Literature Spotlight: The Blanks Left Empty

AP Literature Open-Ended Prompt, 1975, #2:

Unlike the novelist, the writer of a play does not use his own voice and only rarely uses a narrator’s voice to guide the audience’s responses to character and action. Select a play you have read and write an essay in which you explain the techniques the playwright uses to guide his audience’s responses to the central characters and the action. You might consider the effect on the audience of things like setting, the use of comparable and contrasting characters, and the characters’ responses to each other. Support your argument with specific references to the play. Do not give a plot summary.

The Blanks Left Empty

Narration is often the crux of the novelist’s art. Through skillful use of narration and point of view, a novelist can make his readers acutely aware of not just the events of the novel, but the characters’ opinions of those events. This makes it easy for a skilled novelist to deftly control how his readers respond to the work. The playwright, on the other hand, has no such tool at his disposal. Plays very rarely have a narrator or any sort of explanatory text that is not part of the dialogue or stage direction. How, then, does a playwright guide his audience’s responses to the action and characters? How does he communicate his theme or commentary without the use of narration?

The playwright has numerous other tools to convey his point, all of which stem primarily from the fact that theater as a medium is more open to abstraction. Much of theater, no matter how grand the production, depends on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. A single ornate desk might represent a general’s field office; a simple black ladder might represent a second-floor balcony. The playwright relies on the unspoken agreement that the audience will fill in the rest of the details with their imagination. Even if the general’s office is completely built out in shining gold paint, there is one wall missing, the one through which the audience sees the action. And the building outside the office does not exist. Because of this unspoken agreement, audiences are prepared to see events play out that would not, strictly speaking, be possible, and the suspension of disbelief is even stronger when the play is observed live. Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, is an example of a play which uses this implied agreement to devastating effect.

Assassins, which is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., is an abstract musical centered around the men and women who, over the years, have killed or tried to kill the President of the United States. The central theme of the play is a dark reflection of the ‘American dream’; the idea that if any kid can grow up to be the President, then it follows that any kid can grow up to kill the President. The play explores potential motives for the various assassins and seeks to humanize them, to make them more than just “footnotes in a history book” (to use Sarah Jane Moore’s words from the final scene). The primary way Assassins achieves this is through its use of setting.

Assassins makes heavy use of the theater concept of ‘limbo,’ a neutral stage space with little or no sets and props, that places the characters in a realm devoid of context. With a few exceptions, the people depicted in Assassins lived in completely different times and locations from one another, but the play places them all in a shared space – limbo – that can become whatever is necessary to communicate the theme at hand. The bulk of the play is presented in vignettes, isolated sequences that center around each of the assassins. Their story is portrayed in one or two songs, loosely threaded together by the occasional ‘limbo’ scene with more than one assassin conversing, or the pseudo-narration of the audience surrogate character, the Balladeer. We’ll get to him in a moment.

This extensive use of limbo has a few distinct effects on the audience’s response. First, the abstract nature of the setting makes it possible to portray multiple sides of an event simultaneously in the same space, such as when Guiseppe Zangara’s story depicts his execution over top of a chorus of excited witnesses gushing about the minor fame they received from being nearby. The following dialogue, taken from the final chorus of the song “How I Saved Roosevelt,” happens with the witnesses clustered around a microphone located immediately behind Zangara’s electric chair, so that they all share the same spotlight center stage.

And why there no photographers? For Zangara no photographers! Only capitalists get photographers! No right!
Lucky I was there!

No fair, nowhere – so what?
I’m on the front page, is that bizarre?!
No sorry!
And all of those pictures, like a star!
And soon, no Zangara!
Just lucky I was there!
We might have been left

Who care?
Bereft of F!
Pull switch!
No luck, no more, no…!

Zangara never gets to finish that sentence – the chair is activated, and the witnesses hit their final high note over his convulsing form. This use of juxtaposition in limbo space helps to drive home the way that we tend to downplay the plight of the assassin. We get wrapped up in our own little victories and forget that for someone to be driven to kill, they must have stakes high enough to kill for.

Limbo is also used to compare and contrast the various assassins, showing how their stories mirror and support each other. Portions of different but parallel stories occur in the same space and time, allowing characters to display complimentary facets of their personalities to the audience without showing them to each other. This is true of the song “Unworthy Of Your Love,” wherein John Hinckley and Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme sing a love duet, not to each other, but to their respective infatuations with others who barely notice them. The theme of “find[ing] a way to earn your love” drives both of them to the same desperate act despite their different circumstances.

