“Linda is in Action, she’s not just sitting around” (Arthur Miller). Consider how one character other than Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and one character (including the chorus) other than Oedipus in King Oedipus contribute to the ‘action’ of each of these plays. Before looking at any individual characters or even plays, one must first look at the term ‘action’ and the different meanings or connotations it can have or suggest.
In theatrical terms, there is a huge difference between plays that portray their action through physical action and plays that portray their action through the spoken word.
Both types of play could be said to be ‘action packed’ but they convey their action in very different ways. Some people argue that ‘actions speak louder than words’, this was certainly true in the theatre of the nineteenth century, though that is only one period of theatre history. There are periods in theatre, both before and after the age of melodrama, that did not place such importance on the use of physical action.
In Greek Theatre, tragedies such as ‘Oedipus the King’ were performed in huge amphitheatres, playing to audiences of thousands.This made it hard to include much physical action as it simply would not be seen by the audience unless it was a huge physical spectacle which would have been expensive and difficult to produce. Therefore, Greek Theatre laid more importance on the text as this could be easily projected around the amphitheatre; action was conveyed through the spoken word rather than through physical movements and gestures. A ‘dramatic revolution’ took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a move back to ideas similar to those of the Greek Theatre.
The plays of Ibsen and other playwrights of his era such as Chekhov, placed a huge importance on the use of dramatic texts. These playwrights wanted to present ‘real life’ in ‘real life ways’ and they did this by having their characters talk to each other rather than have big scenes of needless dramatic action just for the sake of it. This idea can be summed up in a quote from R. W.
Emerson’s The Poet, “words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words”1. So we see a similarity between Greek Theatre and the ‘revolutionary’ theatre of Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov were talk is action, or as Pirandello puts it, “spoken action”2.The talk is dramatic and it works its way to a conclusion without the need for a final ‘showdown’. Exciting things happen in these plays; but we don’t see them, rather we are told about them.
Perhaps this allows playwrights to stretch the audience’s imagination a little further than they would do if every last event had to be portrayed through physical action. The most comprehensive analysis of “spoken action” comes from Aristotle’s writings in about 4th century B. C.In ‘The Poetics’ Aristotle takes great care in laying out his idea of tragic form and with it, the form action takes in Greek Tragedy.
According to Aristotle, action is an imitation of a process, in Oedipus the King, this is the process by which Oedipus discovers that that he has fulfilled the horrific prophecy he has tried so hard to avoid. By starting the play towards the end of an already familiar story, Sophocles avoids having to portray the dramatic events that have already occurred, they are told to us during the course of the play but the main action focuses on the outcome of these events.It is not the events themselves that are important, it’s what they mean to Oedipus and how by these events happening, he has fulfilled his prophecy while trying desperately to avoid it. However, Aristotle does not simply discount the use of physical action; he said “One should, as far as possible, work plots out using gestures”3.
He also, in a way, encourages naturalistic acting techniques when he says “Those who are actually experiencing the emotions are the most convincing; someone who is distressed or angry acts out distress and irritation most authentically”4. This ties in with the ‘Law of Analogy’ which was developed in the late Eighteenth century and would have been the technique used in the ‘spoken action’ plays of Ibsen and Shaw a century later.The Law of Analogy is the way in which an actor feels an emotion and expresses it in a natural, physical way. It is not a pre set language of gestures, it requires actors to fully identify with their emotions and relay them to the audience in an honest, natural way that the audience can fully relate to5.
When studying Oedipus the King, I have found it useful to also look at Aristotle’s explanation of the form of tragic action.According to Aristotle, tragedy must include a Complication, which is the events from the beginning of the play or story leading to a character’s change in fortune, and a Resolution, the events from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end6. Oedipus the King is considered an excellent example of tragedy because it not only includes a Complication and Resolution, but also includes a Reversal and Recognition. It is these last two features that I will look at in more detail as they make a large contribution to the action of the play.
The character I have chosen to study in Oedipus the King is The Messenger that comes to tell Oedipus that he cannot have fulfilled his prophecy, instead, giving the information that he has seals Oedipus’ fate and proves that he has fulfilled his prophecy. I feel that The Messenger is an interesting character to study as on first reading the play, one wouldn’t consider him to be an important character, he isn’t even given a name. If, after reading the play for the first time, I was asked to choose a character that has contributed to the action of the play I would most likely choose Tieresiras or Creon.They seem to be important characters; they are given names, dramatic scenes and appear to make a large contribution to the action of the play.
However, on reading the play again, and thinking about it more, I found it easier to consider the contribution of smaller characters to the action and appreciate the impact that a character can have even if, like The Messenger, they only appear towards the end of the play. I feel that The Messenger makes a huge contribution to the action of the play as it is he that gives Oedipus the tragic information of his true descent.By looking at The Messenger’s contribution to the play we focus not on the events that have occurred but the manner in which we hear about them. The noble King has carried out some horrific events but the only person who can make this public and confirm its truth is a nameless messenger.
