This weekend I went to see Florian Zeller’s comedy called La Verdad. Or, Truth in English. I first read this kid’s novels a few years ago. At the time, I was a sad little neurotic boy who enjoyed taking a form of Portuguese pleasure called saudade: sadness, or nostalgia, directed at present or missing objects or people: in my case, mulling over all the lost opportunities I’d lost by mulling over lost opportunities–that is, living a life that I didn’t much enjoy. I read this Zeller kid and thought: wow, here’s someone my age who isn’t sitting around mulling. He works hard and has a career to show for it. Cheers, to you, bro. I was particularly encouraged because Zeller reminds me of how, particularly now, what with the Internets being what they are, a writer can be a little CEO of his own little publishing mark. Not that Zeller does that: he’s French.
He writes in a sub-genre of literature called French pseudo-philosophy. He is the student of Milan Kundera and, as my Portuguese tutor asked me last week, “Isn’t Kundera that writer who tricks you into thinking he’s being profound but really isn’t because, when you reread what he said, you realize it isn’t profound at all?” Yes; that’s the one. That’s Kundera. Like Coca-Cola. Lots of fizz, but not much fun tomorrow morning. For best result, open and drink immediately.
So, I spent 20 euros and went to see La Verdad here in Madrid, Spain. It is Zeller’s 2011 play, a comedy. People laugh during the show. My bad Spanish aside, I understood a lot. Enough to have a problem with it, even. My one criticism a la Aristotle: unity.
Ye Olde Aristotle tells us that a great play will have a unity of action. The play should occur in a single place and time. The degree of unity equals the degree of that play’s power. Meaning, the best play ever written in all of time is Oedipus: one day, one man’s search for the truth, one man’s self-destruction. Violent, inevitable, logical, yet surprising.
The key to a good play is to have people do stuff. Also know as shit, or physical actions. Happenings. Events. Stuff. The words they say and the stuff they do are one-and-the-same. People touch things and move things and those physical things mean meaning for the play’s meaning. Like, two or more characters are in a room. There’s a snowstorm outside. They are at odds; they both want something but the other person is in the way. They both act to get what they want: one against the other. Blood. They get it, or they don’t get it. Comedy or tragedy. The end.
In Zeller’s play, what do people do? What actions happen? What actions do the characters take? Here’s a list off what happened: the main character searches for and puts on a sock, drinks wine, reads a newspaper, looks at his wristwatch, fluffs a pillow, answers a phone call in a silly voice, puts on a suit jacket, tucks in a shirt, shifts weight from foot-to-foot nervously, drinks whiskey rapidly, runs hand through hair dramatically, drinks more wine, gives his wife a hug, the end.
Oh, sure, during these meager actions, the characters talk funny talk. People laugh. There’s an irony involved. The liar gets lied to and embarrasses himself. But, as you can see from my list: there is no unity of action. And therefore no power. The play is just the sort of emotional pseudo-philosophy fizz we get from Kundera. If you read it twice, you will wonder, Why did I think this was profound? He hugs his wife. Ooo.
The solution, of course, is to marry the witty, intelligent ideas with action: to create a unity. Doing so would move Mr. Zeller into a different category as a playwright. For those of us who write plays, this is something important to remember. A plot must be simple, logical, and surprising. The character must talk and act towards a desired goal. Not towards socks or alcohol, probably. The desired goal must be connected to the, uh, you know, the meaning. As action builds on action, an irony is revealed–this is sometimes called a twist. The character gets, or does not get, what he wanted and is therefore happy or sad. The end.