The Character-Revealing Power of Having a Play Within a Novel
Olivia Wolfgang-Smith Explores Metadrama, Defying Genre, and the Performances We Do On and Off the Page
In arguably the best scene in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, our heroes Don, Kathy, and Cosmo (played by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor) have a problem: silent-movie idol Don’s first talkie is set to release in just six weeks, and it’s horrible—the test screening devolved into a chorus of heckling. To make matters worse, or at least more personal, Don’s conniving, steel-wool-voiced leading lady Lina (Jean Hagen) is determined to take their romance from screen (and fan magazine) to reality—a roadblock to his budding relationship with Kathy.
Like countless fictional characters before them, from antiquity to Baz Luhrmann, our trio is attempting to work out their troubles on stage (or, in this case, screen). What to do, now that their showbiz psychological staging ground is a dud?
The answer, of course, is to add a show within the show-within-a-show. With a month and half until the movies opens, Don, Kathy, and Cosmo blithely resolve to “add some songs and dances, trim the bad scenes, add a coupl’a new ones”—a frame story, about a Broadway hoofer who gets hit on the head with a sandbag and wakes up in the French Revolution.
Before our eyes (and over the course of the tap-dance number “Good Mornin'”) the meta-musical becomes a meta-meta-musical—and all is well. Though the logistics here may stretch reality beyond its breaking point, our trio is on to something stranger than fiction: the eerie power of meta-theater, on screen, on stage, and even in the pages of novels.
Is there a more pervasive trope than the showbiz musical? Golden-age MGM films in particular are rife with them, from amateur showcases to vaudeville pastiches to nesting-doll Broadway comedies. By the time I was formally introduced to the concept of a play-within-a-play, reading Hamlet in high-school English class, it was old news: I’d already seen The Sound of Music and Summer Stock and There’s No Business Like Show Business. Ethel Merman, as far as I was concerned, had beaten Shakespeare to the punch.
Things only got more complicated once Hollywood’s self-portraiture joined the ensemble, with today’s showbiz musicals spiraling into postmodern remixes, revivals, and re-re-readaptations: The Producers; A Star is Born; Sunset Boulevard, Moulin Rouge. They’re everywhere. If you love ’em, happy day—you have countless to choose from. And if you hate ’em, they’re hard to escape—in my novel Glassworks, even a maximally reluctant theatergoer is unwillingly well-versed enough to hear an opening line about “putting on a show” and lament, “Oh…one of these.”Metadrama often has an in-universe function, too—an equal opportunist, it serves matinee idols just as it served Hamlet.
What makes these meta-musicals so compelling, or at least enduring? For one thing, it’s an easy plot to root for (or at least to follow): the theatrical hopeful trying to break into the ’biz. And on the most practical level, these shows offer an excuse to cram in additional musical numbers—particularly charm songs, which often have no connection to the plot or themes of the larger story.
But metadrama often has an in-universe function, too—an equal opportunist, it serves matinee idols just as it served Hamlet. On Broadway and in Hollywood, characters have climactic epiphanies while watching one another perform, or work out their “real-life” problems on the stage-within-the-stage (perhaps even via elaborate psycho-sexual dream ballet).
In Summer Stock, though her interest in newcomer Joe (Gene Kelly again) has been burgeoning all along, Jane (Judy Garland) finds the wherewithal to dump her milquetoast fiancé for him only once she has a “real” excuse: just two days to learn her lines before the big show! Hot dog! (“What do we do now?” she asks her new flame, having sent his predecessor packing. “We rehearse that entrance,” he replies.)
And in Singin’ in the Rain, Don’s secret love interest Kathy literally dubs over the dialogue for his tabloid-rumored girlfriend, Lina. Even his dramatic confession of love for Kathy takes the form of a performance credit: “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight! She’s the real star of the picture!”
Perhaps because these are theatrical works themselves, there is bias baked into most of them regarding the stage’s power over, even superiority to, reality—Summer Stock begins with Garland’s Jane as a “real” farmer, belting out “Happy Harvest” in overalls as she drives to town; greets her neighbors; cools her new tractor’s radiator. (If the statement lip and updo seem a bit impractical for farm chores, adjust your expectations.)
By the end of the film, having fallen under the spell of a troupe of actors, she reprises the same song in a stylized, scarecrow-chic costume as part of an elaborately staged in-universe finale (to thunderous applause, naturally).
Nobody, it seemed, could hear Jane singing on her tractor in Act I. But by the curtain call, it’s literal–the music diegetic; her transformation into one of the “show people” complete. This, such musicals claim, is the arc we’re all secretly hoping for: to graduate from the audience to the stage, from president of the fan club to the face on the billboard. To reach the dazzling firmament where everyone can hear us when we sing.
No matter how simple or complex, earnest or inverted the trope, meta-musicals are almost always interesting—as opposed to, for (notoriously boring) instance, novels about novelists. Part of it is that a theatergoing audience inevitably sees the show within the show—a test that meta-novelists can easily weasel out of.
If the play the characters perform receives rave reviews in-universe, we real-world viewers can beg to differ. So the nesting-doll show “has to be” good—and if it fails, we’re doubly annoyed; it gets to us in a way that just a “regular” bad musical can’t. Which is to say: there are high stakes, even to the goofiest premise.
Perhaps it’s from this inescapable honesty—what is life, after all, but a goofy premise with high stakes—that the second resonance blooms: even the least theatrically gifted among us can relate to trying to pull off a performance. A job interview; a police encounter; a first date; a contentious Thanksgiving table; working through an endlessly unspooling global pandemic. You’re broken-hearted, but you go on. In the best meta-shows, this universal root is tapped—and the characters’ success or failure feels like our own.