To put this in Aristotelian terms, The Messenger brings about a ‘Reversal’ “A change to the opposite of the actions being performed… in accordance with probability or necessity”7.
By this I mean that The Messenger comes to give Oedipus good news but by means of his “spoken action”, he brings about the opposite result.A ‘Recognition’ occurs simultaneously with the Reversal; this is a change from blissful ignorance to disgraceful knowledge8. This recognition and reversal leads to suffering, action that involves destruction and pain. The Messenger brings about the main action of the play as he tells Oedipus of his questionable descent and happily finds the man (Shepherd) who can confirm not only this fact but also seal Oedipus’ fate as a man who has carried out unthinkable acts.
The knowledge that The Messenger imparts instigates the horrific action that occurs in the later stages of the play (Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus’ self blinding).He also confirms what horrific action has occurred before the time that the play is set. Without The Messenger’s innocent information, we, and Oedipus, would not have had Tieresiras’ impossible sounding prophecies confirmed. The Messenger’s important contribution is quite ironic as he seems to be such an unimportant character, appearing late in the play and not having a name.
Aristotle says that “There could not be a tragedy without action but there could be one without character”9. It is not the people in a tragedy that are important but the actions they imitate.Therefore, the fact that The Messenger isn’t developed is not important, it’s more important that the audience witness his imitation of a process by which Oedipus’ struggle against his prophecy proves to be futile. In Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, I have chosen to look at the contribution the character Uncle Ben makes to the action of the play.
A more obvious choice of character to look at might have been Biff Loman, on the face of the play he seems to contribute more to the action.He is seen onstage more than Ben; he often plays a part in the physical action of the play; he seems to be the object of Willy’s desire for success- he wants to give Biff a good start in business and set a good example to him in life and work. I am not disputing that Biff makes a huge contribution to the action of the play; I just think that, as with Oedipus the King, it’s more interesting to look at characters that make an important contribution to the action of the play but in a subtle way, often not noticeable at first glance.Uncle Ben definitely belongs in this category, Miller uses an unusual and subtle theatrical device, laying such importance on a character that can only be seen by one other character and only appears on the stage four times.
To have a character who is dead and only visible to one other character is unusual and perhaps used more in situations of more obvious, intense mental breakdown such as ‘Hamlet’ or used as a comical device. What’s even more unusual about the character of Uncle Ben is the effect he has on Willy, and in turn, the action of the play.It is hard to argue that Ben contributes greatly to the action in a direct or physical way because in the present day scenes he is only visible to Willy and only appears onstage four times. However, he is more a symbol to Willy of success, the embodiment of all his dreams and aspirations.
He drove Willy in his quest for economic and social success and in the end gave him the final push towards his suicide “$20,000 is a great proposition” and “Time William, Time”10 are two quotes from Ben in the closing scenes of the second act.Uncle Ben is an object that Willy reacts to, perhaps in the wrong way but reacts nonetheless, to determine much of the action of the play. In every one of Ben’s appearances he encourages Willy to take risks “Go in to [the jungle] fetch a diamond out”11 it’s confusing instructions like this that give Wily false hope and a warped work ethic and eventually lead to his downfall. Ben’s utterly successful life makes Willy’s situation seem much worse as one can see what Willy could have become if only he had made different decisions in the past.
Ben seems to have put in far less work than Willy; he effortlessly earned his fortune and unquestionable success, leading Willy to occasionally question his methods “Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not teaching them the right kind of… Ben, how should I teach them? “12.
Ben replies with his usual Jungle analogy and Willy feels justified, knowing that he has taught his sons that getting rich is easy once you have the right opportunity.It is interesting that Willy follows the example of a brother he has seen once in his adult life rather than the example of his hardworking, honourable neighbour that he sees everyday, also a living success story. It seems that Willy is attracted to the outlandish idea of ‘The American Dream’ getting rich quick, no one standing in your way, being admired, rather than the hard working, often unrecognised figure of his neighbour Charley. If one considers the action of Death of a Salesman to be the mental demise of Willy, his failure in work and at home and his final act of suicide then you can clearly see Ben’s contribution to that.
Willy is always striving to follow Ben’s example and will do whatever he thinks Ben would advise as if he is trying to counteract the destructive impact his failure to comply with Ben’s first invitation to a life of success. The Character of Ben shows just how destructive dreams and false hopes can be when one tries so hard and fails so utterly. In this essay I have tried to examine how smaller characters can contribute to the action of plays in different ways. In the example of The Messenger in Oedipus the King, he brings about action by innocently delivering news that he thinks will resolve everything happily but has the opposite effect.
In Death of a Salesman, Ben brings about action by encouraging Willy through his dreams; he encourages Willy to his downfall. These two characters are examples of how, if one looks close enough, there are more factors contributing to the action of a play than is first obvious. One must look past physical spectacle; impressive, important characters and other more obvious forms of action in search of more subtle contributors who can be just as important and influential as the aforementioned factors.
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