When less plot = more play

This is a very long but very readable post by Ada Palmer at tor.com, comparing “Loves Labor Lost” with “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.”

Today I will take on the unsurprising thesis that Love’s Labour’s Lost is a better play than Pericles Prince of Tyre. The very fact that thesis does not surprise us is itself important, since it means we all agree a play about royal heroes, alluring princesses, evil kings, loyal nobles, dastardly assassins, incest, famine, shipwreck, infanticide, pirates, slavery, prostitution, and divine intervention is less exciting than one about some people flirting for two hours to no particular end.

The simple conclusion that it’s a bad idea to pack too much plot into a 20,000 word story (on the short end for a modern novella), but by digging deeper I hope we can look, both at plot, and at the many things which aren’t plot that make up the length of a play or story, and how those other components can make a giant epic spanning five kingdoms and two decades less gripping than Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I choose for comparison because it is not merely a story about nothing, but, in many ways, a story about less than nothing.

And then that is exactly what Palmer does, with a side note that she actually likes “Pericles,” so don’t think this is a post where she slams one play and raves about another, because that’s not what she’s doing.

As it happens, I’ve never seen either play. Now . . . now I kind of want to see “Loves Labor Lost.” Listen to this:

I cannot supply a plot summary [Of LLL] here. There is no plot. In the first loooooong scene, packed with bad Latin, grammar jokes and insult games, the only “plot” is that the “fantastical Spaniard” asks the priest and schoolmaster to help him improvise some kind of show to entertain the princess. That isn’t a plot, it’s killing time by having actors discuss how they’re going to come up with a way to kill more time! There’s even a character who watches silently through the whole thing, serving only as someone others make incomprehensible puns at, so at the end when they comment “Thou hast spoken no word all this while,” he can reply deadpan, “Nor understood none neither, sir.” It’s a hilarious moment (and a great example of how silent observer characters can be hilarious on stage but invisible in text), but, still, nothing happened in that scene! Nothing! In the next scene the four gentlemen come to woo the ladies while dressed up as Russians for no reason! We don’t even get a scene of them coming up with this idea and explaining why, Shakespeare just plunges in knowing we will be absolutely delighted to see the king and lords being teased mercilessly while they fail utterly at passing for ridiculous Russians! (The girls disguise themselves too, just for giggles).

What this reminds me of is Georgette Heyer, because when I was listening to FALSE COLORS, the entire — the entire — first 80 minute cd was taken up by the mother explaining to one of her sons how deeply, deeply in debt she is. And yet this not only made both mother and son into sympathetic characters, it made for riveting listening — and for me, audio is an unforgiving format. If the book is at all boring to read, then if I try to listen to it, it’ll be excruciatingly boring. Any clunky prose or misused words? Glaringly obvious in audio. But Heyer totally pulls off this scene where nothing is really happening.

Anyway, it really is a thoroughly readable and interesting post. You should click through if you have time.

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4 thoughts on “When less plot = more play”

  1. My recollection is that the Kenneth Branagh film of Love’s Labours Lost from 2000 (which sets it as a musical on the eve of WWII) was pretty good. (And it looks like Amazon has it on DVD for $6.)

    Admittedly, after having seen Shakespeare in everything but, I’m sort of wishing that someone would take the radical step of setting and costuming the plays where they’re actually set.

    (Director’s choice whether to use modern knowledge of period costume and architecture, or the Elizabethan imagined version that puts striking clocks in ancient Rome and has pre-Roman Britons swearing by Hellenic gods.)

  2. Thanks for the tip, Mike! I think I’ll pick it up, even though I agree that actually setting the plays where they’re supposed to be set would make a nice change. If it were me, I’d go for the imagined version of the setting.

  3. Although the Branagh version cuts something like 1/3 to 1/2 the dialogue and replaces it with period show tunes.

    They’re amazingly well chosen tunes, though, for the parts they replace: it’s a fascinating piece.

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