Foreword | February 01, 2018
Aristotle’s Poetics was written circa 335 b.c.e. but then lost for many centuries, available only through a translation of an Arabic version. Much of its meaning has been argued over, although a few elements are generally accepted. Aristotle discusses drama and lyric and epic poetry. He also talks about the importance of form, diction, the ideal qualities of characters represented in literature, and the emotive or cathartic effect of the whole literary work. Disagreement about his meaning is due partly to the fact that Poetics was the most influential extended writing in literary analysis and theory in the West for two millennia. By the eighteenth century, writers and journalists were certainly discussing what they cared about in literature—particularly the Enlightenment values of rationalism and skepticism. Literary scholarship, or the study of texts and textual history, began with biblical scholarship, particularly in Germany at the end of the century.
However, literary criticism in Aristotle’s tradition, focusing on traits of literary texts themselves rather than their history or influences, wasn’t widespread until the twentieth century. The New Critics showed interest in the formal aspects of language and style and how they work together to comprise unity of form. Later in the century, Postmodern critics, partly in reaction to what had gone before, were intrigued by the chaotic, ungovernable nature of those elements and how they threatened coherence and meaning.
Writers have always thought less about theory or approaches to the study of literature and more about the elemental aspects of their work. Style comes naturally to one’s own voice, while plot, setting, mood, and the feel of a work—what the writer invents and puts on the page—need to be thought about and given coherence.
The world of theater offers a useful phrase to describe both the concerns of writers in fashioning their works and the concerns of critics in assessing them. Mise-en-scène, “putting on stage,” is a wonderfully loose term that refers to the setting, scenery, and mood of a play or movie as well as blocking and movement. When applied to literature, this term refers to the “feel” of a work expressed through setting, atmosphere, style, and—in fiction—the story itself.
Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” provides a fine example of mise-enscène in a short story. The story has a dramatic setting, as two middleaged rich New York widows sit and knit at a restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum while their two unmarried daughters go off with young men for dinner. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade have known each other since childhood and have been unadmitted rivals since young adulthood. The time is late afternoon, and the setting is one that literally overlooks a key place from their own pasts, since they—like their daughters—came here as young women and had romantic encounters. Wharton takes a neutral view toward both women despite the fact that one of them, Mrs. Slade, is openly emotionally needy and discontented. She was in fact married to the “star” husband, Delphin Slade, while Grace Ansley’s husband was low key and unnoteworthy, rich family or not. Yet Mrs. Slade is irritated because Grace’s daughter is the “star” daughter—brilliant, beautiful, daring—while her own daughter, Jenny, although kind and helpful, is in her view hardly a vibrant person. How can her “loser” friend have the ideal daughter? To get back at Grace, she tells her what she has long wanted to confess: that in one of their youthful visits to Rome, she wrote a fake love letter from the dashing Delphin Slade telling Grace to meet him in the Colosseum, hoping that she would go there, be disappointed by Delphin’s absence, and maybe even catch Roman fever (malaria).
As the two women knit and talk over their pasts in the quiet evening, set against the backdrop of a beautiful Roman twilight, a fact is revealed that dramatically rearranges their assumptions and all but drives a stake through the self-satisfied but greedy and discontented heart of Mrs. Slade. Grace reveals that Delphin did meet her in the Colosseum and that the young woman who would soon marry the kind, boring Mr. Ansley got not Roman fever but the “star” daughter Barbara Slade from her tryst with Delphin. The feel and subject of the story is backward looking, meditative and questioning as the old friends finally admit the truth.
The mise-en-scènes of this issue of TMR are replete with fantasy and fable; many pieces show the charm of fable and its ability to transform what seems to be melancholy into the bracingly meaningful.
In her story “The First to Leave Is the Winner,” Becky Mandelbaum writes about a young woman who has been jilted by the love of her life. When her former boyfriend’s wife suddenly dies and he goes on a healing pilgrimage, she agrees to take care of his grand but secluded gentleman’s farmhouse. In this isolated setting, she slowly transforms herself into someone radically different, eventually meeting again her former lover. Very unlike the world of Mandelbaum, Karen Tucker’s “Anklewood” is set in the heart of Lost America, where too many are just hanging on. In this impoverished hill-country town of bars, pool halls, and pawnshops, her two young women bar servers exact revenge on the scumbag town rich boy for attempted rape in a series of acts that spiral out of control yet show a giddy sense of at least partial victory.
