Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sister Carrie and Television

A long line of novels stretching at least as far back as Mansfield Park uses a theatrical performance (typically of amateurs) as the hinge of the plot. The moment of performance, of taking on another identity, allows the characters a burst of self-understanding or permits them to see another character—usually someone with whom they are intimate—anew. In Revolutionary Road, this moment occurs at the very beginning of the novel, when Frank Wheeler sees his wife April give a stultifyingly bad performance in a local production of The Petrified Forest.1 In Sister Carrie, it is also an amateur performance—of a light melodrama, Under the Gaslight—that catalyzes Hurstwood's desire for Carrie and creates within Carrie the woman who will ultimately conquer the New York stage.

As I was reading this section of Sister Carrie, I began to think how absolutely unlikely such a device would be in a book published and set within the last half-century or so; Revolutionary Road must be, I think, the terminus ad quem of the stage-play-as-epiphany trope. I suppose one could still get away with it in historical fiction set before 1960 or so, but I really can't recall many examples published recently that have tried. (Suggestions?) Even in Mad Men, which is so very much about the revelation of the self through performance and is also set precisely at this time, one cannot really imagine the writers putting Don or Betsy Draper on the stage to cause an epiphany.2 Something, it seems, emerged around this time that made this device less plausible, that sapped the power of stage performance as a metaphor for the revelation/realization of the self to the extent that this trope has become unusable, obsolete.

Surely, though, one would think that this obsolescence might have come earlier than 1955 (when Revolutionary Road is set). While amateur theater continues to persist, it struck me as odd that the dividing line would fall so late in the 20th century, so long after the movies and the cinema had achieved cultural dominance. Yet then I began to think how beautifully compatible the stage and screen were during this time in a way that has largely, I think, been lost. It is not just that so many more films (especially musicals) were about the stage, or that there was a more well-trod corridor of success from Broadway to Hollywood (in terms of both personnel and product), but that Broadway and Hollywood often seemed to work together upon popular culture, an effect exemplified by Revolutionary Road's performance of The Petrified Forest, which was on stage in 1935 and on screen the next year.

Yet a 1935/36 production is obviously acting at quite a distance for a 1955 amateur performance. Why did Yates choose The Petrified Forest for poor April Wheeler to fail in? While there was a definite intertextual thematic strategy to Yates's choice, the more immediate reason was probably that a television production of the play was aired on television in 1955, a production which, however, still deeply depended upon both stage and screen: it was broadcast live and returned Bogart to the part he played in the film and stage versions (despite being 20 years older). This televisual adaptation, however, gives us (as you probably expected from the title of this post) the answer to the question of why the dividing line falls around the end of the 1950s. Hollywood and the cinema simply don't seem to have alienated anyone from experiencing theater as a language of the self or a medium of its expression, but we can now see that television is the great wedge between the stage and screen and the interposing, alienating force between the self and performance and between performance and the type of epiphany the characters of Sister Carrie experience in the theater.

Of course, the incompatibility of the novel and television has been noted frequently, even incessantly—if you haven't read David Foster Wallace's essay "E Unibus Pluram," [pdf] that pretty much is the high point of the discussion, and I certainly can't say anything more intelligent on the topic than that. But to return to Sister Carrie (since I've gone rather astray), we can already see the reasons why television is so problematic for the novel and the space where it is most commonly incorporated. Here are the closing lines of Sister Carrie:
Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she would be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world.

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o'er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.
Were Dreiser born about 60 years later, I have no doubt that Carrie's rocking chair would have been replaced by a cheap television, the intervening force between Carrie and that "farther step" which she will never truly take. Like the rocking chair, television produces dreams that can be gestured toward but not really incorporated in the novel. They are too banal, and they are ephemeral in a more monotonous, uninflected manner. Unlike theater or film or even reading,3 which are also ephemeral, even the most melodramatic television programs seem incapable of producing a convincing epiphanic moment of self-realization or revelation, a flourish which could take hold of the viewer and shake them to the core.4

That rocking chair, then, is the only place for television in the novel: a source of static, banal, monotonous, inactionable dreams, a force which cannot transform the self but in fact holds it in anesthetic suspension, perhaps even depletes or corrodes it. Counterposed against the transformational, epiphanic possibilities of the stage, television/the rocking chair is the very antithesis of the novel, the point of complete incompatibility, not just for the stage and the screen, but also for the novelistic self, the self's possibilities created through prose fiction.

