The Reflections and the Dreamings

This morning I caught an episode of Books and Arts Daily on ABC Radio National. Among the other stories, there was an interview with Arena Theatre Company artistic director Christian Leavesley along with performers Sophie Ross and Phillip McInnes on the topic of their upcoming theatre event for parents and children, The Sleepover (which incidentally sounds magical and makes me wish I were eight years old again just to attend such a thing).

During the interview Christian Leavesley said a very interesting thing about theatre that caught my attention. I am going to record this from the audio, so hopefully I get it right.

…in my mind there’s at least two types (of theatre), and there’s theatre that is about exploring and discovering what the world might be and what people might transform the world into, and then there’s another kind of theatre that is about reflecting on what the world used to be, or sort of is.

This very much struck me as an interesting way to divide stories in general, and not one that I’ve heard much discussed. Ursula Le Guin and Michael Moorcock both wrote about the categories of ‘Realist’ fiction and ‘Imaginative’ fiction back in their literary essays of the seventies and eighties, but taking stories and dividing them into stories about potentiality and stories about reflection cuts in a slightly different way. Immediately, I think of stories like Fear of Falling out of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which is a story about the discovery of a life’s passion, and the accompanying, perhaps paralysing, fear of failure. It is also a story about overcoming that fear and becoming what you might yet become. It is certainly an imaginative story, being set in a dreamworld overlorded by Dream himself, but it is also very much a story about discovering what the world might be for you.

And I wonder if this division might be the reason why writers of serious literary works often seem to fail so spectacularly when they do try to write using unfamiliar tropes of genres that typically obsess over potentiality, over dreamings. It isn’t enough to grab spaceships and aliens, romantic encounters, adventures, spirits of the mind, dreams or manifestations of the fantastical, and just roll these into an already embedded obsession with a reflection on what was and what is. Those elements do not mix well. It perhaps betrays a failure to grasp why stories set in the future might even be of interest. Readers do not look to stories of the future in order to see only a mirror held up to reflect the now, they look to the future to see how things might yet be. A clumsy mixing of tropes and reflection also perhaps displays a failure to understand that genres like fantasy, or superheroes, romance, or pulp are at their hearts playful (although ‘grimdark’ fantasts of late have been doing their best to abuse the playful out of fantasy, which is another essay I suppose).

In any instance, I am left wondering to what degree the core of a writer’s obsession about stories and the telling of tales might be teased out into the reflectors and the dreamers. It’s not to say one is better than the other. We need both, I wager. We need people to reflect, muse and dwell upon how things are. And we need people to dream about how things might yet be. Living entirely inside the world only of reflection, or only of dreams, would make for a dull, half-realised sort of existence.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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