Sunday, July 11, 2010

Plot Summaries

In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, Will Blythe writes:"If you're like me, you tend to regard plot summaries as a necessary boredom at best. They're the flyover country between a reviewer's landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. If plot were the crucial measure, there'd be no difference between a story about the fish that got away and 'Moby-Dick.' Reading such summaries (or writing them) is usually as beguiling as listening to some addled fan of 'Lost' explain what happened on that botched rune of a show." -- The New York Times Book Review

Your Lost politics aside, these difficulties resonate -- even more for theatre critics, I dare say, than for book critics. In play reviews, limiting plot summary to a paragraph is not just prudent; it's necessary. Theatre critics do not merely evaluate a writer; they evaluate the whole host of artistic professionals who collaborate on a production. So how could one devote more than a few sentences to synopsis when that alone is unlikely to sufficiently evaluate the playwright, let alone the cast, crew and design team?

Yet even including the most concise of plot blurbs can feel contrived, meaningless, unworthy of the paraphrased piece. The reason we have art and literature is that a few naked, purely narrative sentences cannot alone arouse emotion or conjure meaning. Plot summaries read more like straight journalistic prose than they do the literature they describe or the literary criticism toward which their (more ambitious) authors aspire. They are the book reports of journalism: Character and actor names crowd and tangle. Events all seem to follow teleological trajectories. And before one can even begin to care about disembodied names and events, the summary is over and the review has (thankfully) returned to what the reviewer does best: reviewing.

Readers, however, want and deserve to know what shows are "about." Either to judge their own desire to see a production or to evaluate a review on its own merit, they need to know a few nuts and bolts, a few objective truths, about a production. But maybe classical plot summary is not the only way to establish common ground. Perhaps a reviewer might describe more abstract themes. Perhaps she might write a "trailer" of sorts that includes choice quotes and choice images.

I'll be on the prowl for reviews that tackle this problem with stylistic ingenuity. Updates to come!

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