Appropriately, I guess, Sister Carrie, while it was made into a 1952 film, has never been adapted for television.

1 There is a neat bit of potential intertextuality here: what is the pseudonymous surname that Hurstwood and Carrie take while living in New York? Wheeler. I have never heard of anyone arguing for a heavy Dreiserian influence on Richard Yates, but I'm tempted strongly to believe that it is there.

2 Although, come to think of it, in season 3, Roger's disgusting blackface turn at his wedding is kind of a catalyzing moment for his falling out with Don. But this is also very much a generational issue, and Roger's being older is perhaps what permits him to be placed on the stage in this manner.

3 This is a subject for an upcoming post, but Dreiser gives Carrie Pére Goriot to read rather late in the book. It is probably the last moment when a further transformation, or even the possibility of real happiness, is available to Carrie.

4 I know, I know, "but The Wire!" But no one's written a novel that has a character watching The Wire yet.


Hannah Stoneham said...

Interesting post. I have never read Sister Carrie - but have read Revolutionary Road and seen the film and like your commentary on this device - you are right - it comes up quite a lot.

Thanks for sharing


Barbara said...

I was so surprised to see a discussion of Sister Carrie! This weekend i finsihed reading it for the first time since college. I had read it my freshman year in college and loved it; was wondering if it was as good as I recalled. 35 years later, it still held me. Often it is such a disappointment to re-read something you loved long ago, kind of like the shock of running into an old flame and thinking "really!?!".

JAK said...

Oh! A thought (btw lovee Sister Carrie)-- because I am Mad Men obsessed, as you know, what about the set piece play in Season 1 the Nixon-Kennedy episode....Kinsey's play that Cosgrove finds in his office and then they put on in Sterling Cooper, leading to Joan and Sal's kiss--a total self-reflective testament to amateurism that Joan adorably wants to get just right whereas Sal is unhappy with his casting. I don't have time to think about how it is an epiphany...but I love Joan's expression after the kiss...and then following the little tableaux they all break into dancing while awaiting the returns....okay back to the law now...

Andrew Seal said...

Ha--I had forgotten that, but you're right. I can't remember, though, whether Pete or Peggy perform in that?

Toast said...

Right, theatricals in the narrative are a worn out device, unlike letters, murder, sex, the road, or any one of a billion other topoi that occur in fictions 10,000 times more often than theatricals. You can think of a few examples, which allows you to proclaim that the scene is overused and worn out. Genius. What you got next? "Metaphors, time for a new rhetorical device"?

Andrew Seal said...

Actually, my point was not that the trope has become a cliché, but that television has reduced its credibility in novels set after about 1960 to the point where authors rarely (if ever) try it. I don't consider these the same thing, and I don't think a responsible reading of my post would lead anyone to think I was arguing the former.

Toast said...

Oh awesome. I didn't say "cliché"; I said "worn out." What you said was "obsolete." I'm not taking a liberty by equating worn out with obsolete and I don't think a responsible reading of my comment would lead anyone to think I was.

Andrew Seal said...

I guess you just have a different definition of "worn out" then, because clichés are generally expressions that have been over-used (and hence worn out) while something which is obsolete does not at all indicate exhaustion or overuse. A piece of technology is obsolete not because it's been used heavily, but because a newer piece of technology has superseded it. In fact, one can quite easily imagine something that is both brand new and obsolete, as when two items fulfilling the same function go on the market in quick succession, and the second is so clearly superior that it renders the slightly older version obsolete.

On the other hand, I don't think the concept of cliché and over-use (or worn-outness) can be so easily extricated; what most people mean by the term cliché is precisely that it is worn out.

But thanks for your constructive comments.

