As a student in the early 1970s I was fortunate to work with a young director named Ron Daniels. Ron went on to work for many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and recently has concentrated on directing opera — including the recent L.A. Opera premiere of Il Postino.
In Ron’s view of theatre — at least as he taught it in 1973 — the actor must know what happens in the play, and from that understanding must know what happens to his character that pushes forward the action of the play. Each scene must be performed so as to contribute to that overall narrative.
Moreover, the only source of what happens in the play is the play as written. One looks to the script for an understanding of the action of the drama. The question is not “What did the author intend,” but rather “What did the author write?”
Ron also taught me that, when using words to describe what happens in the play, one does not use adverbs or adjectives, only nouns and verbs. Thus Hamlet is not a “moody Prince;” he is a Prince. Hamlet is not upset when he learns of Ophelia’s death; he leaps into her grave. Why he does so we can discover in the rehearsal process.
Following these precepts allows a performing artist to abandon preconceived notions of whether a particular character is happy or hasty or contemplative or ironic. We know only that certain actions take place that, seriatim, constitute the main action of the play. How the characters involved in each scene treat each other, and engage in those actions, is an entirely separate inquiry.
With that preface, the question is: What happens in Lohengrin? A king visits a sub-region within his kingdom, Brabant, to gain support for a war against an unnamed threat from the East. He discovers that dissension within the region makes decisive action impossible. The young heir to the throne has mysteriously disappeared and his sister is accused of murdering the boy. Under the king’s aegis, an ordeal by combat is held and the sister is defended by a mysterious champion, who is named the leader of Brabant’s army. Still, some knights chafe at the prospect of waging war against a people who never hurt them. And those accusing the sister are persistent, succeeding creating distrust that eventually cause the mysterious champion to withdraw. However, the accusers are revealed as untruthful; the missing boy returns to popular acclaim, and the king succeeds in his mission to create a unified army against the threat from the East.
The central action of the play is, therefore, the process of Henry’s overcoming obstacles and creating a unified German fighting force. It is the story of Henry the Fowler (ruled 918-936), who succeeded the charmingly-named Charles the Fat, Louis the Child, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple, and Conrad I as king of Franconia and Saxony. Henry the Fowler created a tenuous but workable agreement among the Franconians, Saxons, Swabians, Bavarians and Lotharingians to create, for the first time, the Kingdom of the Germans. Most notably, Henry made a nine-year armistice with Hungary to buy himself time to build his armies and defenses, and then broke it after six years, defeating the Hungarians at the battle of Riade.
Of course, in the 1840s Richard Wagner was tender to the prospect of German unification, and as Ernest Newman points out, the story of Henry the Fowler was of particular interest to him. He uses that story to create exciting characters: Elsa the innocent, Lohengrin the quasi-divine emissary for justice, Ortrud the schemer and Friedrich the gullible.
But Ron Daniels would call these adjectives “decisions” or “colors,” not “acts.” He would have us state clear sentences: “Friedrich fights Lohengrin,” “Ortrud seeks Elsa’s forgiveness,” “Lohengrin returns to Montsalvat,” and so on. The reason Lohengrin is gripping and exciting is because of the Swan Knight’s adventures, not because of Henry the Fowler. But the action of the opera is whether Henry gets his army, just as the action of Hamlet is who will sit on the throne of Denmark. (P.S.: In the case of Hamlet, the answer is Fortinbras of Norway, and damned be the production that does not make this clear!)
Forty years after working with Ron, I still find his question — “what happens in the play?” — to be exceedingly useful. The question is addressed to the text, and it places a responsibility on the stage director and the performers to identify the reason they are putting on the production and the story they wish to tell. Sing what arias you will, and take what theatrical gestures you may — your choices must advance the story, not just be pretty or impressive. And the obverse is logically compelled: If the story the performers wish to tell is not what the play is about, then we are in danger.