Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Get a Clue!

MrsDarwin as Mrs. White; Isabel as Yvette

 We are gearing up for our production of Clue on Stage this weekend. Production week is familiarly known as "Hell Week". While not actually infernal, this week has definitely been purgatorial in the sense of stripping away every extraneous part of our lives not directly geared toward getting the show on the road. Due to various emergencies, we've lost several key people at the very last minute, and so Darwin has built the tech from scratch in two days, while the majority of the set has been thrown together this week. Everything is coming together -- and it will look great! -- but wow, is it intense.

Let me tell you what -- we could not sustain this level of commitment and firefighting if we did not homeschool. The kids are getting a theatrical education, if nothing else. There is also a major life shift that happens when your youngest child is five, and you have older children who can act, tech, and babysit (that's three separate older children, if you're keeping count). Theater is our family hobby. We don't play sports; we don't travel; we don't do marching band. We renovate a money pit, and we put on shows. 

All this is complicated by most of the family recovering from a respiratory illness (not COVID) that has some long falling action. I can speak now, which I couldn't do last week, and I'm beginning to be able to warble a few notes again. The little kids were Down all last week -- they wouldn't have been at school even if they went. When we had rehearsal, I dosed them up with medicine, tucked them on the couch in front of a movie, and left the 12yo in charge while we were at the theater. Then each night we coughed long into the night. Will this schedule of theatrical activity prolong our recovery? Well, the show must go on...

But what a show! If you're in the Central Ohio area, come see us this weekend! As Wadsworth says, let the games begin.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

What I Really Want To Do Is Direct


It's been curiously silent in these pages the last few weeks.  Life has been rather packed around here.  But I do miss writing, so here's a quick rundown.

Fall has come to Ohio, so it's the time of year when I'm desperately trying to finish home improvement projects before it gets too cold outside. I've had scaffolding blocking our driveway for the last couple weeks, as I cut a hole for the bathroom vent fan in the Great Bathroom Remodel.  And since I had a way to stand twenty feet above the ground and work on the, I'm taking the opportunity to reglaze and repaint the windows on that side of the house too.

I'm also learning a new type of data analysis.  As the Church moves into the "continental phase" of the Synod on Synodality, I'm working on a text analysis project for The Pillar looking at how what words and concepts are most discussed in the synodal reports for dioceses, regions, and the US as a whole.  I'm using a program called KH Coder which does quantitative content analysis.  You might find interesting this tutorial I used to get familiar with the software, in which the authors load the full text of Anne of Green Gables into the software and analyze which characters appear together, how they are described, and which verbs are most often associated with which characters.  It's been a slower process than I would like, both due to over-commitment on my part and having to learn a whole new type of data analysis.  And although readers here have probably already heard many times about The Pillar, it's worth noting that it's extraordinary that a startup Catholic news site would invest in having someone put a month or two into this kind of analysis in order to provide a unique view of how the synodal process is going.  They really do deserve your subscription.

Work, of course, has been busy. I imagine no one will be surprised to hear that the levels of inflation that we're seeing around the world leads to lots of work for those of us in the pricing game.  I had the chance to go down to Houston and give a talk at a pricing conference for the first time since the pandemic.  It was good to talk with a bunch of other professional pricers in person again. One of the tough things about being in a specialized field like this is one tends to be a unicorn within one's own company, so if you want to talk with other pricers you need to connect with people in other companies.

And, of course, we're fast approaching performances in the production of Clue On Stage which I'm directing for our community theater. If you're in central Ohio, do get tickets and enjoy it on Oct 28, 29, and 30.  One of the things that's so enjoyable about community theater is that it brings together people from all walks of life who share a love of theater, and give everyone a project which builds a great deal of comradery.  I feel very lucky in our cast and crew, and also lucky to have been given the chance to direct a show (something that I haven't done since college, although I've acted in a half dozen of the group's shows since we moved up here.) Directing requires some artistic and conceptual work, but also a lot of organizational and person-to-person work. In that sense, it combines the kind of things I enjoy about fiction writing with the aspects of my professional life I enjoy. And it really has been a lot of fun.