I want to retract, or at least qualify, my earlier snide about the inherent dullness of novels about novelists. Prose writers can, actually, replicate the frisson of the showbiz musical—when they’re brave and inventive enough to let us read their characters’ novels in full.
When, rather than bland scenes of tweedy professors posing with their dummy author copies, we actually get the work-within-the-work. The most striking examples of this for me aren’t tidy frame stories, or the kind of book that reveals smugly in its final, shallowly metafictive pages that the protagonist has decided to write a novel, the very novel, dear reader, that you hold in your hand!
I’m thinking of something more immediate and creatively risky, books that trust the reader to spelunk unaccompanied through echoing textual layers. These might be novels that unspool in cascades of fictional footnotes, as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox; or the six nesting texts of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, each different genre interrupting and melting ambiguously into the reality of the next; or a contentious dialogue between multiple implied authors, like Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise or Hernan Diaz’s Trust, which (without giving too much away) both begin straightforwardly and then take hard left turns into very different narrative territory. (The similarity between their titles is, thematically, no coincidence.)
Though the characters in these novels tend to grapple with darker realities than any you’d find on the MGM lot, just like Gene and Judy, they are working through their problems (or, more probably, failing to do so) through their art-within-the-art. Can anybody hear them, they wonder? (What is a dream ballet but a narrative footnote?)
Reading these meta-novels can feel something like archival research, comparing multiple primary sources and drawing what seem to the reader to be our own conclusions about authorship and interpretation. It can be difficult sometimes—excitingly so—to keep one’s feet; meta-novels expand the sense of an unreliable narrator until the author is implicated as well. This is the risk such authors take, stepping out from behind the screen and into that “high-stakes, goofy-premise” world of showbiz.
But when it’s done skillfully, it creates a sense of collaboration, immediacy, and even danger—a sense of the novel unfolding in real time, the push and pull of audience and artist. It’s the feeling of live theater. When it’s successful, the work sings for having taken the risk.
There’s one more particularly delicious subgenre of meta-art: the media-crossing play-within-a novel. It’s an unmatched opportunity for ekphrastic authorial showmanship, the rendering in prose of a non-prose art form. These are obvious limitations and challenges—among them the loss of that immediacy, as everything is bared at once to the audience, the meta-play’s success or failure coming through unfiltered and instantaneous.
But in its place the author gains the opportunity to direct the reader’s attention as a meta-theatrical audience member—to interpret on the fly, molding time and space and meaning until (when done well) the experience is more profound than a single-layered art form could be.
This can resonate in summary, with characters giving repeated performances—like the hundreds of portrayals of Richard III and Hamlet in Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth, building up like tragic poison in John Wilkes Booth’s familial bloodstream; like the similarly toxic academic drilling of theatrical artifice of in M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, in which an overcommitment to the study of Shakespeare leads to a real-life murder—or, again, in Choi’s Trust Exercise. (Choi wins a particular genre-bending medal for having both a meta-play and a meta-novel in her work.)There’s one more particularly delicious subgenre of meta-art: the media-crossing play-within-a novel.
In other cases, plays-within-novels might take the form of single iconic performances, rendered in-scene on the page. One of the most striking examples I’ve encountered recently is in Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals, which climaxes in a community-theater performance of the musical Titanic, performed mostly by fifth-graders, in which the boy tasked with announcing the ship’s doom panics and instead proclaims, “not an iceberg in sight.” From there the show goes off the rails, of course, featuring improvised dance sequences to unaffiliated Disney music and ending with the RMS Titanic docking safely in New York.
But for the children performing it, the derailment means not chaos but comfort—their community has been ravaged, over the course of the novel, by crises chronic and acute, ranging from stray gunshots to home-invading deer to the opioid epidemic. In a world where almost nothing is under your control, perhaps this is the form that protest takes: sometimes you just need the Titanic to make it to New York.
This sense of ritually reenacting historical events crosses (or blurs) the boundary from theater to athletics in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, in which a group of twenty-two middle-aged men convene annually to recreate, with meticulous accuracy, a single play from 1980s Monday Night Football. The play itself takes five seconds to perform; the novel dramatizing the event is 224 elegant pages, as the reader’s attention is drawn deep into the inner lives and physical realities of the “cast.”
In Glassworks, my characters perform a fictional meta-musical called Dames in Love—itself a pastiche of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. Everyone (or almost everyone) understands the show to be bad, a “knock-off Kiss Me Kate,” with ticket sales limping along (for now) due to the stunt-casting of a popular sci-fi movie star.
This is not a case of the audience fading into unimportance (as in If We Were Villains) or barely existing at all (as in The Throwback Special), while the performers work out their issues on a stage-within-a-stage that becomes the whole world—the material, like the terrible movie test-screened in Singin’ in the Rain, simply isn’t good enough to support it. Instead, the performance itself becomes the point, the appeal to—and, often, conflict with—the audience.
In these narratives—whether on stage, film, or the page—the characters’ miraculous struggle is (as Bachelder puts it) to “somehow actualiz[e themselves] while pretending to be someone else.” And that resonates, with anyone following along at home who can understand the hope that if we learn our lines and drill our trust exercises we’ll be able to reach across realities— that the Titanic will make it home safely; that everyone will be able to hear us when we sing. That if we just trim a few bad scenes, add a few song-and-dance numbers, then—hot dog!—we might finally have a hit on their hands.
Glassworks by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith is available via Bloomsbury.