More CHESS moves: some notes on characterisation…

One popular criticism of Chess seems to be the lack of focus in terms of characterisation. Who is the protagonist? Is there more than one? Is it Florence all the way through? Freddie in Act I and Florence in Act II? Why does Freddie shift modes from a possible protagonist to one that provides commentary, like the Arbiter? How does Anatoly fit into this grand scheme? And this doesn’t even begin to broach the severely underwritten Svetlana. It’s all very convoluted.

Chess isn’t a conventional narrative musical; there’s a huge concept being played out at the centre of it all, based on the idea that everything – love, war and so on – is like a game of chess. So I don’t think that, ideally, there should be one primary protagonist or antagonist. The idea isn’t conventional, so why should the expression simply fall in line with established conventions. After all, content dictates form….

Ultimately, I feel that the whole play should revolve equally around Freddie, Florence, Anatoly and Svetlana – at the start they are like two king and queen pairs. One problem here is that Svetlana is no where near as developed as she should be and enters into the action far too late – in some ways, I feel like the character hasn’t earned her verse and counterpoint in “I Know Him So Well” in the middle of the second act.

Another major flaw is Freddie’s change of mode from the first act to the second; “One Night in Bangkok” as an opening for Act II provides a perfect parallel for “Merano” in Act I, but isn’t what’s being sung more suited to the Arbiter, who has been the observer all along? More confusion follows when all of a sudden Freddie is doing interviews and singing a song about his childhood that doesn’t make dramatic sense for the direction his character has moved in the second act. And should the final match involve another player? Where was he on the metaphoric chess board of the show when the game was set up?

Over the years, there have been attempts to work out these problems, but the changes are cosmetic and don’t engage with the unanswered questions that are at the core of the piece.

Take for example, the addition of the song “He is a Man, He is a Child”. A new song for Svetlana, placed in Act 2 with no precedent in an English language version by Tim Rice. What intrinsic value does this add to the play? It’s too little, too late.

I think an important element in creating the right balance between the characters theatrically would be to establish each character with a musical theme (as is pretty much the case already), and then (because chess is all about variations of strategy) allow access to the other characters, thereby establishing a theme musically and variations through text. This I think would help to define the similarities as well as the differences between the characters.

So, while I can’t envision how giving Florence, for example, a verse of “Anthem” would work in practice, the idea that one could or should exist is appropriate. A link between Florence and Svetlana using “Someone Else’s Story” could also be a good idea, though I firmly believe Svetlana should get the song proper and Florence the reprise. The short snippet of Florence gets of “Pity the Child” in certain versions of the show works beautifully. It’s at moments like these when things begin to snap into focus and the game they are all playing with/against one another becomes so clear and entrenched in the characters themselves, rather than in the outline of the narrative in the programme.

Of course, it goes without saying that this would have be handled very carefully indeed and perhaps part of the point of using this concept might be about the possibility of characters sharing fragments of music that don’t necessarily “belong” to them to point out the schisms between them even while finding similarities. It shifts from a traditional idea of the role of the reprise in musical theatre to a mode of musical language that has the characters responding to the same impulses through what is either in their nature or life experience, challenging the audience to negotiate that subversion of musical language to create meaning from our position as the witnesses to this drama. I think so much of this game they’re playing is interesting because all four characters have many of the the same elements lurking in the respective psyches that have been created for them. Part of the reason they’re playing the games the way they do is because of which of these is dominant.

I guess this is one of the many dramaturgical challenge facing anyone who has the task of shaping Chess into something that works theatrically. My point, I suppose, is that if it’s done cosmetically – which is how I perceive many of the changes affected to the text over the years – the adaptation will never be definitive. But, in the long run, perhaps the game of working out what is going on in Chess is just as enjoyable as the material itself.

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3 Responses to More CHESS moves: some notes on characterisation…

  1. Hans says:

    Seems we finally agree on something, by and large! The core metaphor of Chess, I mean.

    By the way, my solution (as usual) is to collect all material that is written and present it as a flawed masterpiece.

    What is your objection to “Pity the Child”, by the way? I thought it finally made sense, and cleared up the intricate second act plot when I saw it performed between “The Deal” and “Talking Chess” in the Groban/Menzel concert. Until then, I found all three songs completely confusing.

  2. David Fick says:

    If there is an objection I have about “Pity the Child” is that it can be so self-pitying that it does nothing for Freddie’s character. It really only seems to work when you have a great singer who can act it enough so that it doesn’t end up that way. The actor who played Freddie here managed that, but that production was great all around and I think worked better than the concert for the most part and was a tighter adaptation of the material than that event. Anyway, my objection above was not to “Pity the Child”, but to “He is a Man, He is a Child”, which was a new song for Svetlana in the 2002 Swedish production.

  3. Hans says:

    Also, “He is a Man, He is a Child” sounds like it should be in Kristina från Duvemåla rather than Chess.

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