You cannot easily make a good drama out of the success or failure of a marriage, just as you could not make a good drama out of the growth of an oak-tree or the decay of an empire. As Polonius very reasonably observed, it is too long. A happy love-affair will make a drama simply because it is dramatic; it depends on an ultimate yes or no. But a happy marriage is not dramatic; perhaps it would be less happy if it were. … All the things that make monogamy a success are in their nature undramatic things, the silent growth of an instinctive confidence, the common wounds and victories, the accumulation of customs, the rich maturing of old jokes. Sane marriage is an untheatrical thing. G. K. Chesterton
Art has one very clear bias, and that is a bias against untheatrical things. These untheatrical things are often the boring, workaday details of life, but also things that are too long, too slow, too complex without a ready reward. They can be good things, even universal dreams of the human race, but they are not theatrical.
Among them, as G. K. Chesterton so effectively pointed out, is sane marriage. Another is marriage in general. Most characters in most books are single, for the simple reason that marriage so endlessly complicates things. A married main character requires an author to either invent some relevance for the spouse’s presence in the story, or else invent some explanation for the spouse’s absence from the story.
Whether absent or present, the spouse continually has to be taken into account. Everything an author wants to do with married characters – send them on a quest, keep them late at work, imperil their lives – has to be processed through the dynamic of marriage.
Marriage also bars that part of romance most spotlighted in fiction – the first meeting, the tension, the question, the ‘ultimate yes or no’. A happy marriage is a better thing – and harder to obtain – than the initial romance. But it’s less dramatic.
Happiness is also untheatrical. It may not be true, as Tolstoy famously wrote, that all happy families are alike, but certainly unhappy families have proven more interesting to artists. Any hero who begins his story happy will soon experience a horrible shock. Stories are about the loss of happiness, the pursuit of happiness, maybe even the finding of happiness – but never about just being happy.
Quietness and peace are untheatrical. The heart of story is conflict, as an enshrined piece of writing advice has it, which means peace, like happiness, is much more talked about than actually experienced in fiction.
What I’m going to call real time – the time in which things actually happen in life – is very untheatrical. “Everything takes too long in this world,” complained Auberon Quinn, the errant satirist of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. But then he was an artist, and thought the world was a joke that, while good enough in its way, went on too long.
In books and movies “based on a true story”, we see with uncommon clarity the process of reducing life to art. One element of it is, of course, removing the dull parts and adding exciting parts. But much of this process is contraction – contracting time, contracting events, blending people, eliminating large and small complexities that look so pointlessly fussy in art.
Art, you see, is bound. All art has its framework, its structure, whether it is two hours for a movie to tell its story, four minutes for a song to reach its point, or the beat of inciting incident, rising action, conflict, climax. And maybe the biases of art are best understood as the limitations of art. The untheatrical, what does not easily fit into the framework – that is what art, by its very nature, is biased against.
Life is larger than art. There are certain things that art can, at its best, capture with all the brilliance and clarity of light passing through a prism. But the whole of life, in all its multiplexed reality – that cannot be contained by art. And of that, we may be glad.