The Fergusonia File

Sunday, November 12, 2006

'Bout Time for Elizabeth Griffith's The Times, 1779

Elizabeth Griffith’s The Times (1779) doesn’t employ many of the stock-comedy conventions that we’ve come to expect. There are no cross-dressing scenes, no misplaced letters (unless you count Forward’s reading of the business document in 1.1), and the plot complications don’t largely result from the bumbling of a clown/fool figure.

In our class discussion (last time?) we got into an interesting debate about the possibilities inherent in restrictive literary forms. We all seemed to be in agreement that the conventions of 18th century comedy manage to please despite their predictability.

In spite of this hard-to-explain appeal, I’m surprised at my own reaction to the different plot devices in The Times. The play was quick and easy to follow, with few complications and twists; even the misunderstandings between the characters didn’t bear on the plot much (like Sir William’s confusion about who Louisa would wed). I liked the fact that a simpler plot with fewer characters allowed us to really “know” the characters in a way that most other playwrights we’ve read don’t seem to value.

Yet, in spite of this clarity and character development, I was slightly bored by the play. The pitiable situation of the prodigal Mr. Woodley is perhaps too realistic (my empathy might be tied to my own student-loan woes); the greater measure of realism and the exploration of his psychology demand more of the reader than most plays we’ve read. This play is maybe more like reality TV than the sit-com-like plays we’ve studied in the course. The same events may happen in both, but the tone differs.

All this is to say, I was paradoxically bored by the absence of stock devices that should bore by their ubiquity. Strange. Stranger still is that I liked the play; I just liked it for different reasons.


Blogger Brenna said...

Hey, Jesse! I've included a few quotes from your blog in my presentation. I hope I can ask you to speak to them in a little more detail in class tomorrow?

And I agree with you -- I think Griffith's strength lies in her characterization. And Rizzo sort of agrees with both of us!

2:32 PM  
Blogger Kirstie said...

"I liked the fact that a simpler plot with fewer characters allowed us to really “know” the characters in a way that most other playwrights we’ve read don’t seem to value."

Jesse, I would agree with you in this, that the characters are more accessable to us because our experience of them is sustained. I wasn't personally bored by this play, but I do see the distinction between this and other comedies that rely on stock characterication. For me, though, these characters allowed some scope for interpretation that I find very interesting. Of all the plays we've read, I would want to direct either this one or _The Rover_. While they differ greatly, both offer ample opportunity for spectacle. _The Rover_ is more impressive, but _The Times_employs subtle but entertaining devices, like the card games, to create what I think is an interesting oportunity for stage business, and which also offer an underlying metaphoric tension. The risks in this plot occur as part of the social fabric of high society, and gaming and gambling serve to represent that.

I think _The Times_ does allow us room to explore the charcter's psychology. I also think that its use of image, language, and dialogue offers a depth that perhaps balances the directness of the plot.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Miriam Jones said...

Ha! Jesse, I think you are right: Mr. Woodley's situation is all too close to the bone.

I am interested in what you say about the effect of the (lack of) stock devices, and the alternative sources of interest in this play.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

Damn, I thought I was special - Brenna likes Jesse's blog too :(

Jesse, I'm glad that someone else found the play a little boring. I like your comparison to today's situation comedies - when I was reading The Times and casting the movie version in my head, I couldn't help but think how dependent its success would be on good casting. Other plays (The Busybody, The Innocent Mistress) might be able to get by on story alone, but I think this one really needs an extra "pop" that just isn't there in the script.

As you know, I LOVE the Bromleys, but duping poor Woodley is like fishing with dynamite - there was no art involved. I wish he had put up more of a fight, or at least been less of a one-dimensional good guy.

6:36 PM  
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