Conveying Trauma in Texts
Tips from a playwright on how to show mental distress
Most writers are concerned with damaged people. Well-rounded individuals, in control of their lives, do not make for interesting reading! Instead we prefer to learn about people who fail to cope, or deal with hardship in extreme ways. There’s much more drama to be had that way!
I have recently been teaching Tennessee Williams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ to my students. Williams pioneered a technique he termed ‘Plastic Theatre.’ In a 1945 essay entitled “Notes to the Reader” Williams wrote:
When the art of a playwright approaches that of the painter who thinks in terms of balance, harmony, and rhythm, his writing begins to depart from the strict literary province. He begins to enter that of the plastic arts: painting, sculpture, architecture. A plastic theater emerges....a correction of chance by the longing and vision of poets.
As his protagonist, Blanche Dubois, experiences increased mental anguish, Williams conveys this to his audience through music, sound, and light. Her mind replays the horror of her first husband’s suicide, when, soon after they danced the Varsouviana polka together, he rushed off and shot himself. The trauma of the event haunts Blanche, and Williams conveys this to the audience by frequently allowing us to hear the polka tune followed by a gunshot. None of the other characters are privy to this: we are given unique insights into Blanche’s mind. In another scene, where she is about to be raped, we hear ‘inhuman voices like cries in a jungle’ and see ‘shadows and lurid reflections [which] move sinuously as flames along the wall spaces.’ (scene ten). Blanche’s mental horror is communicated powerfully to an audience through the use of ‘plastic theatre.’
Prose writers can do this too. Emma Cooper does this brilliantly in ‘The Songs of Us’ where the central character hears (and sings) music when stressed. In my first novel, ‘The Oceans Between Us’ (Headline March 21st 2019), I express a character’s anxiety through his eczema: whenever he is worried or frightened, he scratches his arm. It’s a kind of shorthand that alerts the reader to inner tension. Another character was injured in a bomb attack and develops tinnitus. When under pressure, the noises in her ears increase, informing the reader that she is failing to cope.
Having our characters see visions and hear sounds that are not part of the external world of the plot can help to make them more complex. And using Tennessee Williams’ technique will make our readers more involved in their psyches.