Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The man with the raincoat

Larry Gelbart is a 76-year-old American writer. Last week he was interviewed by The Times in connection with a National Theatre revival of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This was a show which Gelbart co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim in 1962. (Can't find the link to this interview on The Times site, otherwise I would give it here. But the most interesting part of what Gelbart had to say is repeated below anyway.)

Both in his memoirs and in the Times interview, Gelbart relates the story of an incident which occurred during the Broadway run of Forum -- a show which, in case you've never heard of it, is a comedy.

What happened was this. One night, well into the performance, Gelbart was standing at the back of the stalls. The audience, as usual, was laughing a lot. One man, in an aisle seat near the stage, was having a particularly good time. In fact, he was laughing so much that he could eventually laugh no more. So, in a moment of complete surrender, he took his rolled-up raincoat off his knee and hurled it high in the air.

This story neatly illustrates a number of truths about the writer's task, and about the nature of the entertainment industry. Here are a few such truths for you to ponder:

1. Hotels sell sleep; theatres sell emotion; as do novelists.

2. In the theatre, the nature of the audience's emotional response to the material is immediately obvious; and the response will vary, of course, from audience to audience.

3. In the case of the novel, the reader's response is not so obvious, because most people read in private, but it is there all right.

4. If you are thinking about writing a novel (or a play), you would be well advised to ask yourself the following question: What is there in my novel which will cause my intended reader to hurl his raincoat into the air? If you can't think of anything, then you had damn well better invent something. Quick. Because that is the writer's job.

At this point you may be saying to yourself something along the following lines. Er, let me see now, if the writer's task is to create emotion in the reader, then it might be a good idea to learn something about emotion. Perhaps it would be a good idea to see what the scientists can tell us about the nature of emotion.

To which my response is, Yes, it bloody well would be a good idea to find out what science can tell us about emotion. Congratulations on heading in the right direction. (So many writers, bless their little cotton socks, are so determined to head off into the woods, in entirely the wrong direction. And they just won't be told.)

So now you go looking for learned tomes on emotion. Well, let me save you the trouble. There ain't any. Well, very few. Fact is, you see, the study of emotion is deeply unrewarding for scientists, and since scientists are certainly capable of adding two and two together and making four, they pretty soon recognise the futility of studying emotion and go off and study something else. Something which offers a better chance of career advancement.

The problem with emotion, you see, is that's it's slippery as hell. You just can't get it to stay still under the microscope. Keeps on flopping out and falling on the floor and mixing with last week's biscuit crumbs. And then your results just don't make any sense. And if there's one thing a scientist wants it's a nice clean set of results, which make a well defined line on the graph, and demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt, to within two standard deviations, or whatever, that black is a murky shade of grey.

So you will search in vain for lengthy tomes on emotion. The best book that I have found, in forty years of looking, is Emotion -- The Science of Sentiment, by Dylan Evans (Oxford UP, 2001). It's a small book, only 200 pages long, and it tells you everything that science has so far managed to learn about human emotion. Which, as I said earlier, isn't much.

A harder read, but also worth looking at if you take the business of writing fiction (or drama) seriously, is The Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert.

If you read these two books you will take on board such information as science can give us about the nature of emotion and how it is created. But unfortunately this will not give you the key to the cupboard of fame and fortune. Would that it did. Science does not provide us with a template for the perfect novel or play. As Walt Disney once remarked, 'Making movies is a bit less scientific than Russian Roulette.'

Nevertheless, if you have just understood that the whole point of your novel, or other writing endeavour, is to make that raincoat go up in the air, then you will at least be several streets ahead of the competition. Because so many people -- who otherwise show evidence of being reasonably compos mentis -- just do not get it at all.

A final point. There are two major problems in creating a work which generates positive emotion in an audience. The first problem is creating the work itself; and the second problem is persuading the powers that be that it is a work which will succeed when it is published or produced.

Larry Gelbart, whose story about the man with the raincoat kicked off this train of thought, was involved in creating the television version of MASH, which was perhaps the biggest smash-hit comedy series of them all. And before there was a TV series of MASH, there was a film called MASH. And before there was a film, there was a novel.

The author of the original novel, Richard Hooker, did not have fame and fortune thrust upon him, by publishers who immediately recognised the long-term emotional impact of his work. To be precise, his book was rejected by twenty-one publishers over a period of seven years before eventually finding a home.

Mind you, you should not fall into the trap of saying Aha! My book has been rejected by twenty-one publishers, so when it finally appears it will be as big as a success as MASH. Sorry, but it just doesn't work that way. That's the fallacy of the undistributed middle, or some such. Ask a logician.


jon said...

We are trying to find good hindi movie to take the kids this weekend. Good hindi movie reviews are hard to find

I just stumbled onto your blog while looking. Seems to happen to me a lot since I am a knowledge mooch LOL


Anne said...

I've seen this one too and it was really cool. I thought it was fine that raincoats for men are getting back now.