Last night I saw a play called O.P.C. at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, and it reminded me of a writing issue that arises in books I read and plays I see. The play, by Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame, is described as a comedy, and there were many funny moments of satire (most notably parodies of Oprah and Barbara Walters). The primary messages, though, are dark indeed. I won’t go into the plot further except to say that it was a struggle between two of the characters that repeated in variations. The other characters were what-I-call serving characters, or foils. The vast majority of the dialogue is a polemic spouted by the main character regarding atrocities wrought by humans: global warming, poverty, sweat shops, consumption, trash, and pollution. The play was, in many ways, brilliant and meaningful, and had much to recommend it. However, by the time I hit the 40 minute mark of the three hour play, I was jaded and bored. As my husband put it, “This play feels like someone is jackhammering in my brain.”
I have a term for this writing issue, which is monomania, an obsession with one thing. In the literary context, this is when the writer fixates on one plotline, or character, or theme, shrinking the world of the book. Think about it. How many YA books have you read that revolve around only the main character’s concerns, or where the dialogue reflects only the bottom line of the plot, or theme.
Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clarify that it is the writer’s monomania that is the issue, their compressed vision. Chekhov was a playwright who wrote about characters with monomania. There are characters obsessed with billiards, the past, birds, philosophy, utopia, lovers, the trees. But Chekhov’s concerns were vast and filtered through every nuance of the dialogue. Chekhov’s plays are brilliant in the characters’ mental wanderings, and the metastory. Here is Nina in a play within the play of The Seagull: “Men and lions, eagles and partridges, antlered deer, geese, spiders, the silent fishes dwelling in the water, star-fish and tiny creatures invisible to the eye--these and every form of life, ay, every form of life, have ended their melancholy round and become extinct. . .” (Chekhov). The characters’ interests carry the script to far-flung ideas. And in Chekhov, there is no such thing as a serving character. Each one is fully developed in their own life purpose and plot line, as we all are. A classic example from The Cherry Orchard is Fiers, literally a serving character—a faithful servant, but, figuratively, the most important symbol at the heart of the play, a metaphor for the passing of Russian aristocracy. At the end, he is forgotten by the family to whom he’s devoted his life, locked in the house and left to die, as the cherry trees are chopped down around him. Even so, he is worried about them. “And Leonid Andreyevitch will have gone in a light overcoat instead of putting on his fur coat.”
When I read something where I am battered with the same repeated message or character details, I begin to ask questions: Why does this character have no memories from the past? Why don’t they have hobbies? Or music they like? What are the quirks of the mailman who delivers each day, or the crossing guard? What objects are in their room? What are they writing their school report about? Is it Darwin? Is it eco-terrorism? Or Chopin? How can that play into the piece? Why does their mother not have any plot of her own, or memories, or a career? Who is shoveling the snow outside? Who is the mayor of the town? What is going on politically? What is the story behind the statue in the town square?
Truly, we all have something to say, but if we’re locked too tightly into that message, or plot, or one character (who is coincidentally a lot like us), we might consider looking out the window; or reading a magazine about birds; or talking to some strangers on a city bus. We might ask our neighbor for their stories and listen for a long, long time.