Though of course, it wouldn't be the week before production week if we didn't have nearly the entire family come down with a respiratory bug (not COVID, but some sort of nastiness that's going around.)  MrsD lost her voice last weekend and is only gradually getting it back, and the kids are all going around hacking like aging smokers.  So far, I've managed to evade it, but we'll see how long my luck holds.

So it's an eventful fall in the Darwin household. Indeed, one could even be happy with a slightly quieter November and December.  But many good (and a few just plain busy) things are happening. Hopefully we'll become more regular writers soon.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Not Enough Power, Not Enough Ring

We're six episodes into the first season of The Rings of Power, Amazon's foray into the backstory of Lord of the Rings. Each Friday night we log in with Brandon Watson and spend an hour or so gaping in astonishment at how even $500 million dollars is not enough these days to buy half-way competent storytelling. The show is visually compelling (though it often doesn't pay to think too much about the logic, or lack thereof, behind the imagery, which is the perfect example of what Brandon and I have styled Fake Awesome.

Brandon has written about Rings of Power through the lens of Aristotle's elements of drama:

I want to try at least to be nice about it. I think it is good to have Tolkienesque things, and I think the Chestertonian dictum that something genuinely worth doing is worth doing even if done badly is at least often right. The situation underlying the show is unpromising, since they only have the right to use information from the LOTR appendices that are not licensed for other things. This makes it already difficult to build anything coherent, and it is ill-advised, in and of itself, to take a literary work that is famous for its unusual degree of worldbuilding coherence and try to adapt it under circumstances in which you are unlikely to do justice to that coherence. Nonetheless, I think here and there you can see that there was potential, and given that there is so much to complain about, I do want to recognize the potential. Nonetheless, the criticisms very easily crowd very thickly.

Let's take the Aristotelian elements: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. Those are, roughly, from most important to less important, at least for serious drama and epic, and I think one obvious problem with the show is that the importance of its elements are reversed...

And Darwin recently wrote about how he would restructure the beginning of the series to focus on Tolkien's actual mythology, instead of a half-baked modern fantasy narrative

Aside from having a more clear and fast moving plot (it's rather shocking in terms of writing that we are five episodes into an eight episode season and the series plot is only now slowly coming into shape, while the individual episodes themselves do not tend to have a satisfying plot and resolution of their own) my premise here is that the changes the series would most need would be in the themes which drive the Elven and Numenorian parts of the story, and in particular those which drive Galadriel. Morfydd Clark is certainly giving the role her skill, but the writing she's being given doesn't give her much to work with, and it just doesn't seem to fit with a character who is one of the oldest and most powerful elves in Middle Earth at the time of the story.

One of the qualities of mythology is a storytelling that steps out of the everyday into the realm of epic, where every element becomes an archetype. When people retell stories from mythology, they usually humanize them by adding episode, interactions dealing with small moments in the larger plot that show characters grappling with choices, emotions, and the little human moments of life. These moments of episode bring the listener into the myth by giving them the chance to identify with the choices the characters make.

One reason why Lord of the Rings is a far more compelling subject for drama than is the Silmarillion (or the Appendices, which are what the show's creators actually have the rights to use) is that there is a dearth of episode in the ancillary materials to LOTR. What makes The Lord of the Rings a classic of world literature is smallness played against largeness -- the little human moments of humor, terror, and moral choice enacted against a backdrop of danger and grandeur almost too sweeping to comprehend. This little object, a golden ring, bears within it the power to destroy everything Frodo loves. This little hobbit, Frodo, takes on an enormous burden that only he is small enough to carry. The powerful cannot be trusted with the ring precisely because they are powerful and do powerful things. Frodo (and later, Sam) are both humble enough that they have no scope for wielding the ring to the destruction of empires, empires which consist of multitudes of unnamed people and leagues of untamed land. And the hobbits' character arcs are expressed in the small hidden choices that most of us make each day, unnoticed and unapplauded. The pity of Bilbo shall rule the fates of many, says Gandalf -- a small, mundane pity that was expressed in one or two lines in the Hobbit. Bilbo sees the misery of Gollum, understands it, and forbears to strike him when he might have done so with no consequences to himself. It is a little thing in the larger narrative, a little bit of episode that Bilbo himself doesn't dwell on. And yet it is the hook on which the whole saga hangs.

