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Off Stage

Monday, 3 June 2013

By this morning, much of the talk around water coolers (a convenient stereotype of the working world that likely doesn't exist--try this, much of the talk around the Keurig...) is about the shocking events of last night's episode of Game Of Thrones, Season Three.  As has become the norm on television shows these days, major characters who seemed like they were mainstays of the ongoing story have been killed.

I'm not going to issue any spoiler alerts.  I'm not going to give anything away, except to say that no matter how often central characters die in shows and movies now, the response from viewers still ranges from stunned to outraged each time it happens.

Unless you've read the book.  And for those who have, last night was the "Red Wedding" scene from A Storm Of Swords.  Anyone who has read the books knows the scene.  It's one of those scenes that makes you put the book down and get your bearings and evaluate your senses.

At our house, there were three of us watching together.  My daughter and I had read the books; her friend hadn't.  By episode's end, he could barely stand up because of what he'd seen, and he left pretty quickly without saying much.  Mere minutes earlier, we had been teasing about how good looking one of the male actors is and he had asked for my confirmation, and, knowing what was coming, I had answered, "Sorry, I can't answer that.  I'm filled with too much dread."

The moment for those who were readers and viewers was particularly poignant, I think.  It isn't just that we saw on screen had previously only been imagined from words on the page; it's that even as described in the book, much of it happened off stage.

Due to the conventions and restrictions of their dramas, the early Greeks had most things happen off stage.  Jocasta runs out of sight and hangs herself when she realizes Oedipus is her son.  Oedipus blinds himself out of sight of the audience as well.  Even a fair number of the Shakespearean deaths (though not the principals) happen offstage, and even when they happen onstage, there is little doubt that the original performances of Macbeth did not include his head bouncing down the stairs after MacDuff kills him, as happens in the Roman Polanski version.

The question is: Is it more powerful to actually see death (or see it on the page) or to hear about it as summarized by another character who was there or even as tossed off by some lowlife who only heard about it and mentions it callously?

Think about it.  Gastby dies offstage.  Kurtz, in Heart Of Darkness, dies offstage.  Josh Brolin's lawman character in No Country For Old Men, the apparent center of the film, dies offstage.  We have no idea what kind of a fight he was able to put up.  John Proctor in The Crucible is hanged offstage.  Frederic Henry doesn't return to see Catherine Barkley at the end of A Farewell To Arms until after she has died.  Willy Loman offstage.  The daughter in 'night, Mother offstage.

It is, perhaps, the most interesting choice a novelist, a playwright, a film director has to make.  And even if onscreen or onstage, an additional range of nuanced choices.  Must we see the blade hit the neck?  Must we see the severity of the character's wounds?  Must we see him bleed out in agonizing close-ups?

I wouldn't dare to suggest a right or wrong answer.  And I'm not naive enough to ignore the fact that our hyper-realistic society demands more and more.  In HBO's Game Of Thrones, for example, there are two fully-naked women shown from the front in the episode before this one (though, just to the acknowledge the ongoing double standard, the penis they fondle and which is apparently castrated later on, is not shown), so to expect anything less than a full rendering of the scene last night would "cheat" the viewer, wouldn't it?

Even that, though, doesn't get to the heart of this discussion.  It's the impact, on the viewer or the reader, depending on whether awful events are seen or not seen.  Saving Private Ryan was so graphic in its depiction of battle that I walked out of it and said to my father, "I never want to see that again."  (Though I have been drawn back to it a number of times, usually in pieces, instead of a full, beginning-to-end viewing)  But, as my daughter wondered last night when we were debriefing Game Of Thrones, isn't it even more unsettling to not quite know what happened or how, to have the details emerge slowly, sometimes in pieces exaggerated or untrustworthy, so that the full horror of an event is ingested slowly, unevenly, circuitously?

The image, once seen, may be indelible, like seeing those jetliners hit the Twin Towers, but it is what happened inside those buildings afterward that we never saw, that once I read about them--objectively, after the fact--I have never gotten over.

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