The Power of Point of View

Helping an Audience to Get the Point (of View) in Performance

by LEON SEAMAN   In my last post, Perspective in Live Performance: to Embody or Not to Embody, I briefly told how perspective criticism helped me block Mark’s baptism and transfiguration scenes for performance. A simple “s/he/they saw” may be a clue to whose viewpoint is to be embodied or not. Of course, point of view dynamics are rarely that simple, as Gary Yamasaki’s post, How Perspective Criticism Actually Work points out. Even though a narrator keeps us close to someone (spatial plane), and tells us “she saw” people (psychological plane), we may be distanced from her by divergence on the informational plane: we know more than she does about the people she sees.

Literary critics have long recognized a similar dynamic at work in Mark’s narrative. Readers’ perceptions of characters in this story are colored by what they know from the prologue that characters don’t—who Jesus is: Anointed One and God’s son (1.1, 11). So while fearful disciples ask, “Who’s this?” (4.41), we smugly know what demons fear: this is “God’s Holy One,” who has come to destroy them (1.24, 3.11). We follow along close to the disciples, even see and hear speech and action through their eyes and ears, yet divergence on the informational plane distances us from them.

In chapters 4-8, Mark employs artful oral-performance techniques (including repeated-yet-varying scenes, and verbal and thematic forecasts and echoes) to turn an informational divergence into an ideological one. Although disciples are insiders who receive private explanation about the mystery of God’s rule (4.10-12, 34), by the time we get to 8.21, they are characterized in the same terms as outsiders who want to kill Jesus. Let’s explore these dynamics at work in two juxtaposed scenes, 6.47-52 and 6.53-56.

And when evening came, the boat was out in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw them struggling to make headway, ‘cause the wind was against them. So in the early hours of the morning he comes toward them, walking on the sea. And he intended to go by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and they cried out, ‘cause they all saw him, and were alarmed! But right away he spoke to them, and says to them, “Take heart! I am here! Don’t be afraid!” And he got up into the boat with them, and the wind stopped. And they were completely astounded in themselves, ‘cause they hadn’t understood about the loaves. No! Their hearts were hardened! (6.47-52, my translation).

And when they reached land, they came to Gennesaret and moored the boat. And as soon as they got out of it people recognized him, and they ran round that whole district and began bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages, towns, or farms, they’d lay the sick in open spaces and beg him to let them touch just the fringe of his cloak, and those who touched him were restored! (6.53-56, my translation).

An attentive audience recognizes 6.47-52 as a second storm scene. The first (4.35-41) featured panicky disciples, afraid and lacking trust. Trust, of course, is the right response to what Jesus says and does (1.15). In this second storm scene, Jesus is not present-yet-asleep, but absent-on-shore, expecting the disciples to go it alone this time. Seeing them laboring against the wind, he decides to appear and lead them on, but they do not recognize him! Again they are afraid, and he has to climb aboard to reassure them. In spite of an exact echo from the first scene—“And the wind stopped!” (4.39)—they react with the same awestruck fear. The narrator crucially adds: “’Cause they hadn’t understood about the loaves [prior scene]. No! Their hearts were hardened!” Attentive audiences hear an echo of what angered Jesus about those who oppose and plan to kill him—“the hardness of their heart!” (3.5).

We are already hesitant to “see” Jesus through the disciples’ eyes, but here they literally do not recognize him. In this scene I embody Jesus words and deeds, but narrate the disciples’. The narrator’s comment—“they hadn’t understood …. No! Their hearts were hardened!”—further distances us from them. What was an informational divergence now becomes ideological.

Notice the artful counter-crafting of the next scene. Not only do people immediately “recognize” Jesus, but an attentive audience notices clear echoes of two previous scenes: the bringing to Jesus of the paralytic on his mat by his friends, and the restoring of the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ cloak, in both of which there is explicit mention of their trust (2.5, 5.34). As so often in Mark, unnamed people from crowds display the trust and insight that disciples lack.

Because forecast and echoes, and repeated-yet-varying scenes are so vital to Mark’s point-of-view crafting, I emphasize them by blocking them in the same places on stage, aided by minimal props, with similar movements, gestures, and voice. I find this helps audiences to see and hear even forecasts and echoes widely separated in the narrative, and the effect of seeing and hearing such connections is to draw an audience even further into an inquiring engagement with the story and its meaning.

I invite you to find other scenes after these that help prepare us for Jesus’ questions to the disciples in the final, combined boat-and-bread scene: “Do you not yet perceive? Do you not yet understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but don’t see, and ears but don’t hear?” (8.17-18, echoing 4.10-12). Ultimately, of course, the question is directed not to these long dead disciples, but to us!

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