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Edward Albee’s Sadomasochistic Ludonarratology in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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As a whole, the theatre creates a ludic world in and of itself, one that is defined by its lexicon of play, in which playwrights pen plays brought to life by actors playing roles. The theatrical experience is by definition an immersive one, and Sebastian Domsch posits the necessity of immersion for ludonarrative experiences: “Playing games and reading fiction are both activities that involve the temporal and partial neglect of knowledge in order to function.”[2] We know the gameworld differs from the real world, but it proceeds apace into the ludonarrative pleasures at hand. Beyond this creation of a playful zone, the theatre approximates a game in the tension between the guidelines of performance codified in a script and the inherent potential to disrupt these expectations. Building on Elizabeth Bruss’s foundational work in literary ludonarratology, Lynda Davey theorizes that theatrical narratives exhibit ludic features both in the interactions of playwrights and spectators and in the additional elements introduced through the narrative’s inherent performativity, which must be realized by actors, mise-en-scène, lighting and other requisite elements of a theatrical production.[3] Blanket statements about the theatre’s ludic aspects cannot cover all plays and all performances, yet sufficient overlap between theatre and game arises for ludonarratology to illuminate their mutual pleasures. Surely Tom Bishop is correct in his statement that “one does not need a fully worked-out theory of the nature and place of play in human life to perceive or discuss the ludic in drama.”[4] It is the objective of this essay, if not to propose a universal theory of drama, to flesh out a theory of sadomasochism in a particular theatrical artifact while suggesting its utility throughout a range of ludonarrative forms.

Games require players, plays require characters, and characters require actors (i.e., players) to play them, with the overlap among these terms highlighting the ludic potential in dramas that stage agonistic and antagonistic relationships among their characters. Many formalist and structuralist theories of narrative envision characters primarily as essential functions of a story deployed to advance its plot, such that they retreat from any sense of organic individuality into a strictly utilitarian position. Aristotle, in his foundational assessment of narrative and drama, asserts that characters must align with a given plot’s ambitions: “In the characters too, exactly as in the structure of the incidents, [the poet] ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable, so that it is either necessary or probable that a person of such-and-such a sort say or do things of the same sort.”[5] Extending this Aristotelian view, Joel Weinsheimer points to the ways in which narrative structures envelop and thereby erase characters: “As segments of a closed text, characters at most are patterns of recurrence, motifs which are continually recontextualized in other motifs. In semiotic criticism, characters dissolve.”[6] Characters become subsumed as their narratives progress, acting in a particular fashion so as to adhere to the expectations of the plotline’s unfolding. Both narratives and games are almost universally established upon a bedrock of conflict, and Baruch Hochman pinpoints the utility of antagonism for discerning a given character’s motivation and identity: “we tend to think of character—of people, to begin with—in terms of conflict, which may be moral, social, or psychological in nature.”[7] Viewers understand the rudimentary structure of many ludonarrative artifacts simply by identifying the characters’ relationship to one another through this lens of conflict.

And certainly, such a binary relationship pitting protagonist against antagonist is encoded into the characters of myriad narratives and games, both in the theatre and beyond, such that the assumption of a sharply defined antagonism bleeds into critical perspectives on narratology and interpretation. The binary of protagonist/antagonist, nearly ubiquitous as a narrative and ludic device, predetermines a story’s outcomes, as Ronald Jacobs details: “By arranging the characters of a narrative in binary relations to one another, and doing the same thing with the descriptive terms attached to those characters, narratives help to charge social life with evaluative and dramatic intensity.”[8] Interpreters can anticipate much of the developing action of a drama simply by understanding the characters’ relationships to one another through the oppositional logic of protagonist versus antagonist, in much the same manner as spectators of a game.

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