Toast said...

OK, Dr. precision. Why don't you just substitute the word "obsolete" for the phrase "worn out" in my first comment and then pay attention to what my comment actually says. Funny that you choose this moment to focus so closely on such a petty detail when every other observation you make is a giant, broad, sweeping generalization. Maybe if you could read with close precision all the time your "criticism" wouldn't be such a load of hot gas.

Andrew Seal said...

Toast, if you think my claims are too broad, then give some counterexamples. I asked for them in the post, and I really would like to hear them.

Also, by suggesting that "obsolete" could so neatly replace "worn out" in your comment, I think you're mistaking me saying that writers perceive this trope as obsolete for me saying, "oh god, I can't stand this trope, it's so worn out." I'm not saying that, and I don't know why I would.

Toast said...

Good lord. Seriously? Novels published since 1960 that use a theatrical performance (typically of amateurs) as the hinge of the plot, and in which he moment of performance, of taking on another identity, allows the characters a burst of self-understanding or permits them to see another character—usually someone with whom they are intimate—anew: Ian MacEwen, Atonement; Stanley Crouch, Don't the Moon Look Lonesome; Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49; Janet Burroway, Opening Nights; Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil; Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal; Gail Godwin, Unfinished Desires; Ron Arias, The Road to Tamazunchale. How many examples did you base your "observation" on? Two?

Pedantry and the old "show me an example" won't defend you from the emptiness and foolishness of your sweeping claims. The lesson that all self-important litbloggers should learn before they begin (but pretty much never do) is that you just don't know very much of anything and the conclusions that you draw from your seriously limited wisdom should be equally limited. But no, you think you're the only soul who ever had a valid thought and you vomit up your grand generalizations, which are simply wrong, regardless of how you interpret the terms obsolete, worn out, or cliché.

Andrew Seal said...

I appreciate the counterexamples, although I think some of them are flawed given that I also specified that the action had to be set after 1960, and that I was most interested in characters actually participating in an amateur production. But certainly, excellent food for thought.

But I'm not sure that I deserve your excoriation. I don't see this post or any of my posts as making an authoritative statement about literature, and if I tend to be more assertive than you care for, all I can say is that I'm sorry--you're quite welcome to stop reading. What I do see Blographia as is a place to articulate ideas that are large enough to provoke further thought--for me and for any readers that come along. Generalizations, I feel, are often heuristically necessary--they are what enables further refinement and advancement toward greater knowledge and understanding, particularly at a stage, as you rightly point out, where I am trying to fill in many gaps in my reading. Without an effort to get a sense of the totality or the framework or the system, whatever I read will be absorbed only atomistically, which is precisely not what I am interested in doing.

Toast said...

No no no. You are not offering generalizations with heuristic value. As I wrote, you're offering grand generalizations. And they don't advance knowledge; they forestall serious analysis and generate false propositions that obstruct knowledge by pretending to provide positions from which analysis can proceed. But these are not positions of that kind at all. The only appropriate response to your wild gestures is refutation, which is exactly what I have provided and hence the only kind of "refinement" and "advancement" possible in the circumstances. You need to practice working on generalizations that do have heuristic value, which is to say that do not brush broadly over much greater swaths of literature than you are actually equipped to discuss.

Andrew Seal said...

Okay, as I said, you're welcome not to read. I don't think we're going to agree about the value of what I'm doing, and frankly, I think you're overestimating your powers of refutation.

Toast said...

Oh it's my pleasure to read, and my powers of refutation don't need to be extensive. If you're really interested in totalities/frameworks/whatever, you'll need to pay attention to your detractors a lot more closely than your contentless supporters. But more to the point, your whole approach is mistaking the atomistic for the systemic. You're trying to make the framework claims without assembling the atoms to make it up. So you wind up hoping that everything else will fit into the framework you have constructed out of air and a couple of vague examples. In fact you often need to force additional examples to conform to your systems. All I'm suggesting really is that you try to make your interpretations more finite and grounded. Don't aim for the stars when your vehicle is just a razor scooter.