The Silmarillion and Appendices have few small moments. Most of the narrative involves larger-than-life events enacted by larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life motivations. There are few pauses for conversations or deliberations, and what moments do exist are narrated in an elevated style. And so, our show runners must create the small moments of episode which turn the story from documentary to drama. How do they do with this act of sub-creation?

Not especially well, as it turns out. The show comes up short on two fronts:

1. It is poor Tolkien.

2. It is poor writing.

In an act of self-restraint that few will understand but most will appreciate, I will forebear to elaborate on point #1. The writers deviate significantly from Tolkien's mythology, something which I could forgive if by doing so they made the plot more streamlined and the characters more intelligible. They do neither. Every episode is more confounding than the next. Nothing makes more sense as time goes on. No one's motivations become clearer.

Almost no one's. As in many works of fan service, the most compelling characters and episodes are the ones the writers have created themselves. Adar, leader and Father of the Orcs, is not in Tolkien, but not inconsistent with him either. He is, as best we can tell, a fallen Elf, captured and corrupted by Morgoth long ago, and although we don't know his full story, we believe that there is something he wants, and that he knows how to get it. He is dramatically complex and his dialogue resonates. When he is onscreen, I believe. 

He is also emblematic of the problems of this show, which is that the writers have little faith in the power of goodness. They do not know how to write it. Adar is compelling because he is twisted: his compassion and will to heal are expressed in specific cruelties and atrocities. By contrast, the characters who are supposed to represent what is good are mired in a morass of cliché and paint-by-numbers scenes. Everyone except Adar must express conflict through escalating bickering, repetitive and unenlightening. The Elves bicker. The humans bicker. The dwarves bicker. Diplomacy breaks down into bickering. Only Adar is above bickering. He knows other ways to get what he wants, and hence his small moments of episode are dramatically interesting, and their tension earned.

"Unearned" is how a friend described the plot payoffs of Rings of Power, and I think it's fair assessment. Things happen because the writers feel them necessary. Character choices feel rammed into a plot template rather than flowing organically from the motivations of the people making the choices. Gil-Galad, the Elven king, should be a character of power and majesty capable of facing Sauron himself, yet here he is a banal bureaucrat with a strange incuriosity about the major threats facing Middle Earth. Galadriel fights because... because she doesn't know who she is if she puts down her sword. Elrond and Durin, the Dwarf prince, face a breach in their friendship which seems rooted in nothing more than the writers' need for some easy conflict. Celebrimbor, grandson of Fëanor, whose pride in his craftsmanship set the Elves on the destructive course that mars so much of the history of Middle Earth, says a line or two about wanting to equal his grandfather's accomplishments, but his mushy character turns what ought to be an exercise in power and pride and skill into an exercise in construction project management. Numenor, the great island kingdom given to the humans who fought a millenia ago as partners with the Elves against Morgoth the fallen angel, can not gin up any controversy more compelling than labor disputes and guild membership, and every controversy and conversation there seems half-baked. Almost every scene in the series plays better as an outline (X pushes back here; Y demands a decision, X reacts defensively) rather than interactions that specific people would have.

The spectacular elements also feel unearned. A calvary charge, meant to be a eucatastrophe in the finest Tolkien tradition, feels more the show runners knew the fans wanted an echo of the charge of the Rohirrim rather than something that would be plausible, or even possible, in this particular scenario. A victorious battle strategy relies on a Rube Goldbergesque series of manipulations and demolitions, which leads to questions on the part of the viewer -- why would the people who initially constructed this fortress build it in this way in the first place? Nothing makes any sense except as a means to further spectacle or plot machinations. 

If this show has a redeeming aspect, it's that it's allowed for small acts of friendship for us, as we text in indignation and pedantry while watching simultaneously in Ohio and Texas. But how much better would have been to be united in appreciating a good show, Tolkien well told? That's a pleasure that we have yet to know.