Skip to main content

Our Plain Dramatic Lives

by John H. Lienhard

The opening words of Shakespeare's Henry V not only set the stage for that play. They also give us a place to begin thinking about the role of theater in our lives. Shakespeare wrote:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

The play's the thing that will catch our consciousness of drab reality's inner meanings. Henry's victory at Agincourt was less, in the course of history, than the play would have it be. Yet, as far as human intensities go, it was huge — both for its participants and its observers. And, like any event that ever takes place — large or small — it changed the course of history.

So we wonder: Is the play an exaggeration of reality, or its fulfillment. I like to recite Lienhard's Principles of Minimum and Maximum Drama, and they address that question. Like the Laws of Thermodynamics, the first, The Principle of Minimum Drama, is easiest to understand and remember. It says, "The least dramatic explanation of any situation that we don't fully understand is the one most likely to be true."

For example, I walk down the hallway and see two colleagues talking. As I draw close, they quit their conversation and go into their offices. So I speculate as to what they were doing.

  • They were going to nominate me for the university presidency.
  • They were planning to assassinate me.
  • They'd just finished their conversation as I came in sight.

Now look at the dramatic content of each possibility. The last lacks all drama, so it's the one that's true. My colleagues really had just finished talking as I came around the corner.

My First Principle is wonderfully useful. It keeps me from assuming the worst. It keeps me out of trouble. But it also bothers people. "Is life really so dull," they ask me. Well no, it isn't.

Let's go to the Second Principle — the harder-to-understand Principle of Maximum Drama. It says: "Once we understand the facts, the truest explanation of those facts is the one with the greatest dramatic content." Example: the story of the philosopher who met three men scraping bricks by the side of the road. He asked what they were doing and got three answers:

  • I'm removing mortar from old bricks so we can reuse them.
  • I'm helping to build a great cathedral on this spot.
  • I'm trying to bring people closer to God.

All three answers are true, but the last is most dramatic. It tells most fully what was going on by the side of that road. In 1951, I worked at the Boeing Company. One day I passed a row of three draftsmen. I asked each what he was doing.

  • I'm designing a bracket to hold an air duct, said the first.
  • I'm creating the new B-52 bomber, said the second.

The third pulled a long face and said,

  • I'm trying to bring people closer to God.

In the years since then, through the course of several wars, I learned how true that third and most dramatic answer really was.

To understand facts, we first have to shed drama and seek their essential plainness. That's called scientific detachment. But we'll never know the full meaning of facts without seeing them in their dramatic finery. So Richard Armstrong and I have chosen to look theater — to look at drama in general — in this year's Engines CD. And our Engines colleagues Roger Kaza and Andy Boyd will be helping out. Let's begin by seeing what Richard has to say about all this:

[Armstrong] Well, John, you've begun by telling us, in effect, that truth and drama intertwine.

[Lienhard] Yes, exactly.

[Armstrong] And "theatricality" really is all about a heightened sense of truth. Playwrights set up conflicts among their characters. As they wrangle with one another, some truth comes to light, and we're moved. The only way for a play to engage the audience is to hit us with something that feels real, vital, urgent. That's why so many well-intentioned plays about ideas fail: they're more about abstractions than gut-level realities, like hate, lust, or shame.

On the other hand, "theatricality" can mean the opposite of truth. It can mean exaggeration or even hypocrisy. (Perhaps I saw a little of that in your engineer at his drawing board.)

Just think of common terms like melodrama or drama queen. We resent people who drag us into their personal drama like unwilling extras. It all seems excessive, out of proportion, manipulative. The need to orchestrate personal drama can even be pathological. There's a recognized "histrionic personality disorder," whose symptoms include exaggerated emotion, provocative behavior, and the need to be the center of attention. These people compulsively "make a scene."

[Lienhard] Which is the flip side of the fact that theater, in its many forms, shows how rich in meaning our world really is — much richer than we're inclined to imagine.

[Armstrong] And we've been using theater to reveal that richness for a long time. Let's go back and look how the Greeks caused the idea of The Play to emerge — how they wedded truth and drama in a new form of public story-telling. I'd like to look at how they used it to give us a deeper understanding of ourselves.