Thoughts inspired by “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” by Shawn B. Hirabayashi

These thoughts are based on the January 10, 2017 performance at Profile Theatre.

I find myself thinking of a theory of dialogue I learned from Leon Katz. I’m relatively confident I won’t be able to do it justice. Regardless, here goes: the theory is called “the three levels of dialogue.” In the first level of dialogue, the character says exactly what’s on their mind (e.g., “I am the most powerful person here.”). In the second level, the character says the same in a metaphorical way (e.g., “The ants believe they’re in charge, until the anteater comes along. Say hello to the anteater.”). In the third level, the character enacts their power (e.g., Big Daddy’s elephant joke in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – Big Daddy establishes his power by telling a joke nobody wants to hear.). What Mr. Katz explained is that any given level isn’t better than any other – problems arise if there is too much of any one level. Great plays effortlessly move from one level to the next. Relating this to the Viewpoints idea borrowed from Zeami, one might call this theory “the Jo-Ha-Kyu of dialogue.” One might argue what percentage of time one should spend in Jo or Ha or Kyu, and perhaps, the varying percentages might be the signature of any given playwright, but varying the levels is paramount. By extension, this is true of all elements of theatre.

What does this have to do with “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”? Well, by my estimation 90% of the dialogue was direct address to the audience. There was, thankfully, one scene in which Pop and Ginny interacted, but even that was interrupted with direct address. There was so much direct address that I would argue that this wasn’t so much a play as it was storytelling with theatrical elements. Basically, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” is an interesting, timely story that is well told, but it’s not a play. And while interesting, timely stories have value and are worth experiencing, they, in my humble opinion, don’t compare with that same story dramatized. 

What is it to dramatize a story? Well, theatre is, essentially, about the present moment. Storytelling, by contrast, is about the past. Theatre and storytelling can intersect if the telling of the story changes the storyteller. But, as far as I can tell, no character changes because of the story they tell.

I ended up feeling a bit bad for the actors and the rest of the production team. You have all these artists dedicated to crafting the present moment working on a piece that is inherently not about the present moment.

Ultimately, all of the direct address wouldn’t have been a problem if I had come away with some understanding of how it deepened the story – how it was necessary. Unfortunately, that understanding escapes me.