Susan Neville and Nathan Oates both give us environments where the real melts into the surreal in oddly credible ways. Neville’s story “Hunger” is about a recently widowed mother with grown daughters, now remote from her, who feels diminished in her life. She develops a powerful and insatiable appetite that she is magically able to fill but which serves finally only to make her better able to comprehend her solitary state. Nathan Oates’s protagonist is an overworked and underappreciated professor at a small college who is losing his job. Responsible for organizing a visiting writers series, he mysteriously receives a confirmation from literary critic and author Edmund Wilson saying that he will be glad to accept an invitation to give a reading. Jonathan plays along despite the slight problem that Edmund Wilson has been dead for some years. Is he corresponding with the ghost of Edmund Wilson or some inexplicably motivated prankster? Jonathan puzzles over what it all means, drawing connections between his own unremarkable writing career and Wilson’s fall from literary prominence: “History had largely left Wilson behind, but history would make no note whatsoever of Jonathan.”
“Box of Watches” by John Fulton is a short but theatrical tale in which the mise-en-scène is a pawnshop. A drug-addled robber threatens the protagonist’s grandfather, the shop owner, at gunpoint. The tense confrontation is illuminated by what we learn about Shaun, the protagonist, and his grandfather, who is dying of cancer. Robert Garner McBrearty’s story “A Morning Swim” also depicts a character facing a mortal threat. The middle-aged protagonist takes a morning swim and, after experiencing a near-death encounter with a shark, feels an overwhelming sense of joy, which he goes home to share with his wife. In the euphoric wake of his near miss, he confesses a past transgression to her and soon discovers the terrible disconnect in their respective views about their marriage.
Dan O’Brien’s “Of Time and the Theatre” is a meditative essay that brings together mortality and the theater. Playwright O’Brien writes about his experience as a cancer patient and something that he sees as a fundamental element of theater: time. “A play is a story that happens. It’s here—this moment, this accretion of moments onstage—before it’s gone.” As his own craft has developed, O’Brien has become more conscious of this element of drama, and he seeks greater pointedness and simplicity in his own play’s uses of mise-en-scène. “I have wanted to write plays simply between you and me. Happening now, in this room. . . . No sets, or not much. No props, if you can imagine it. . . . Lights and sound still belong; as storytelling tools, but also for their associative powers. We are theatrically inside my head, after all—why pretend otherwise?”
Daniel Anderson’s meditative poems use delicate rhyme to form scenes: a teenage romantic encounter, a conversation with an old friend, a summer evening. His tranquil recollections have a tone of bitter sweetness, showing patterns of revelation and concealment: What lies do we tell other people? What truths do we choose to ignore about our friends? Danielle DeTiberus’s poems focus on Charleston’s disturbing history. Wrangling with her whiteness against a history of atrocities committed against African Americans, a speaker asks, “What lives will rot into a palimpsest of place?” With a rich use of allusion, slang, and metaphor, DeTiberus circles back to examine her own poetic devices. Nicholas Friedman, at the conclusion of one of his poems, says, “Really, there’s so much that I could tell you.” Indeed, Friedman’s yearning, quiet poems have a lot to tell. Each has a detailed setting, from an airplane cabin to a backyard or a campus. Some engage in their own mise-en-scène, as when a speaker photographs a family for a Christmas picture, arranging them just so.
James Whale, director of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein, among other films, was the master of mood, tone, and atmosphere. During his ten years of making movies in Hollywood in the ’30s, he used his background in art and theater to create memorably stylish pictures that borrowed cinematic techniques from the German Expressionists of a decade earlier. Dubbed “the Monster Man,” he created the iconic looks that we still associate with these cinematic characters, imbuing them with a depth of emotion and motivation previously unseen in horror films. Like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler with hard-boiled crime fiction or John le Carré with spy novels, Whale opened up the opportunity for art in what had previously been mere genre tropes.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
May 17 2022
Foreword: Take Heart
Take Heart Plato banished poets and playwrights from his ideal Republic because he felt they dealt in irrationality and half-truths. Only philosophers, who deal in absolute truths, could occupy his
Jan 07 2022
Foreword: How Did I Get Here?
“How did I get here?” is a recurring question in one of my favorite songs, “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. It is an anthem to the uncertainty
Aug 20 2021
Foreword: Moving On
Moving On When excited about a piece of writing, I often sense a largeness to it that exceeds what I first fully understand. As an editor, I’ve had that experience