Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Play in Game of Thrones - Analysis

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
― William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The Season 6 is still running and it would be unwise to guess the direction, especially that we have no books to turn to for help. However, up to today, the show had few great moments and more than a fair share of bore-fest inducing ones. I have never made it a secret that I only cared about the North, with Winterfell, Starks and The Wall (or north of The Wall, for that matter). This season has only strengthened my belief that I chose well for caring about the characters. Anything else is just bland. 
Except for the play that Arya was watching.
The play fascinated me from the first moment it appeared on the screen. I will try to explain why now.

It would be good to watch the cuts before, but even if you deem watching (and Gods forbid! enjoying) GoT as something beneath you, you will probably understand what I wanted to say anyway.
And now, the first cut (I know, bad wording, all things considered) is here. And the second one, The Purple Wedding is here.
Two ladies from the still below are an interesting example of how a low-brow culture that high-class participates in functions in the lives of the citizens, they are pretending to display a disdain for such a poor-man's entertainment. However, as the play progresses, those two stuck-up ladies start to show smiles, in short - they loosened up the social borders and started to enjoy the communality of the stage show.

The theatre is a subversive game with reality, life and human existence. It focuses, like lenses, the life in its multidimensional realities and then it projects a new image - it can be exactly like the source, or it can be a diffraction.
Immediately after it appeared, my thoughts went to the opening credits. The impressive journey through the Westeros, accompanied by the powerful music of Ramin Djawadi, has become not only a staple element of the whole show and fandom by now, it is also a remarkable piece of theatrical props. I realized this only now, while watching the play inside the show. The play itself, as a means to convey another point of view, is nothing new. It's called "play-within-a-play interlude" stemming from the "Mise-en-abîme" concept (and "story-within-story" in prose). In my language we call such literary devise a "box novel", which describes the whole topoi more clearly. It was implemented by i.e. Shakespeare in Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, it appeared in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, and in many other playwrights' and writers' works. Also, if you remember Singin' in the Rain movie - well, you know what I'm talking about.

In Game of Thrones the play serves few purposes. There is a Bakhtinian one - as a moment of celebration, of jests, jokes and laughter. And such moments are truer to the human nature than tragedy. This also serves another purpose - for the real viewers of the series, and this purpose is actually the same - to disrupt the narrative, to rip the viewers out of their moment and place, and put them into a completely different environment. The play is a way to experience the experiences alien to us, unknown or unpleasant. The high tragedy leads to catharsis, but so does the comedy, and carnival in general if we are to remain faithful to Bakhtin. The comedy leaves the viewers with feelings of happiness, it diminishes the daily problems, shrouds them in a mist of "someplace, sometime". Without laughter, our lives would become unbearable. Even if that laughter is brought by crude methods. But there is also a whole other range of emotions that the play evokes in the viewers, most notably - sadness, compassion. Ironically, it is performed and projected on the viewers by the actress who plays Cersei. Her emotions are real, they are pulling everyone who watches the Joffrey's death scene and Cersei's lament. Juxtapose the real Cersei to that and you will get the dissonance.

The scenes, or rather the fragments we are shown, depict two major events - the power play after King Robert's death and The Purple Wedding. Arya watches the previous one first with a smile, then with a clear anger on her face. She is probably the only person, among the square-full of people, who knows how the events really looked like - she witnessed her father's beheading, she saw the whole scene and she remembered Joffrey's behavior. The viewers of this play have no such knowledge. For the citizens of Braavos, this is just another play, no more, no less. She frowns when the people around her laugh, she's thrown back to the probably worst day of her life with the lampooning version of the tragedy she witnessed. And while the audience explodes with joy, she implodes internally, unable to correct the version, to explain. She's powerless in the face of power much older than herself - it's the word.

It also shows how much power of creating the reality a word has. The viewers here don't care what is the real version of the events. For them, Ned Stark and the events are equal to those from the times of Aegon the Conqueror. The play turns everything upside down, it's a grotesque world where Cersei is a loving mother and a noble woman, Tyrion is power hungry, cunning, treacherous and cruel, Ned is a halfwit and schemes to take the Iron Throne for himself, Joffrey is somewhat dumb but not malicious kid. The fine details don't exist. The play is written by one person, an actor who plays Tywin here and he dismisses any notions of other thoughts than his own and suggestions. Arya, who knew Cersei, suggested to the actress who played her how the Queen would react after Joffrey's death and she tried to breach that idea to the playwright - he furiously refused to take any under the consideration. One man's point of view becomes the norm, just like usual.
Another interesting fact that emerged here - the actress who played Cersei. We know Cersei is on Arya's "to kill list". Arya was given the first order to kill and it was this woman. The woman's acting moved Arya - she gleefully laughed at Joffrey's death, but she was deeply moved by the desperation and woeful words of the stage-Cersei. At first, it might not seem significant. Maybe Arya just projected her own mother, Catelyn, lamenting over Robb's death shortly before her own. But for a fleeting moment it was mother-Cersei's pain she felt bad about. It's also ironic that it was this particular actress that brought the awakening in Arya. It was as if Cersei herself reached out and slapped her back into the reality. And Arya made a decision, based on the play, based on what she saw - and some of the events were new to her.