Of course, limbo is a magical place, and sometimes these characters do interact. Whenever they do it gives the play a sort of otherworldly feeling, a surreal tone that somehow allows John Wilkes Booth and Sam Byck to exist in the same time and place. Two full-company scenes of this type roughly bookend the musical, one at the beginning in a nebulous barroom, and another near the end when the assassins reunite in the Texas Book Depository to persuade Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks. During these large group scenes, the assassins bounce ideas and themes off of each other, which allows the audience to see the playwrights’ ideas more directly and begin to form a response. At the start of the play, these ideas are directed at the general unfairness of the world at large, and the themes that emerge are those of desperate attempts to fix it:

“ZANGARA: What should I do?
BOOTH: Have you thought about killing President Roosevelt?
ZANGARA: Do you think it will help?
BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.”

By the time Oswald is revealed, though, the audience has already watched these men and women go through their own stories, with varying degrees of success and fulfillment. Their ideas and themes thus become driven by the need to convince this meek, frustrated, suicidal man to perform one powerful act that will “revive and give meaning” to all of their stories.

“MOORE: You think you can’t connect? Connect to us!
CZOLGOSZ: You think you’re powerless? Empower us!
BOOTH: It’s in your grasp, Lee. All you have to do is move your little finger. You can close the New York Stock Exchange.”

These types of conversations help the playwrights get across a few potential reasons why these men and women would have done something this extreme, both from the characters’ perspectives and the unsaid ones brought about by their interactions.

Limbo is a powerful enough tool on its own, but in Assassins it is joined by another, equally powerful one: the audience surrogate character. An audience surrogate is a character who presents the perspective that is most likely shared by the audience, who can ask the burning questions the audience might have and force the characters to display their themes more obviously. In Assassins, this character is the Balladeer, a ‘normal’ American who tells the stories of the Assassins through bits of sung narration. Besides introducing the stories, though, the Balladeer has a definite opinion about the assassins; they’re poor, misguided nobodies who have been stepped on and largely forgotten by the country, subjects suitable for pity and derision. He says what most of us would have probably thought about the assassins – if we ever thought about them at all. He dismisses their plights as selfish or small, not worthy of the extreme reactions they had to them:

“BALLADEER: They say your ship was sinking, John,
You’d started missing cues.
They say it wasn’t Lincoln, John,
You’d merely had
A slew of bad

Of course, this being limbo, the assassins won’t let him get away with that kind of abuse without a fight. Even the above stanza, sung as John Wilkes Booth attempts to dictate his indictment of Lincoln, is punctuated by Booth telling him repeatedly to “Shut up!”. Over the course of the play, the audience grows to empathize with the assassins, and starts to hate the Balladeer’s antagonism and dismissiveness of them. By the time the song “Another National Anthem” comes around near the end of the play, the audience is downright relieved to see the assassins finally turn on the Balladeer, overpowering his voice with their combined chorus and driving him off the stage so that they can finish their last chorus uninterrupted. The Balladeer is the embodiment of our tendency to ignore the darker parts of history, the people who ended up on the so-called ‘losing’ side.

On a related note, with this moment we can see as well the importance of the impact of direction on a play. Plays are meant to be staged and performed, and the production team can make choices that can enhance, detract, or add additional commentary layers onto an already complex production. In the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins, director Joe Mantello chose to have actor Neil Patrick Harris play not just the Balladeer, but Lee Harvey Oswald as well. During “Another National Anthem,” where the script says the assassins force the Balladeer offstage, this production has them instead surround him, forcing him to the ground and concealing him from the audience as they sing the final refrain, then taking his flannel shirt and leather jacket to reveal the white T-shirt and blue jeans of Lee Harvey Oswald as the song concludes. This directing choice throws a dart into the idea that with enough antagonism, anyone can be turned into an assassin. Even the one person who has been spouting the traditional ‘American dream’ narrative the whole time, pitying the assassins, can be transformed into one by an uncaring world full of hate and vitriol. (Incidentally, Joe Mantello won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for his work on that production.)

Just because a play does not have a traditional narrator doesn’t mean the playwright has to suffer the uncertainty of whether or not his work will have the desired effect on the audience. He has a plethora of tools at his disposal and can take the full potential of the medium into account when creating a work. I chose to focus primarily on the idea of ‘limbo’ as a setting for this essay, but there are countless other ways to drive home a point with finesse and subtlety through the medium of theater. When you take into account directing, production and acting choices, the playwright never has to fear that his audience won’t get the point. They’ll come into the theater expecting to fill in the blanks, and all he has to do is leave those blanks in the appropriate places.