When we used to do plays at school, like the nativity or staged versions of Oliver Twist, there was always a narrator. This role was often allotted to the pupil who had a lovely, clear reading voice, but who couldn’t act. Sometimes the lines would be learnt, but often, this child was permitted to read from a (nicely decorated) book at the side of the stage.

There had to be a narrator because the stories were not originally written as plays, and the narrator had to fill in the parts of the story that form, time and budget would not allow to be shown.

The narrator had to attempt to be as ‘neutral’ as possible in their delivery. Standing still and speaking directly to the audience. Devoid of humanity. A dislocated voice in the void:
“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world….”

In its ‘Visions of Hell’ series of plays, Third Person Theatre Company explores the role of the narrator. In this case, however, the narrator’s function of filling in additional material is not really necessary because the plays are entirely improvised and the company is not attempting to render a pre-existing story for the benefit of the audience.

In improvisation, a narrator is often used as a contingency. What if the actors get stuck? What if nobody paints the location? What if the plot gets tangled and the play needs to be tidied up and rescued? Well, bring in the narrator, and he or she can sort everything out.

In this case the narrator becomes a fixer.

But what if there is no need for a fixer? What if the actors are capable of doing the fixing themselves – painting locations and solving problems that arise within the scene? What if there is no linear narrative which requires untangling? Then such a narrator becomes redundant.

The narrator is then, therefore, free to explore other functions. He or she can come on as an observer to witness the play as if on behalf of the audience. Is this an Everyman character? A Godlike figure? A conscience? How does this silent witness affect the relationships on stage?

The narrator might come on stage as a provocateur. Whether he or she is seen or unseen, his or her role is then to provoke the characters and destabilise the play.

The narrator could come on stage as a catalyst or a sage. Causing pivotal moments in the relationships in the play. And there are moments in certain structures, e.g. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, where this is entirely necessary. The hero might need to meet a sage, whose function is to give him or her the tools, with which he or she must venture into ‘The Underworld’.

Some theatre companies might want to use their narrator to bring some kind of coherent meaning and understanding to events and relationships that have taken place for the benefit of the audience – an interpreter of sorts. But such summarising can often be at the expense of the audience’s own understanding, interpretation or experience.

One of the most poetic of narrations comes in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Most of us are familiar with the rich Welsh tones of Richard Burton establishing the location of Llaregyb – its characters and relationships, before we plunge into their lives in more detail and meet them on a more personal level. Here, the narrator’s primary relationship is with the listener. The narrator’s role is not to tell us what and how to think, but rather, we are being invited to listen and to create the pictures of this village in our imaginations:
“Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional, salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row. It is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall. The sleep of birds in Milk Wood.”

Such narrators, unlike the well-behaved child with the beautifully decorated book, are rarely ‘neutral’. Thomas’ Narrator takes a rather wry, curious and sometimes moral stance. Indeed, is it ever possible for human being to be entirely neutral? There will always be some residue of character. There may always be opinion or influence or interference and – if not of character, then the actor’s own personal agenda might rush in to fill the void.

The Ancient Greeks developed the narrator role as an important function of the play. They called it the chorus.

“Plays of the ancient Greek theatre always included a chorus that offered a variety of background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance. They commented on themes and demonstrated how the audience might react to the drama. In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their hidden fears or secrets. The chorus often provided other characters with the insight they needed.” (Wikipedia)

It could even be suggested that the chorus was itself a character in the play.

In Frank McGuiness’ reworking of Sophocles’ Electra, performed recently at the Old Vic, there are different choruses for different functions in the play. In a contemporary sense, the chorus performs the function of a therapist or a ‘life coach’ for the protagonists: listening, supporting, challenging. There is something very human about this role – it is not a neutral robot – and yet there is a more ‘even’ emotional quality to the thinking. In Freudian terms, the chorus, is perhaps, the ‘super-ego’ of the play. He or she, while not having the omniscience of a divinity (for that would ruin the drama), does possess a certain wisdom, which is used to reflect and provoke the protagonists. For example, when Electra is indulging in her own angry bitterness, railing against the murderers of her father, invoking god to take revenge, Chorus says:

“Hold your tongue. Has it never dawned on you how much you make your own misery. You pile on your agony. You’re a feeble woman fighting mighty enemies.”

These are not the words of a neutral commentator. Chorus, here, is taking a protective position, challenging Electra with the emotional equivalent of a slap across a hysterical face. Chorus is nurturing, parental, wise – and demanding.

The chorus is a more versatile and engaging function of the play when it performs the role of an additional character. However, a character must have a psychology, a childhood, a super-purpose if it is to come to life on stage and interact with others. Without it, how would such a character have any kind of agenda or relationship to events in the play?

This is the responsibility of the playwright, and, to an extent, the director. In Greek drama, the most notable difference between the chorus and the protagonist is that the protagonist must ‘lose’ and ‘change’. The chorus does not – it is an ever fixed mark.

Third Person Theatre Company uses chorus to the same effect – as a character with a particular moral or immoral agenda who can intervene, provoke and support – rather than a neutral commentator. However, because these plays are improvised, the role becomes much more fluid (this can even vary from actor to actor). The chorus can attempt a version of neutrality but get embroiled in the stuff of the play. The chorus can also be unreliable . And ultimately, if the chorus is changed by events in the play or appears to ‘lose’ emotionally, then the audience will soon realise that this dependable ‘super-ego’ has been subverted – in effect, becoming ‘ego’.

This is theatre.

Our school teachers might therefore do well to give the narrator role, not to the strongest reader, but rather, to the strongest actor, and kick that ‘beautifully decorated book’ deep into the wings – on prompt-side – where it belongs.