"This Is Where It Has to Happen": Fun Home and the Narrator-Character

Continuing what has been an amazing spring for experiencing theater in New York, last night I saw Fun Home in its opening week on Broadway. Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir and the original cast recording of the show as it was performed at The Public have both been important and moving parts of my life since I discovered them; the show itself no less so, and in its own way. The play is performed in the round at the Circle in the Square Theater, which feels fitting—it’s an intimate show, the sets primarily “private” spaces and there’s something especially powerful about the lack of upstage and down, the extra dimensions that put the audience almost fully in the Bechdel living room or middle Alison’s dormitory. One of my favorite theatrical experiences was the semi-interactive Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which worked on a similar level, involving the audience (sometimes physically) in the action.

One of the most powerful things about Fun Home is the meta-narrative of Alison Bechdel’s oldest onstage iteration, a narrator who literally strolls through her memories of childhood and young adulthood trying to understand her own life and her father’s. For much of the show, the adult Bechdel is a passive observer—sometimes bemused, sometimes cringing in embarrassment at her younger selves’ antics; occasionally flirting with interaction, picking up a book from her college dorm room as she walks through it. As the narrator and curator of the story, she’s like a ghost able to interact with objects but not people—a touching commentary on the difference between memory and artifact, story and souvenir.

Of course there must come a moment when the narrator-character’s theoretically objectivity falls apart, a turning point in the text when the adult Bechdel desperately wants to change the course of the past and smashes into the fourth wall. (Again, this is especially powerful in theater-in-the-round, when there isn’t such a clearly defined wall between the observers and the observed. In Fun Home, this turn comes when the adult Bechdel remembers her last conversation with her father before his suicide—as it turned out, her last chance to discuss their sexualities, or anything else. In the song “Telephone Wire,” the adult Alison urges her younger self: “Say something, talk to him / Say something, anything”; she tries to speak through time, saying what she wishes she had as a teenager.  Finally she breaks down: “Make this not the past / This car ride / This is where it has to happen / There must be some other chances / There’s a moment I’m forgetting / Where you tell me you see me.” Her rational knowledge that the remembered past cannot be changed dissolves in her desperation, her wish that things had gone another way. Oof.

This got me thinking about this storytelling tool, one I’ve encountered quite a bit recently--the meta-narrator’s authority and objectively dissipating at a moment of climax. In Hamilton, Aaron Burr shifts from sideline narrator to mired political player during “The Room Where it Happens,” with the refrain evolving from “No one else was in the room where it happened” to “I want to be in the room where it happens.” In The Great Comet, figures switch almost schizophrenically between character and narrator, singing analyses of their own actions—to great effect, casting a spotlight on the creation of truth and story. It happens in novels, too: In Middlesex, Cal’s birth halfway through the book severely complicates her ability to tell her family’s saga—how different to tell one’s own story than one’s extended family history! And in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in perhaps the most extreme iteration of the trope of which I’m aware, Yunior’s turn from narrator to character comes when he reveals his identity, which itself has been a mystery. (Maybe there’s one instance more extreme than this: the narrator in Into the Woods, who is literally destroyed almost as soon as he tries to become a more active part of the story.)

This seems to be a particularly useful device in musical theater—perhaps it’s telling that Into the Woods’s narrator didn’t make it into the film adaptation of the show. But if it’s less common in cinema, there doesn’t seem to be anything preventing it from being used to great effect in literature. It’s been interesting to encounter biased narrator-characters on stage and in novels these last few months, and it’s something I’d love to experiment with more in my own work. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and see Fun Home—and bring tissues.