Polyrama and the art of character. Shakespeare, Bruegel, Tati.
In The Uses of Division, John Bayley describes how Shakespeare’s characters are so well done they leave us feeling like there is a whole novel behind them waiting to be explored. He says the apothecary’s shop in Romeo and Juliet, for example, has “the appetite and curiosity of a Balzac” or that Caliban “might have been developed imaginatively by Dickens or analytically by Musil.” Quite so.
Bayley makes this point by contrasting the quick, condensed action of a play with the long, elongated scope of a novel. “Behind the swift passage of the plays there is time for a whole lifetime of events.” Bayley is right in the sense that not many critics are right. People do write such novels and experience such sensations when reading and watching Shakespeare. At school, I once took part in a dramatic reading of Romeo and Juliet and saw the boy next to me, aspiring novelist that he was, make a marginal note in the apothecary scene — “there’s a novel in this.”
Shakespeare achieves this expanse of personality with a “resonance of words that could only be uttered by one character, giving us a glimpse into his whole and involuntary being.” He creates, you might say, a panorama of a person, and gives us a window onto the scene, leaving to imagination all the rest. When you start to arrange several of these characters together in a play you get not a panorama but a polyrama, a kaleidoscope of “whole and involuntary beings.” What’s extraordinary is that we feel this about even the most minor characters as well as the names on the show bill.
This technique intersects with the visual arts. To my knowledge, the two most relevant examples are Bruegel and Tati. Bruegel’s pictures like Netherlandish Proverbs, Children’s Games, Massacre of the Innocents, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent are examples of a genre called Wimmelbilder, literally “a teeming picture.”
Shakespeare wasn’t the only place Bayley discussed the idea of literature being a place of hidden worlds. He made a similar argument about the short story: “beyond the setting and the subject another story begins to take place.” That is exactly how we feel about Bruegel, where the main character is often not central and difficult to locate. Such is the breadth and exhaustion of the teeming polyrama we have to search for the main event, if that’s even a relevant concept. In The Peasant Wedding only the bride can be confidently identified among the wedding party. Even St Paul is treated this way. The most important couple in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent are hidden in plain sight between the two main crowds, their backs to the viewer.
This is a visual technique for achieving what Shakespeare did with his characters. By massing so many people, in such distinctive poses and actions, to the extent that there is often no main subject, Bruegel puts his characters into deep context. Because he cannot use a “resonance of words that could only be uttered by one character” he instead gives his subjects a position and a pose that achieves the same thing in contrast to their surroundings.
Think about his Icarus. The foreground is dominated by a ploughman, a genre figure. Icarus, the boy who just fell out of the sky, is seen, if you look carefully, as a leg pointing out of the sea. As W.H. Auden said, (audio link, recommended),
the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure
This description, so accurate, gives the ploughman individuality. He starts to become, like a Shakespeare character, an individual with a bigger existence. Look at the word “important”. What would be important to this ploughman? And the fact that he “may have heard the splash” suggests so many things — was he not listening, too far away, concentrating on his plough, bored, daydreaming? Without the lone leg sticking out of the sea, this picture is a generic landscape. With it, the context changes the typical characters into people with a whole world behind them. We feel now that a novel could be written about the Icarus story from the perspective of the ploughman — or the people sailing on the ship, perhaps.
In Playtime, the 1967 comedy film by Jacques Tati, a splendid late bloomer by the way, much effort is made to present almost all characters as typical or generic. The dialogue is incidental, often drowned out by traffic or other background noises. The set was a purpose built city and there are often enough people on screen to perform several ballets. A teeming picture indeed.
In time-honoured narrative style, the characters take a circular journey, from the airport and back again, during a day trip to Paris, and they cross paths, or nearly cross them, before meeting up at a party that evening in a restaurant. Every character has something distinctive about them. They are, as Shakespeare’s characters were, a species not just an individual. The plot, such as it is, is submerged, like On Green Dolphin Street, only much more so. It is a boy-meets-girl classic.
Tati was perfecting and finalising the art of the silent movie, hence no dialogue. But he did have sounds. Where Shakespeare had words, Bruegel had composition, Tati had movement and noise. The shuffling of shoes, the click of a switch, the snap of a camera shutter. This is the texture of his technique.
It is through these sounds that Barbara, the member of the group of American tourists who wants to cut free from their drab surroundings and find something real to photograph, is revealed, as Shakespeare revealed his characters through words. At the end, when the restaurant is half collapsing, Barbara plays the piano, which is how she and Mr Hulot meet. Among the thousands of people who cross the screen, we mostly do not keep hold of Barbara and Hulot. Like Bruegel’s characters, they are not always prominent.
But they feel real. Partly through their place in the context, a la Bruegel, but also for their movements, their naturalism, which Tati then highlights and emphasises with the sounds — all of which were added in post-production. Barbara feels so real because she was not an actress. Many of the people cast in the movie were amateurs, real people, chosen because their inner essence matched their characters.
So Tati achieved what Shakespeare did by selecting the right people, real people, who were required to do no more than be themselves, and by their place in the crowd, their distinctive sounds, the way they were arranged next to everyone else, to shine out as real, as having a bigger story about themselves to be revealed. Through polyrama, Tati makes a series of plain, ordinary people shimmer with what John Bayley called their “whole and involuntary being”.
The Uses of Division, John Bayley
On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks
Text of Musee des Beaux Arts
Tonight, I’m holding a discussion salon about Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko, a heartbreaking novel by a young Belarussian writer, that explores the bridge between the past and the present and the way history is lived out through individual lives. I do hope you can join me