If we have difficulty tackling a subject “head on” in real life, what makes it possible to do this through writing? The answer is: When I describe writing as being “reaction,” I don’t mean your direct reaction as the writer, but rather the reaction of the characters in your writing to the events that are unfolding. We don’t subject ourselves to the conflict, but use personalities of people who are projections of different aspects of ourselves–projections we can push beyond a point we, ourselves, would go. This is what the reader is looking for also. In this the writer and the reader are similar. We’re on the same journey, except one of us is driving, the other is riding. Here is Principle #2 of the Lehman Method:
This use of characters in place of yourself may seem like writing with one hand tied behind your back. But let me give you an example that may help explain how this works. My daughter graduated from New York University in theater. She also attended The Actor’s Studio awhile and studied the Stanislavsky Method. Here is how the “Method” works. A number of actors and would be actors are gathered together in a room–not to talk about scripts or playwrights, but to talk about the feelings and emotions of the people present in the room. I remember one time my daughter called home and said, “I’m so sick of being reduced to tears each day. I thought I was a happy person. I go into these sessions and they say, ‘Why do you hate your parents?’ `Why do you have a hard time keeping a relationship going with a boyfriend?’ `How can you expect to ever be a success in life?'” The facilitators continue this emotional badgering for almost a month. At the end of that time they say to the group: “OK, you’ve talked with each other about emotions, relationships…what’s good, what’s bad in your life; and you have done this in a straightforward way. From this point on you can never express those feelings again. At least you can never express those feelings directly again. You have to do it through the parts you play, through the characters you assume in films or in plays.” At first this seems like a tremendous limitation: you can never be yourself. But, is it a limitation? Under the guise of these characters, under the license of playing these roles, as an actor or as a writer you have complete freedom, maybe for the first time, to let go and really be yourself. You are liberated to express feelings inside of you that you might not say or even think in real life for fear of hurting others. That’s the benefit we get from using characters, rather than writing our direct reactions.
Let me further illustrate this with some examples from literature that use character reaction. An obvious one is the role played by Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He is a perfect stand-in for Firtzgerald and for us, the audience. Through his reactions to Daisy, Tom and Gatsby we experience the destructiveness of their lives. A different kind of an example is a movie that’s been around many years–Citizen Kane. Think about it for a minute. What do you remember? “Rosebud.” Didn’t its significance catch you by surprise at the end? Here we thought that Kane’s life was driven by his need for adulation and control. In reality his life was a reaction to a childhood loss of family love as symbolized by the sled. But do you remember what happens after the dying man whispers “Rosebud” at the start of the film. There’s a six-minute newsreel. It gives the highlights of the Hearst-like figure’s accomplishments. Those are the “facts.” What the rest of the 120 minutes of the film does is get the reactions of different characters to those events—the story lies in their reactions. There is one element the reporter can’t uncover, that is Kane’s humanity. The newspaperman concludes Kane’s a monster; but we in the audience–in the wonderful anti-climax–discover the love he has been seeking to regain all along. That realization is so powerful, it stays with us 50 years after the movie was made.
Another example, some three centuries earlier, is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Who’s there?” the play ominously begins. And, it’s almost as if the playwright said, “I’m going to develop my central character by having him react to every possible type of human relationship coming apart. There’s Hamlet’s relationship to the state…as represented by his uncle, the king; his relationship to his mother, to his lover, Ophelia, to his friends and even his relationship to his teacher, Polonius. Each of these crumbles before him and yet he doesn’t act, he reacts. And he reacts, and he reacts until we can’t stand it any more. We feel like screaming, “Hamlet, they’re dumping on you, DO SOMETHING!” Shakespeare pushes “his character” beyond the endurance any of us in the audience would ever want to experience in our lives. And yet, by not acting, Hamlet becomes the archetype of a tragic hero for Western civilization.
He finally does act, of course. Do you recall how that comes about? There happens to be a group of players on the grounds. Hamlet commandeers these actors to recreate the murder of his father. By their reactions to this play within a play, the king and queen reveal who they are and Hamlet now can bring about the bloody retribution of the ending. This mechanism has a double function. Shakespeare is saying to us, “Let me show you how a play works through the example of a play within a play. I’ll use some of my characters on stage as a model audience. Just as they reveal themselves in reaction to the events of that mini-play, you in the audience of Hamlet react to these human relationships that are the play’s theme and reveal, to yourselves, who you are.” “Who’s there?” We are. But who are we? We define ourselves in terms of how we feel about authority, parents, friends, lovers, etc. We are using Hamlet to explore the extremes of these relationships to find out about ourselves.
My last example goes back to 5 BC, Oedipus Rex. The interesting thing about Greek drama is that the audience knew the plots before they went to the plays. No suspense as to what would happen. These were the stories of their history and religion. But what they experienced were the characters’ reactions to the plot (another word for fate) as they pondered how to react to their own. The play that best epitomizes this process is Oedipus Rex. It starts, not with a newsreel or play within a play, but with the riddle of the Sphinx. There is a plague in the land. It will go away only if someone correctly answers a riddle. Whoever can answer this riddle will become the king. Of course, to give the wrong answer means instant death. The riddle of the Sphinx is: “What goes on four feet, two feet and then three feet?” Would you care to try…for the prize of a kingdom? Oedipus does. The answer is “man.” Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and as an old person uses a cane–the third “foot.” Oedipus knows the answer and understands it intellectually, as does the audience. But he hasn’t lived it. And internalizing the meaning for oneself, is what this play (and literature) is all about.
Years before, an oracle had proclaimed that a new child, Oedipus, would one day kill his father. His father, the king of Thebes, instead had a servant destroy the boy. The servant shackled the child’s ankles and left him on the mountain to die. A servant of the king of neighboring Corinth finds the baby. The servant’s master raises Oedipus, until Oedipus, himself, hears the oracle. Thinking the king of Corinth is his real father he crosses the mountain to Thebes to escape his fate…ending up right where he started, as a child. In the process he kills his real father, solves the riddle of the Sphinx and becomes king. As the play unfolds, the truth about the hidden part of his life is painfully revealed to a proud, disbelieving Oedipus–including the fact that his queen is in reality his mother. Incest was the one unforgivable sin for the Greeks. In agony Oedipus plucks out his eyes as a reaction to this terrible truth. Oedipus goes from a shackled baby, to a man, to a blind person walking with a cane. He now has experienced the three phases of being a human, as have we watching him.
The Greeks understood that we all know our fate. We are born, we live, we die. There’s no escaping this…no matter how hard we may try. But, who we are depends upon how we live out our lives. Drama is a way of our discovering this about ourselves. We empathize with a character, then react with that character to the events of the play. Our reactions will differ from those of the protagonist, but that shows us how we are, each of us, unique. This discovery is what we gain through art.