Right now I am listing Aimee Mann’s song “Frankenstein.” It’s kind of strange because I watched Frankenstein and then Bride of Frankenstein just last night. Well, it isn’t that strange. I watch those films a lot. If I like a film, I’ll watch it over and over again. But I don’t bring the song up because of Frankenstein. There is a line in the song, “I won’t find it fantastic or think it absurd; when the gun in the first act goes off in the third.” It is a reference to Anton Chekhov who noted, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This is a problem.
Why have centuries of audiences loved tragedies and comedies? We all know how they’re going to turn out. Imagine the first four acts of Othello exactly the same: Othello has his little jealousy problem and Iago jabbing at it. Then, at the beginning of the fifth act, Iago has an epiphany, “Why am I doing this?” He runs to Othello and says, “Hey buddy! I am so sorry. I was pissed off at you about passing me up for promotion. Desdemona is pure as the driven snow.” And they both burst out laughing. “I’m really glad you told me that,” Othello says. “Because I was just about the strangle her!” Iago replies, “Well, that would have been a tragedy!” Wiping his brow, Othello exhales profoundly, “I’ll bet after I found out the truth I would have killed myself!” Then they walk out into the fog and Iago says, “Othello, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Other than those few people like me who would think that would be funny as hell, everyone would hate that ending. I mean, what was the point of those first acts anyway? The same goes for the comedies. Imagine if at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio lifts the veil and finds that it is Hero who he thought dead. But instead of rejoicing, Hero pulls out a knife and slits his throat. Actually, that’s a much better ending. But again, the audience wants what it expects. And Claudio is not the villain of the play (even though he is) and so he gets his happy ending.
Of course, I can see the two plays coming together. Because really: Claudio rejects and embarrasses Hero based upon almost nothing. And then, instead of confronting her in private, he does it in the most public way imaginable. Even if she were guilty, his behavior is abhorrent. So in the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part II” all it would take is a fifth rate Iago to move Claudio to strangle Hero. I think people would accept that even though the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part I” was a comedy.
The point is that when writing fiction, you have to walk this line where you give the reader what he expects but not so much that it is boring. The worst form of this is the Agatha Christie school of, “Oh, let’s just throw in red herrings.” Her best work is probably Murder on the Orient Express where the red herring is that there are no red herrings. But this is why I think postmodern fiction is a distinct improvement, because it isn’t about anything. It’s like the different between going to a regular party and going to a wedding. The essence of postmodern literature is that you are just going to hang out in a reality for a while and if someone gets married great, but it is hardly the point.
I think that this was always the case. Othello and Richard III are fun because of their smart villains. The overall plot of Much Ado About Nothing is stupid. The story of Benedick and Beatrice is concluded at the beginning of the fourth act. For all I care, Hero could have really died and the play end with Benedick killing Claudio. Although admit it: the play would be better without Claudio and Hero in it at all. The whole thing could be about tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love. Much the same could be said about most of the other comedies.
So I don’t want random guns thrown into stories for no reason. But just the same, I don’t want everything to be important and everything to lead to something else. I just want to go to the party and I don’t want to feel like there has to be a wedding to justify it. Because I know how weddings end.
For some reason, this song comes to mind: