Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, May 04, 2009

More on Prologues

[Was going to post this as a comment on the post below, but realised that you can't post links in comments]

The Wikipedia article on prologues has some snippetable details that might be pertinent here. The fact that the roots of the prologue are in Greek drama, for example, sort of makes the association between literary prologues and pre-credit sequences more tenable to me:

In Attic Greek drama, a character in the play, as very often a deity, stood forward or appeared from a machine before the action of the play began, and made from the empty stage such statements necessary for the audience to hear so that they might appreciate the ensuing drama.

This does highlight the expository backgrounding function, and it’s not at all like the pre-credit sequence. Rather, note the form of direct address to the audience by a (quasi-?)omniscient narrator from an empty stage. I think there’s a parallel here to the novelistic device of the omnisicient narrator beginning with a “dear reader” framing device, establishing equilibrium, maybe sketching in the worldscape, the origins of the protagonist, etc.. But of course we’re talking about verse, so I think this could fit with my argument that such blatant narrative framing is as much sales pitch as history lesson. Or at least should be. The pros and cons of expository prologues aren’t a new argument. Wikipedia refers to:

… the objection which criticism has often brought against the Greek prologue, as an impertinence, a useless growth prefixed to the play, and standing as a barrier between us and our enjoyment of it. The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible.

To which, of course, we can respond: yes, but if you can slip it in as backstory, you can get rid of the barrier effect completely.

It was the early Greek custom to dilate in great detail on everything that had led up to the play, the latter being itself, as a rule merely the catastrophe which had inevitably to ensue on the facts related in the prologue.

Again, exposition; but a key thing to consider: the Greek concept of miasma is at play here. Equilibrium has been disrupted by some past crime that’s left a miasma — a sort of moral stain, poisoning a city or a royal line, blood in the soil itself crying out to the gods for vengeance. The effects of that disruption persist, ramifications build up, until eventually fate / nature / a god (i.e. the storyfication of reality, the projection of narrative structure onto the world) demands that it be recognised, forces engagement. In kicking off at the catastrophe stage, Greek drama (post-prologue, that is,) is cutting to the chase, starting in media res with the protagonist slamming into the ramifications of a start-point that may have occurred generations ago. The implosion of the house of Atreus in The Oresteia, for example, “begins” with the catastrophe of Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon, (for the murder of their daughter,) but for the Greeks the start-action that created the house-dooming miasma was actually Tantalus’s murder of his son Pelops two generations before. So it seems to me that early drama is reflecting modern pulp in sort of coming in at the recognition/engagement stage. (Or vice versa, really — modern pulp reflecting early drama.)

The importance, therefore, of the prologue in Greek drama was very great; it sometimes almost took the place of a romance, to which, or to an episode in which, the play itself succeeded.

In other words, a little sub-narrative, a story before the story. As an example: Wikipedia credits the invention of the prologue to Euripedes and references his play Hippolytus, which does seem to me to do more than just exposition. Aphrodite comes on-stage, introduces herself and in doing so asserts her rightful place in the world (equilibrium). She then describes how she’s been insulted (disruption). But there’s a distinct narrative section that sets the players in place, and it’s all leading up to a slingshot ending:

But soft, here comes he, striding from the chase,
Our Prince Hippolytus!--I will go my ways.--
And hunters at his heels: and a loud throng
Glorying Artemis with praise and song!
Little he knows that Hell's gates opened are,
And this his last look on the great Day-star!


Aaaaaand: Roll opening credits!

OK, it’s maybe not *quite* got that cut-to-black-with-HIPPOLYTUS-appearing-in-big-block-letters vibe, but those last two lines are just blatantly portentous. The whole speech is manifestly designed to draw the audience in, swing them through the sales-spitch swirl of story and verse, and send them flying out into the play itself. And yet, it’s versified and told rather than dramatised, which makes it more like the literary prologue than the pre-credit sequence. If commercial epic fantasy were a tad more ambitious in going for less monomyth and more tragedy (cinema, ironically, being way more gutsy in movies like Spartacus or El Cid,) I could easily see Aphrodite’s narrative groundworking translated to the classic (or clichéd) prologue structure (though I could easily see it failing by just trudging its way through the details in the most turgid prose). But if I were filming one of those latter-day Hollywood Swords-and-Sandals blockbusters of Hippolytus with Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe or whomever, I could also imagine that speech as the VO of a properly dramatised pre-credit sequence.

