Sweep & Specificity - Lynn Nottage's Sweat
Earlier this month my daughter Mélanie and I spent a wonderful few days in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Mélanie is too young to go to the plays but enjoyed the park, a day trip to Crater Lake, and the restaurants such as Alchemy, above). As always the plays were a wonderful source of creative inspiration for my writing. One of the highlights of a very strong season was Sweat, the world premiere of a play by the wonderful Lynn Nottage. Set between 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing town in which the factories are closing down, the play manages to at once offering a broad social commentary and create vivid, heartrending portraits of specific characters so real you feel you could step on the stage and into their world. A great example of examining complex ideas and impact of an historical event by showing not telling.
I was thinking about this as an historical novelist. One of the hardest things, I think, is to capture the sweep of major historical events and social changes while still telling the story of one’s individual characters. This week I talked about another aspect of this with a writer friend who was lucky enough to be in Belgium for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. As we looked at her great pictures of the reenactment of the battle I said one of the hardest things for me in writing about the battle was showing the reader the “big picture” while staying in the point of view of my characters, who would be experiencing sheer chaos. Nottage somehow manages to show the big picture of social change represented by factory closures and manufacturing jobs leaving the country through the individual experience of different characters. Different characters who tragically, if understandably, often aren’t able to see the situation from any viewpoint other than their own.
She also uses time brilliantly. The play opens in 2008 and with two characters being released from prison and then moves back in a time to the events that got them there. This creates wonderful dramatic tension. I love playing with narrative and timelines and how it can affect how a story unfolds. I know some think flashbacks bog a story down,but I think if used to reveal information that drives the story forwards, they can be an effective part of the narrative story line. Television shows use them a great deal of late. Lost was built around flashbacks. Scandal uses them very effectively to reveal bits of character and backstory at just the right moment. The first half of How to Get Away with Murder’s first season was a flashback leading up to the murder with periodic “flash forwards” to the murder’s aftermath. A very different story from Sweat, but it created similar tension as one watches events unfold knowing they will lead to an explosive outcome.
If you get a chance to see Sweat, or any of Nottage’s works (including Ruined and Intimate Apparel), I highly recommend them. Meanwhile, I’m still mulling how I can put the lessons of this brilliant play to use in my own writing.
What books, plays, or movies do you think do a particularly good job of balancing historical sweep and character specificity? Do you like stories that play with narrative timelines?