Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Looking for Drama Everywhere

Last week, it seemed that the Los Angeles Kings were about to sweep the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals (the American version of hockey championships) in four straight wins.

I asked a Kings fan if he was disappointed that it went so quickly and easily for the Kings. He said no, that it was his dream to see the Kings sweep the Devils (they didn't, and then the Devils won two in a row before the Kings finally got their final win Monday night).

The idea of a sweep reminded me of a chapter in David Mamet's book "Three Uses of the Knife". It's a book about drama and dramatic structure, and in the chapter "The Perfect Ball Game", he describes what all sports fans really want when they watch a game: to see their team win, but in a way that follows dramatic form (at least I always did when watching sports). We want the game to match the structure that a good movie has.

It shows that, somewhere deep down within all of us, there is some innate need for drama and stories. We seem to be wired to see all the things that happen to us - whether it be in our personal lives, or at work, or even is sports that we watch - as dramas that unfold with structure and meaning. I suppose it's how we make sense of all the (seemingly) random things that happen to us all the time, and how we find order in all of it.

If nothing else the chapter is a good primer on how the three act dramatic structure works.

Here is the chapter, in its entirety, and verbatim (all the interesting capitalization is his):


What do we wish for in the perfect game?

Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun?

No. We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion.

We wish, in effect, for a three-act structure.

In Act One Our Team takes the field and, indeed, prevails over their opponents, and we, its partisans, feel pride. But before that pride can mature into arrogance this new thing occurs: Our Team makes an error, the other side is inspired and pushes forth with previously unsuspected strength and imagination. Our Team weakens and retreats.

In Act Two of this perfect game Our Team, shaken and confused, forgets the rudiments of cohesion and strategy and address that made them strong. They fall deeper and deeper into the slough of despond. All contrary efforts seem for naught; and just when we think the tide may have turned back their way, a penalty or adverse decision is rendered, nullifying their gains. What could be worse?

But wait: Just When All Seems Irremediably Lost, help comes (Act Three) from an unexpected quarter. A player previously believed second-rate emerges with a block, a run, a throw, that offers a glimmer (a glimmer, mind) of the possibility of victory.

Yes, only a glimmer, but it is sufficient to rouse the team to something approaching its best efforts. And the team, indeed, rallies. Our Team brings the score back even and, mirabile dictu, makes That Play that would have put them ahead.

ONLY TO HAVE IT CALLED BACK, yet again, by fate, or by its lieutenant, a wrongheaded, ignorant, or malicious official.

But see: the Lessons of the Second Act were not lost on Our Team (we, caught up in the drama of that moment, did not recognize at the time that the second act had lessons. We watched and understood it as a series of both random and unfortunate happenings. In retrospect we intuit/perceive its operation as part of a whole - i.e., we perceive it as part of a drama). This or that one might say it is too late, the clock is too far run down, our heroes are Too Tired, yet they rouse themselves for One Last Effort, One Last Try. And do they prevail? Do they triumph, with scant seconds left on the clock?

They all but triumph. As, in the final seconds of the play, the outcome rests on The Lone Warrior, that hero, that champion, that person upon whom, in the Final Moment, all our hopes devolve, that final play, run, pass, penalty kick - Yes.

But wait: that Warrior we would have chosen for the task, that Champion is injured. No one is left on the bench, save a neophyte, et cetera, et cetera.

In which conceit do we see that not only does the game recapitulate the drama, but each act of the game (the Perfect Game, mind you) recapitulates the game (following the paradigm: "Yes! No! But wait..."), just as each act of the play recapitulates the whole. The ball game, then, is perhaps a model of Eisenstein's Theory of Montage: the idea of SHOT A is synthesized with the idea of SHOT B to give us a third idea, which third idea is the irreducible building block upon which the play will be constructed.

The Defense of Team A and the Offense of Team B are synthesized in THE PLAY, the one play, after which the ball will be found at a different position. And to that new position (a ball in the same position but at a later time is, of course, still in a new position) we, the audience, internalize/intuit/create/assign a philosophical meaning.

For we rationalize, objectify and personalize the process of the game exactly as we do that of a play, a drama. For, finally, it is a drama, with meaning for our lives. Why else would we watch it?

It is enjoyable, like music, like politics, and like theater, because it exercises, it flatters, and it informs our capacity for rational synthesis - our ability to learn a lesson, which is our survival mechanism.

This Play, which May or not Take Place, but which we perceive (we can find a similar satisfaction, for example, if we're feeling philosophical, in the interplay of clouds) because we must, because it is our nature, can, at one end of its operation, makes us better, make the world better, perhaps, because of what we have perceived. At the other end of its operation, it can soothe (or, for that matter, enrage and debauch)simply by exciting our capacity for synthesis - as the lovely kitten playing with the ball of string is happy because she practices torture, as patriotic groups are similarly happy because they rehearse - in however embryonic a form - war.

It is difficult, finally, not to see our lives as a play with ourselves the hero - and that struggle is the great task of religion, of which drama used to be a part before the Fall.


bill said...

I dont know about drama but i know everybody enjoys good stories

Alberto Gomez said...

We all love biting our nails before winning the game. Talking of sports and movies, sometimes even loosing can be satisfying. Rocky didn't beat Apollo Creed in the original movie.

Daniel Philip Robinson said...

It does seem to be the overall function of team sports, doesn't it? Otherwise why have the adversarial nature of it? The tribalism, the fans sublimating their individual identity to become part of a collective, all vicariously experiencing victory or defeat by watching the same 11 or 15 people.

Sports writing in newspapers often hints at what Mamet is talking about. If there is a dramatic turnaround in the final seconds of a match, frequently a newspaper's match report will allude to it in the opening paragraph, without much detail, before proceeding to chronicle the important elements of the match itself (In Medias Res, perhaps?). Then towards the end of the article we return to the moment of drama mentioned at the start with a new appreciation for its circumstances.

I watched Ireland crash out of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament yesterday, it was the second of two brutal defeats. There really shouldn't have been a narrative lesson to take away from it apart from our current deficiencies, but then in the last 15 minutes, when the loss was utterly certain, the Irish fans began to sing. With every verse it got louder, and louder, and louder, for the full final 15 minutes. Very unusual not to even hear the victorious side's supporters at all.

So the narrative became about how everyone thought the fans were better than the team, and every article about that match used that moment as a framing device.

Anonymous said...

I believe the Manchester City - Queens Park Ranger match in the Premier League fits the criteria for drama. And I believe that it has a very defined 3-act structure. The last two minutes changed the whole game. It doesn't feel like a game, but a movie to me. But I guess it served the fans well. Their reactions were highlighted during the match when I was watching live on TV.

JK Riki said...

I went out and got the book from the library! Good stuff. Though some parts are so flowery and poetry-like that it can get hard to read at times. But the info is good, when you get to it. :)

Thanks for the heads up!

dubbedperceptions said...

This reminds me of the 2006 soccer world cup final France vs. Italy. Where at the climax of the game Zinedine Zidane, the God-like hero gives in to his human/animal instinct and headbangs Marco Materazzi from the Italien team and is suspended from the game. A true Greek-like tragedy!


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