction for the purpose of expediency without quite showing their working.
Neighbors dramatised the push-pull appeal of The Other with a tight drama propelled by a very curious antagonist (I won’t forget Jim Crow in a hurry), whilst playfully riffing on Americana tropes such as “the good neighbour” and the aforementioned minstrels. It too had the Ethnic Man/White Woman/Unwelcome Interloper axis that both Disgraced and The Reluctant Fundamentalist has but placed the main antagonism within its most interesting character.
Considering Amir’s dramatic arc is more or less exactly the one I’m taking Rahul on in True Brits and my antagonism is somewhat more in the ether than in a character as well, this all freaked me out a little bit. “Why would anyone care?” This is something I’ve considered really heavily with True Brits. The fact that the fear and disdain is both intangible and ever-present is exactly what I’m looking to dig into so I don’t want to place that antagonism in a character…so without something solid to fight against, what is the mechanism I will employ to get people onside with my protagonist and his very specific concerns before I take him through the ringer? Neighbors had the antagonist, but it also went for the surreal/sly take. I’ve gone for the funnies and direct address – rooting the character firmly into the base of the audience’s experience – with a minor Brechtian ploy culled straight from an IB Theatre Arts project.
Let’s see if it works…
* There was a very curious moment after the black out at the end of yesterday’s performance of Disgraced. The lights went down, but nobody clapped. Whether it was through being stunned into silence, not wanting to applaud what they’d seen or genuinely not thinking the play was over, I don’t know. But a good five seconds into the black with still no-one clapping it go to the point where nobody wanted to be the first one to start and the actors waited awkwardly for their bow. Luckily someone attempted a few tentative smacks and the normal cascade followed, much to the relief of the lighting technician I’m sure. Phew! Talk about drama…