Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Strangers on a Train: a study in genre

There's plenty of academic study that defines the genres of theatre: sometimes it concentrates on the historical context, using the times as an explanation for the script, or a production as evidence of contemporary social values; sometimes it is concerned with the aesthetics, the way that a work of art has a self-contained cohesion and logic. In the case of melodrama, the historical perspective sees the genre as a result of the upheavals of the nineteenth century, inspired by the growth of technology but also terrified by the collapse of values that appear to have lasted for hundreds of years. The aesthetic, or formal approach assesses it in terms of the stock characters, the wild plots and the powerful moments of reversal - heroines tied to the railway tracks, exploding firework factories. 

The problem with genre studies is that it often reduces a play to a single, simple format: the popular plays of the nineteenth century are explained away as mere manifestations of the melodramatic spirit, whether that's a nautical drama trying to put a positive spin on the mutinies in the English fleet or the working out of a cosmic battle between good and evil symbolised by a nasty landlord twirling his mustache and a blonde, handsome hero who loves his virtuous lover with his huge pure heart. Nobody really respects genre fiction - it tends to have fandoms, people who love the trappings of the art, who are connoisseurs of its detail, but it's not serious, is it?

These days, genre is out of fashion - not for academics, who roam across time and space looking for arguments - but for artists, who aren't bound to any set of rules when they create. Back in the seventeenth century - in France at least, which is where European theatre was at its most happening - playwrights had to follow the tragic rules of Aristotle. The rise of melodrama in Paris around 1800 was probably a reaction to this censorship of structure. But then somebody invented post-modernism and rather than being a set of laws, genre became a thing to play about with. 

This brings me to Strangers on a Train. Once a novel by Patricia Highsmith, then a film by Alfred Hitchcock, it's been adapted into a play. Influenced by Edward Hopper's painting, and with a huge set that sets each scene in its own panel, it follows the adventures of two men who, having met at random, agree to murder each other's enemies. Unfortunately, one of the guys, Charlie, takes it a bit too seriously, offs the other one's wife and pestered him to return the compliment.

So a dad gets splattered over the wall, the two men are caught in a struggle of wills and are pursued by a detective (who, disappointingly, works out their conspiracy but just gives up when he could bring them to justice). Given the late 1940s' setting, there's plenty of chat about the importance of architecture - the hero Guy has an ambition to build a big white bridge - sexual repression (it's pretty clear that Charlie both fancies Guy and hasn't managed to come out even to himself) and of course the resolution for all of these criminal antics is the love of a good woman.

It is so easy to pin this one on the historical period: this is the USA as it starts to get paranoia, and its repressions destroy lives. A rather dubious way of interpreting Strangers is to say it's an essay in how homosexuality is dangerous, what with Charlie getting obsessive about a love that dare not speak its name and following Guy about in a creepy way, even turning up at his wedding and throwing up everywhere (he's got a drink problem, too). This is dubious because it does give the play a homophobic edge, and reduces it to a moral homily, when it is a bit more complex than that.

The plot might read a bit like a straight-forward melodrama, only it doesn't have the stock characters: Charlie's not far off being a pure villain, only the obvious conflict he goes through stops him being a caricature; Guy might be a good chap, but he's not innocent enough and way too divided to work as the shining champion of morality. The pair of them are like tragic protagonists - it would only take a slight twist and Charlie would be a great tragic hero, his fatal flaw leading to his inevitable downfall (but let's not get into how the gay characters are always dead by the end of the film). The only really melodramatic stock character is Guy's (second) wife, who is less developed than the two main men, and stands for love - unconditional love, she doesn't mind that Guy shot someone in the head - marriage and fertility (she gets pregnant as soon as they are married). 

Because the big issue of the plot are invested in the two men, Anne doesn't get enough time on stage to be a rounded personality, so she ends up a symbol. Yes, that's typical, isn't it? The men get to have adventures and be full of angst, she gets to giggle, be threatened by Charlie and hold out her hand at the end of the show to forgive and 'build a bridge' (Guy is literally going to build one with a span 'like an angel's wing'). 

The plot and the female heroine seem to point to melodrama, but there's little of the over-acting, the emotionalism or the moments of wild excitement that mark out the classic shape of the form. There is one bit where Ann points to a room in a gesture that looks so stilted, so deliberate, that is almost funny against the naturalistic acting from Christopher Harper and Jack Ashton (Charlie and Guy), but mostly the performances are understated and elegant. And Harper and Ashton are ace: Harper keeps a tight lease on Charlie's outbursts, but the sudden camp temper-tantrums are hilarious and terrifying by turn, and Ashton expresses his character's moral constipation through a suggestive grumpiness. Ashton is always wrestling with guilt, and seems to want to be a tragic victim. He almost longs to be caught... but not quite enough to actually confess to the police.

The genre, then, becomes a hybrid of tragic and melodramatic trope: but who wins? In the end, it's melodrama, because the shallow, simplistic character can offer forgiveness to the tormented protagonist. When she holds out her hand to Guy (Charlie has just shot himself, so that's handy), it's a bridge that reflects the bridge he's going to build, and a bridge back to safety and virtue. And it's the very sketchiness of her character that makes her able to offer forgiveness: any complexity would render her merely human, rather than a symbol.

It gets better. Tragedy, expressed in Guy's despair and guilt, is rejected for melodramatic redemption. It's as if Ann is inviting Guy to leave behind tragedy, which is revealed as immature and self-indulgent. She's also offering a heterosexual alternative to Charlie's repression and hatred, but I'm trying to ignore the latent homophobia in that.

Using genre as an aesthetic approach rather than historical allows this kind of reading, a reading that escapes the limitations of cultural context and gives Strangers a more abstract relevance. It presents a timeless morality play, explaining evil but, fortunately, proving that it can be beaten. 

Yet Strangers in production is far from a typical melodrama. There's no hysterics (apart from a few scenes with Charlie and his mother), there's no action sequence (and the melodrama of the early twentieth century went mad for set-pieces, usually involving some amazing scenography, like steam powered hammers or, my favourite, a race between a train, two cars and a bicycle). There's a bit of a cliff-hanger at the end of the first half (Guy's going up the stairs to shoot the dad). But it's far from a parade of stereotypes, and, at times, is a sensitive, if heavily Freudian, study of personality. It doesn't look like a melodrama, but it becomes a morality tale that affirms the value of living in a melodrama. 

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