The Pivotal Character Revisited

In an earlier post I mentioned that although the late drama theorist Lajos Egri was indeed brilliant, many of his dictums on the art of playwriting are extremely dated. That is not to say that his insights were not valid for the plays of his day, but tastes change, particularly when it comes to playwriting and screenwriting.  I made reference to one of Egri’s central tenets: the premise.  I defined this as a thought-provoking idea, usually of social significance, that must be proved or demonstrated; Egri insisted that any play worthy of the name must have one.  However, I pointed out that such premises are rare today because audiences have “seen it all” and don’t like to be preached to (although that hasn’t dissuaded more than a few stubborn playwrights and filmmakers from “preaching to the choir”).

Another of Egri’s insights that you don’t hear mentioned much today is the concept of the Pivotal Character.  According to Egri, without such a character there would be no play: he (or she) sets the action in motion.  As an example, Egri points to  Krogstad, a minor character in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, whose demand that the main character, Nora, repay a loan sets the play in motion. A pivotal character may be a secondary character or, more commonly, the main character or protagonist.  According to Egri, a pivotal character must not only set the drama in motion, he or she must be “necessarily aggressive, uncompromising, even ruthless.”  Ironically, Egri considered Hamlet, whose name is almost synonymous with vacillation, as a pivotal character because he (Hamlet) “ferrets out his father’s murderers . . . to bring the guilty to justice.”

Do I think that Egi’s concept of the pivotal character is dated?  The answer is “yes” and “no”. There are pivotal characters in contemporary drama, but less so than in Egri’s time, because many of today’s dramas don’t have concrete beginnings and endings: there is no action to set in motion because the characters’ lives change little from day to day.  This is particularly true of “slice of life” dramas that periodically fall in and out of fashion.  And as far as characters being “aggressive” and “ruthless,” you are likely only to find those traits in psychopathic villains.   Furthermore, males today—particularly American males—are more likely than not to be depicted as being complex and sensitive. Thus when the pivotal character is a male, you can be certain that Alpha Males need not apply!  And if the pivotal character is an aggressive male, there is a dearth of actors to portray them.  As one American screenwriter not so long ago warned his fellow writers, when choosing their characters, they should keep in mind that “there are no more Lee Marvin’s.”  To which I would add, no Humphrey Bogart’s or John Wayne’s either. So why am I revisiting this concept?

I am doing so because although there are indeed pivotal characters– and should be– in contemporary drama, employing them presents a challenge for both the writer and the actor.   It is essential for both in practicing their art to know the motivation of the characters they write of or portray.  For most characters this is very straight forward.  For example, we can assume that a mother will always protect her children and a father will always protect his family because that is what we expect parents to do.  But when a character is “pivotal,” motivation may not be so clear.   Case in point is the pivotal characters in American “Road films.”  In this genre the main characters, usually seeking a better life, pack up whatever belongings they possess and drive across country, along the way encountering interesting people and embarking on unusual adventures.  The problem is, despite the perception that Americans are very mobile and move around a lot, most would never make so consequential a journey unless they had the offer of an exceedingly good job—and even then it’s not certain that they would actually make such a bold move.  Writers of these films often come up with stronger motivations for the pivotal characters, such as reconciling with a dying relative, searching for a lost child, or collecting a large inheritance or some other large sum of money.  These “stronger” motivations are obviously contrived, but audiences don’t seem to mind as long as the rest of the film is engaging and entertaining.  Let us now look at an example where a writer skillfully met the challenge of the pivotal character and found an actor to capably execute it:  Peter Shaffer’s masterful play Amadeus.

The subject here is the alleged murder of the 18th century Viennese musical genius Mozart by the jealous court composer Salieri.  Mozart, of course, is a historical figure.  Salieri is, too, although a minor one.  In fact there is no real documentation that the two had much interaction, although Salieri had been the music teacher of Mozart’s son and had even conducted some of Mozart’s work.  The drama really doesn’t start until Salieri renounces God and commits himself to undermining Mozart (and possibly committing murder).  This then is the ultimate pivotal act by the pivotal character.  Without Salieri’s treachery, instead of having an engrossing play, all you would be left with would be a faithful biography of Mozart.

Now here is the challenge for the playwright: while the motivation for Mozart is quite clear and straightforward, the motivation for Salieri is not.  Mozart, despite his character flaws, wants nothing more than to be successful in his art; furthermore he sees himself as a dutiful husband, father and son.  Salieri’s motivation is not so clear or uncomplicated.  Salieri is driven by resentment and professional jealousy.  These feelings are understandable; but is it really credible that a devout Catholic would renounce his religion and be so driven by hatred?  Real genius is required on both the part of the playwright and the actor portraying Salieri to make the play succeed.

And succeed they did.   The original Broadway production received the Tony for Best Play, and the motion picture adaptation a few years later received the Oscar for Best Picture.  The actors who played Salieri, Ian McKellen (play) and F. Murray Abraham (film), both received Best Actor awards: the Tony and Oscar, respectively.

 

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