On “King of Shadows”

Posted: November 25, 2009 in Braak, poetics, reviews
Tags: , , , ,

King of Shadows is a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also a writer for the television show Big Love, and for the Marvel Comics series Marvel DivasHe went to the Yale School of Drama.  Unlike me.

So, probably Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa should be explaining to me how things work, and not the other way around.  Who am I?  I’m nobody, I don’t know anything.  Except, bullshit.  Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, here is the deal:


This is a thing that is IMPOSSIBLE.  Just…look, for fuck’s sake, try it.  Try and talk to somebody, and say something in parentheses, and something not in parentheses, and see if they can figure out which is which.  They fucking can’t, because parenthetical statements in dialogue don’t even make any god damn sense.  Here, look, here is an example from your own play:

ERIC:  I was kidding.  (Obviously.)  You had one of your–an interview, right?

How is that different from this line:

ERIC:  I was kidding.  Obviously.  You had one of your–an interview, right?

What is the difference there?  The line “Obviously” is clearly not directed to the audience–because you denote it when a character is supposed to direct a line to the audience.  It’s not a stage direction, like everything else you put in parentheses–ironically, what parentheses are actually FOR.  It’s not even a commentary on the content of the line!

Listen.  It is confusing to read, because most sensible people ignore small stage directions, on account of how wildly they vary in performance.  And it is confusing to try and perform, because there is no way to perform the difference between a line in parentheses and a line NOT in parentheses.  And it is confusing to be in the audience and try to understand it, because either the actor will make it obvious what he’s doing and we’ll have no idea what it is BECAUSE PEOPLE DON’T SPEAK IN PARENTHETICALS TO EACH OTHER, or else he won’t make it obvious, and we won’t notice it.

For fuck’s sake, what’s WRONG with you?

Also:  you don’t need to write in what is left unsaid in a broken line.  Like here, when you wrote this:

JESSICA:  …Safeguard against forces you know exist but have no idea when — or how– they’ll (Unsaid:  “–attack.”)

See, that’s fucking stupid.  The entire point of language is that the words in the beginning of a sentence imply its ending.  The entire reason that it’s interesting that part of a sentence is left unsaid is because the sentence itself IMPLIES WHAT IS LEFT UNSAID.  That’s the whole fucking POINT of it.  You don’t need to tell us what is left unsaid, because if we can’t figure it out, it’s because you wrote the line wrong.  Idiot.

Since I’ve gotten worked up now, let me just say a few more things.  One:  there is no such thing as a “mini-beat.”  “Beat” is actually the smallest perceptible amount of blank space on stage.  If you start writing any smaller, you’re actually starting to literally dictate an actor’s inflection.  This is insulting to the actor, insulting to the director, and wildly impractical as a writer, since it leads to choppy and incomprehensible rhythm onstage.

Two:  I know NYTheatre said your characters were “richly-drawn”, but this is incorrect.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that the play is so short that there isn’t any room to actually develop characters, which is probably why Nihar is so blase about being a prostitute.

Three:  likewise, I know that the New York Times said that “Just as the audience thinks it has the whole picture figured out, Aguirre-Sacasa adds more pieces to the puzzle, leading to a series of twists at the end,” because it’s written on the back of your script.  This is also bullshit, and I hope you know it.  I hope you read that criticism and thought to yourself, “Yeah, it’s nice that you said that, but that’s really a load of crap.”  Because it is.  The play proceeds precisely in a double-reversal model.  A thing happens that we’re suspicious of, but believe.  We find information that disproves it.  We are left with information that supports it.  Double reversal.  Rod Serling, to whom you were compared, typically did a story like that in twenty to forty minutes–that’s because it is not a robust model on which to hang a two-hour play.

Four:  Science fiction and fantasy are typically tricky elements to get onstage, and there is a good reason for that.  The reason is this:  SF/F are actually served by verisimilitude, and plays, onstage, are really very lousy at verisimilitude.  You probably noticed that, when you realized that in order to create the sense of supernatural events occurring, you had to just have people narrate weird things that happened to them, which generally serves to undermine the mood that you’re looking for.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, it just means that you have to abandon realism, and you have to abandon it way more thoroughly than just having people deliver monologues to the audience.  That is the SMALLEST STEP you must take in order to escape from the tyranny of the real in order to make your fantasy work onstage.

In conclusion:  your play King of Shadows isn’t bad, it just seems pretty half-assed, like a vague stab of a play, that you made with your hand over your eyes and only the most crude awareness of where your target might be.

  1. Moff says:

    In his book For Love of Evil (which I enjoyed as a young person and then reread recently, to find that it holds up reasonably well), Piers Anthony has a great bit about the main character, who becomes Satan, realizing that his transformation is complete when he hears people calling him “You” with a capital Y.

    Also: There’s a section in this post that says precisely what I needed for my io9 column this weekend. I mean, seriously, I have been struggling for two days to put it into words, and then boom, here it is. I think you will agree that this is proof positive of a benevolent Deity’s existence.