I guess what I’m saying is I think there is an underlying technique common to the three media — play, novel and movie. Maybe the distinct differences in each media result in different paths of development, but there’s a muddle of connectedness, I think, that comes from their shared roots. Elizabethan drama takes the prologue into the realm of forewords and introductions in literary terms, completely abandoning the pretence of mimesis: “As a direct audience from one actor to the assembled audience, the functions of the prologue were to quieten and appease the audience, introduce the themes and particulars of the play they are about to hear, and beg their indulgence for any imperfections in the writing and/or performance.” But this isn’t that different from some of the “dear reader” malarkey pulled by pre-20th century writers. The prologue in literary fiction can sort of dissolve into the text, just become the framing paragraphs of authorial address that open Chapter One, maybe because writers don’t think there’s much point in trying to segregate it out with nothing more than a page turn. You can contrast that to the pre-credit sequence with music and titles coming in big and bold to divide the set-up from the kick-in, but the Greek prologue from Hipploytus above is followed on by the immediate entry of the protagonist. There’s nothing really to divide this narrative structure from the rest of the play, other than the poetic formalities of the structures of the drama themselves. But if you were staging it for a modern audience, might you not suddenly bring up the lights at that entrance, having kept them down to a spotlight on Aphrodite?

I keep being drawn back to the idea that if you strip away the notion of exposition, prologues are really about a technique of structural dynamics, but I’m finding it hard to articulate a vague intuition. Like, with Euripedes, according to Wikipedia, the prologue “takes the place of an explanatory first act.” My intuition says we should forget the “explanatory”, focus on that “first act”. This is what I’m getting at, I think, in the idea that the novelistic prologue doesn’t really function as a Chapter Zero (which could just be renumbered Chapter One), but on the scale of an act, volume or part — but one that’s been hyper-condensed. Maybe Todorov’s theoretical “stages” don’t really fit the actual structures of conventional narrative that well. If we suppose that a four-act structure might actually represent the transitions — 1) equilibrium > disruption; 2) disruption > recognition; 3) recognition > reaction; 4) reaction > resolution — maybe there’s an attempt, in the prologue, to deal with the fact that the first act could be kinda dull if it’s all large-scale or liminal ramifications in the background, building up gradually to the catastrophe. Maybe the inner editor kicks in and ruthlessly hacks that down to the bare bones of direct narrative. Listen, Euri, it says, Act One is just gonna drag like fuck. People aren’t really interested in how the problem came to be. They just want to see the shit hit the fan and the schmuck try to deal with it. Cut to the chase, man. You can get it over with in one soliloquy and then dive right into the blood and guts of the drama.

Theoretically, we might be able to scrap the first act entirely, splice the soliloquy in as backstory at some convenient point, but I can see a sort of purpose here maybe, a way of making the plunge into the action more palpable through the sudden shift in scale and focus.

2 Comments:

Blogger paul f cockburn said...

I'm currently reviewing a Naval pilot officer's memoirs of six months in Afghanistan in 2006, and while it's almost utterly chronological from Chapter One, he starts it with a four page prologue essentially describing a bombing run on some "Terry Taliban" to save British troops on the ground. It grabs the attention, gives a sense of the overall subject of the book, grabs the attention, flags up the author's workman-like writing style and grabs the attention.

Which is all I expect of a prologue, to be honest.

4:21 pm  
Blogger Colin said...

Idle thought (not that I have any other kind) : The "cold open" or the "teaser" in television series really fits that "four-act" structure well. It almost always handles the "equilibrium->disruption" stage (finding the body, discovering the hyperdrive engines are about to fail, etc) and it does so in a very efficient two or three minutes. The subsequent acts follow the traditional pattern as you've outlined it.

It's mostly not backstory, though; when dealing with backstory we invariable have flashbacks within that prologue sequence ("last time on CSI : Atlantis"). And you can assume that your viewers are already familiar with your characters and the general idea of the series, something cinema and prose writers generally can't.

There are distinct advantages to doing it that way, particularly in a visual medium - your audience is already very familiar with the paradigm, and has no objections to it.

6:25 pm  

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