Finding the Plot

Plot is coming back into fashion.

There is a creative tension in the fabric of our society between the avant-guard innovators of the 'arts world' and the good old fashioned yarn-spinners who are the blood, sinew and soul of British theatre.

It's an extraordinary thing no doubt, but for the last few decades new dramas have often treated plot as an optional extra. Since 'Look Back in Anger' came carousing onto the stage of the Royal Court in 1956 to challenge a whole host of orthodoxies, form and style have superseded story as the criteria by which a playwright's artistry is judged. Off the bat, there is nothing wicked or seditious about dispensing with plot – indeed, some of the most poignant scenes in theatre and shots in film are characterised as much by inaction as by narrative progression – but the ugly side to this decline has been a thinly-veiled contempt in some circles for 'mere yarns.'

No more. Since subscription TV services like Netflix became dominant in the public consciousness, allowing the proliferation of long-form storytelling which depends for its repeat viewing figures on the artfully deployed cliffhanger or voltface moment, plot is back. Devoted followers of intricate narratives such as those driving 'Breaking Bad' or the American re-make of 'House of Cards' become invested not only in the present but in the past and future of their beloved characters. And this trend is finally being felt on stage – the platform which should have led the way. Robert Wilson-esque interpretative abstract pieces still have their place, but their hierarchical predominance has had its day. The snobbery attending a good tale well told must end, and there are encouraging signs.

This hierarchy is what keeps people out of theatres; the sense that plot should be arcane or irrelevant – if, indeed, distinguishable at all. This is why we still throng to panto and the West End, where we can at least assure ourselves that story is alive, leaving subsidised venues struggling against the current. This is not an indictment of any individual, nor a group, but rather a general trend towards distaste for the 'crass' plot-driven mojo of these increasingly popular TV entertainments when compared to the nominally 'higher art form' that is allegedly deployed on stage. The truth is, there is nothing crass about well-formulated plot mechanics. Driving a plot is as much a skill as polishing your perfect purple prose.

Why don't we do sequels on the stage? Why not episodes and procedurals? Thick and fast the practical dilemmas come: you can't show the same play to the whole audience in one go, so they'll always be out of step. We do do sequences: the RSC's much-esteemed 'Nicholas Nickleby'; Shakespeare's history plays; the recent James Plays by the National Theatre of Scotland. But of long-form storytelling in the theatre we hear little. Yet this was the mainstay of oral culture in this kingdom, stretching back millennia. This was the knack that kept Scheherazade from the scaffold. This is the quality that had us tune in to 'The Sopranos' and 'The West Wing'. Story runs deep in our consciousness – and woe betide the playwright who underestimates its potency.


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