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.
What about the scene with the television at the end of Delillo’s _White Noise_?
What about Robert Coover’s marvelous and disturbing short story “The Babysitter”?
What about John Rechy’s _The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez,_ which, if you haven’t read, you should go out and read immediately?
Huh, I think The Valve sucked down my comment.
I haven’t read the Rechy, but for Delillo and Coover, I guess I don’t see television functioning as a plot hinge/epiphany in the same way as theatrical performances do in Sister Carrie or Revolutionary Road. But maybe I’m just missing your point--would you mind elaborating a little?