  2. braak says:

    Yeah, that’s one of those things that works on paper, but is just sort of static to a working actor. There’s a joke in the play Urinetown about how the one girl went to The Country’s Most Expensive University–like it’s the actual name of the university.

    Obviously, you can’t tell that when you’re just listening to it. What’s extra crazy, though, is that actors who work on the play insist that you CAN tell that’s what he’s saying, and that it’s a funny joke. But they don’t believe me when I say, “It doesn’t count when you think that; you read the script.”

    Admittedly, it’s not as bad as some plays, like 4.48 Psychosis, where sections of dialogue are written in spirals on the page.

    I guess it could just be me, maybe my philosophy on it is off-kilter, but I don’t think that a finished playscript should look like a work of art, because it’s NOT a work of art. It is, at best, a third of a work of art. I think a playscript is a schematic for a work of art, so I’m extremely intolerant of bullshit like free-verse lines or weird arrangements or clever stage descriptions.

  3. deb says:

    Shaw wrote some amazing stage directions. So good, in fact, that a grad school professor we know tried to incorporate them into his production of “The Devil’s Disciple.” Predictably, it didn’t work. At all. To his credit, though, said professor admitted as much. This is because stage directions aren’t intended for the audience’s ears — even Shaw’s directions. They’re meant to be clues for the rest of the creative team — director, actor, designer — not the artwork itself. How do you play “spiraling dialogue?” Or parenthetical words? Or clever stage directions? I think a lot of this comes out of a sort of narcissism that has playwrights thinking that they are the be-all and end-all when it comes to theatrical production. (Think about Durang’s NINE PAGES OF NOTES to “Beyond Therapy.”) It’s kind of like that notion floating around that Shakespeare’s plays were intended as literature — to be read. That’s stupid. They were plays. Plays are not literature — when they are (Byron’s “Manfred,” for instance) literature they’re practically unplayable. Plays demand other artists to make them works of art.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    Interesting analysis (rolls eyes).

    Crap, did he hear that?

  5. braak says:


    You can go (left unsaid: to hell).

  6. Hsiang says:

    So, not much of a theatre buff but I’ve read a few novels. Typographical tricks in dialog are okay with me but unless it’s a comedy they run the risk of being very twee. Even then, Discworld is rife with cutesy stuff like misplaced apostrophes and audible asterisks for profanity. Still, you can’t beat having Death speaking in Small Caps.

    I appreciate the occasional italic to denote an emphasized word or to peppered through the conversation of a stereotypical campy queen. All Caps are of course quite the accepted thing for the rants of over-educated types with FAR TOO MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS.
    How do we denote the things not left unsaid but muttered under one’s breath without attribution? I agree that parentheses look silly and reducing the typeface is often impractical. Em dashes?

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Audiences always know when a cast has been over-directed. When every tick and twitch is staged and manipulated by a puppetmaster’s hand, the end result often translates as hollow; you don’t feel characters living through an actor’s body. Fleshed-out reflections and nuances are lost for the sake of players acting only as vessels of the writer or director’s own perceptions of their characters. It gives the impression of talking parrots or dancing dogs; amusing, but there’s no sense of deeper understanding beneath the performance. Not fair to the actors or the audience.

    Characters bloom when they’ve been filtered through the many perspectives of the whole crew—writers, director, actors, costumers, makeup artists, a set designer’s interpretation of the world the character exists in—and the final work is the result of real collaboration. Many human experiences coming together in one representation. Totalitarian control of characters on the part of a writer or director is about vanity, not producing a powerful work of art that people can relate to. Someone who wants absolute control over a work, should be leaning toward independent areas of art. Sort of like being suited to individual sports, rather than group ones. Theater, television and filmmaking are group sports.

  8. Carl says:

    For the record, my studies outside of the confines of 206 have brought to my attention the raging debate that exists on the question of the length of beats. Whereas the Villanova people describe beats as you do here (the shortest length of measurable time in a scene), the Temple people insist that beats are much larger– what we were to refer to as ‘units’. I have a suspicion that the Temple folks are employing older method of scene-breakdown (though I have no proof). But if you were talking about ‘beats’ as these larger units, then you’d have cause to make use of ‘mini-beats’, I suppose. Who knows what they teach at Yale.

  9. braak says:

    Ah, no, these are actually two different ideas that are described with the same term. A “beat” the way he uses it–as a measure of time–is the smallest measure of empty space on stage. But a beat as in “a beat change” can also mean the change in a character’s intention within a scene.

    Contextually, there’s no reason these things should ever be confused with each other, though. He is definitely not talking about small but rapid changes in character orientation–he’s talking about very tiny pauses.

  10. corbin says:

    This is a response to a comment “V.I.P. Referee” left a while back on Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. I am an actor and have read many acting books and what you wrote is better than 95% of all the books I have read in the past 2 years. You should consider writing about acting or various performances.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Thank you, Corbin!

  12. […] and that apparently getting an MFA in playwriting from Yale doesn’t mean you know anything about writing plays. I am opinionated and narcissistic, and that is what qualifies me to be a […]

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