Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Craft analysis: Thinking Twice and Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" (CA4)

Welcome to another entry in my ongoing craft analysis series (more about it here -- in particular, note that this analysis is not necessarily correct but my attempt to understand). Last week, I watched the Berkeley Rep's production of Rinne Groff's "Compulsion". The play is a fictionalized history and character study of one of the writers who dramatized the Anne Frank story for Broadway. At the content level, this story has a lot of interest to the writer. Early in the story we see a Jewish author, his travails getting published by the New York publishers and his resorting to self-publishing. Yet, the main focus of the play is a story that is in the author's head and the need to get that story out and have others read or see it.

In this week's analysis, I study how one respectfully approaches a subject that is controversial and many people have conflicting views around. This analysis is somewhat prompted by Nevets advocation to think twice about what you blog, agents influence over writers, published writer's influence over unpublished writers, and unagented author's advice. However, I'm interested in what you're fiction has to say either directly in the text or metaphorically.

Compulsion writes about an author who both used legal means to try and stop other people publishing works and also had other people using the law against him as well because of his fictionalization of the Leopold and Loeb over which he was sued. The playwright, in her notes, observes that she was concerned about these aspects while writing the play even though the law has changed somewhat since the Leopold and Loeb case that ensnared the author. Even so, the tale told delves intimately into the relationship between the author and his wife and includes scenes that are an extrapolation of possibilities.

Compulsion also touches on the Jewish Holocaust and events afterwards including Holocaust deniers and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Not pleasant topics and particularly interesting since the author accuses the New York publishers of crossing HUAC and employing communist screenwriters. A view that seen from history is difficult to tolerate.

The play uses two primary techniques to approach this subject. The first technique is to use a different name for the author in the play. Although, the events of the play and the main character closely correlate with history it is separated by the device of using a different name.

However, more importantly, the play respects the character and creates a sympathetic vision of this man who is driven by his art so that he drives himself into tragedy. Showing that it's this respect for the tale of Anne Frank and his vision of what that means that drives the author and causes him to fight with the New York publishers and tears at his family and break the law in the name of his art.

Do you write about controversial and dangerous things? How do you approach the topic?

Image source from the Compulsion press photos and courtesy of


  1. Weird, I was going to write about characterization and how you make two characters different. This play had an interesting twist on that, so I may be boring and analyze that next week.

  2. Aidan, I think about this question quite a bit, actually. As a writer who draws on his own empathy in both the creation and realization of characters, I run the risk of making all my characters sympathetic. Many of my characters are pretty horrible people that may be deserving of general human sympathy, but whose ideas and activities I would never want to endorse or create interest in.

    The piece I submitted a my entry to Notes from Underground, "I Need This," was difficult for me because of this, as the man character directly espouses a pretty horrid outlook and falls just short of rationalizing some awful behavior. In that case, I used exaggeration to help create a little distance. When I first drafted the story it was a little too easy to believe, so I ramped it up a little so that it still read believably, but was extreme enough that readers wouldn't be pulled into accepting his view, even if they were prompted toward thought by some of what he says.

    In other places I run the perhaps greater risk of appearing not to care about something. In Sublimation, there is a character who suffered some pretty bad stuff in childhood, but doesn't really respond to it as such. So it's there, it's portrayed, and its influence can be inferred, but I never actually "deal with it."

    Sometimes I'm worried about readers' perception of that silence.

  3. Nevets, I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think I overlooked an aspect of the thinking twice. I intended to discuss the controversial side to thinking twice. Where some people will agree and others disagree with your topic. Race, homosexuality, wealth, government are all controversial topics with significant people on both sides of the coin.

    However, I overlooked the case of writing about characters with whose views you don't believe (and worlds). I'm intrigued by your approach on "I Need This" of exaggeration to try to make it more difficult to believe. I think my tendency (not that it's necessarily right) is to do like you say with Sublimation and try to describe the world, but not make the choices for the reader. I hope the reader will make the "right" choices for them. Of course, this is somewhat silly because I could just write a story without the dangerous aspect.

    However, the latter for me isn't an option. We live in a gray world. I enjoy stories that lie in this aspect and will write about worlds that I don't agree with but want to see how the characters react in that world. Yet, it's a difficult concept and I hope that I can provide some respect and hopefully thought rather than blind acceptance.

    Thanks for your comments. This is still a difficult subject for me and one I'm still working through.