Of Monsters And Men band members cameo playing the musicians :) The invisible two are on the left.
This play irritated some fans, it angered some fans. Some people wrote they hated it, some deemed it idiotic, unnecessary and boring. Some loved it for the subversion of the events depicted in earlier seasons. For me, it was one of the best moments, because it precisely shows how the world works. We remember the history because someone else wrote about the events, right? For the illiterate or people living on the peripheries, such plays or stories are the only source of what is happening far away. They don't care about that particular far away reality as long as that reality doesn't care about them. If it comes-a-knocking, well, maybe they would pay more attention to the true events. They don't. The play shows us how theatre (and media nowadays) can shape our understanding of the world around us. We rely on other people's witnessing accounts. And another people's version is entirely their own, filtered by their own ability to make sense out of the stream of the world. Some events we remember in already distorted form because of this.
What is more, the opening credits are those beautiful tiny constructions coming to life, just like theatre decorations, relying on cogwheels and mechanical structures. The opening shows that the whole War of the Five Kings is yet another play, only actors don't know their roles. Because, to quote Macbeth:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28.
For the crowd the events far away from their homes could look exactly like this, even though some might suspect the play exaggerated a bit. They are indifferent to what really happened, because the real tragedy of the events is absent from the play. No one believes Shakespeare described the real events, doesn't it? It's the play itself that's important, the here and now that is happening on the stage, the laughter, the fun and the mockery of the "high and mighty", the catharsis.

It served as a catharsis, if only for one person - Arya was reminded of her identity, her proud, stubborn Stark identity she futilely tried to shed. Starks are proud and honorable to a fault, and everyone of the family paid for that either with death or macabre humiliation.
As I mentioned earlier, the theatre plays a cruel, subversive game with its viewers. It has moments of a real artistry mixed with vulgar, obscene and physiological moments. They all serve a purpose - be it either pulling the audience into the orbit of real human emotions or the opposite - building a fence, shredding the spiritual and emotional connection it constructed a moment ago.
Everyone respected Ned Stark, so seeing his version here - a hideous, retarded creature - leaves us with a deep sense of distaste. But that's just how the world works through the word. The playwright didn't witness the events, he probably didn't even hear it from someone who saw them. He knows only the shadows from the Plato's cave and is perfectly happy to see only them, because this version brings him money.

One more thing, I would like to point out the differences in sigils of two houses: Lannister and Baratheon (click on those to enlarge if you want). And now please look at the first picture where the sigils are easy to see. Those used by the play creators are most certainly a mock sigils, being both crude and overdone, just as many things in comical, grotesque shows is.
And my own nature is screaming against the injustice to the real tragedy. I cringe every time I see what they have done to the characters (the Red Wedding is mercifully absent, perhaps it had no such impact on story-tellers, rumor mill and such, as it had on readers/viewers, because who even knew who Robb Stark was, really?).
Season 6 is soaked in theatre bath, bitter and unnerving. We also witnessed, through Bran, how Ned created a lie he himself started to believe in most likely, despising the dishonorable behavior of others, he convinced himself the events happened the way he would have wanted them to happen. Because, as Nietzsche once said :”>I have done that< -- says my memory. >I cannot have done that< -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields.” This doesn't make Ned a liar or strips him off of his honor, it just proves how much he valued it from the youngest age he created a version of events suitable to his own beliefs, disregarding the reality. This made me actually respect Ned even more. He was one of the best actors in Westeros, playing for so long, not breaking the role he was given. We have also Margaery playing a dangerous role of a true believer to trick the Sparrow. Plays all around, "Words, words, words"...

The War of Five Kings is also a play, watched by the Three Eyed Raven, and perhaps the Others (White Walkers), and when they will make a move, they will tear down the "fourth wall" and enter inside the play.