I am obsessed with endings and have been gathering them in magpie-like fashion for many years. Not that I have formalized that obsession, I have not, these last lines are in my head and they occur every now and then. That being said—good endings have changed my relationship to reality because they proffer elegant mini-solutions to that final conundrum that Kierkegaard set out at the opening of Fear and Trembling: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?
This is story-anxiety, of course, it is the anxiety that things end, that they must, and that there might be a way that an ending in art is sort of a dress-rehearsal.
My favorite first lines are always one that begin Dear Reader.
My favorite last lines are diverse, and at the end of this essay-qua-letter I’ll list them. Meantime, I’ll depart from the letter that I never wrote and still have not written, because there is a distinction between last lines and final images.
First lines, in a play, are titles. Titles are important because as playwright and performance artist Holly Hughes, when asked how she titles a play, said, “I work backwards from the press release.” In the East Village theatre scene of the 90’s (where I first met Holly) most theatres didn’t have a way to advertise. This was way before the internet Now. If you weren’t under the institutional arm of a major theatre, and most of us were not, then you posted flyers at bookstores, clubs and cafes and left handfuls of postcards around town, and in the lobbies of other small theatres. You had to have a title that drew in the potential, that expanded in the mind like one of those small pellets of paper that drop into a glass of water, something that resonated and haunted the mind. At least that was the idea. You worked backwards from the press release, that meant the title. Titles can be either notoriously difficult for people—or easy-breezy, as mother says. A title is a kind of first line.
Theatre is a time art, so we don’t get that final line/image/utterance until we’ve endured the rest of text/performance. Of course with reading you can skip ahead and around, probably someone (Dear Reader!) may have abandoned this altogether and skipped to my end-of-the-line list. In a live performance there’s no fast forward.
So that’s on the table: to work backwards from the final image—image, not utterance.
Although final lines of plays are usually a fusion of utterance/action (which can also be inaction, as Beckett shows us again and again and again.)
John Cage: Begin Anywhere
Bishop: I let the fish go
Ellison: Who knows, but on some level, I speak for you
Beckett: (stage direction) Repeat Play
FINAL THOUGHT: How did I get into this and how do I get out of it again? How does it end?—Kierkegaard
2 thoughts on “HOW THINGS END”
Brighde, what a great post… Endings, hmmm. We agonize over them, don’t we? More often than not, I write past the ending—end up finding it somewhere in the middle…
The other thing: isn’t it often true that we write our beginnings last? It’s certainly true about prologues, anyway. Seems to me it’s a mistake to write a prologue before you know what you have: and how to know what you have till you’ve come to the end?
I do have friends and colleagues who say they can’t start a project until they know how it ends, but this isn’t true for me. Best if I don’t know where I’m going. Or—if I have an idea where I’m going, it’s only when I deviate from the plan, that I know that I’m onto something worth anybody’s while. (Bottom line: it feels like I’m always in the middle.)
Say—say, and this might be some kind of carry-over from my other life, no? That is, as an actor, you have to read the whole play before the first rehearsal? But so important for actors—scene by scene—not to play the end! Not to plan a performance! Not to know where we’re going—even though we know!—we have to forget what we know, and think about what we want (scene by scene) as if for the first time…
Here’s one of my favorite endings, from MRS. BRIDGE (Evan S. Connell, Jr.):
“[…] Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”
“But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.”
Anyway, anyhow. Thank you.