Split Decision: Killing the Monomyth

by Tony Nigro

Carl Jung / Joseph Campbell

It’s a little known fact that Lewis and I do more writing to each other via email than we do for Split Edit.  Most of the time it’s mundane stuff, but every so often a simple cross-country “hello” devolves into overwrought, coffee house-ready discussion.  And rarely does it end in agreement.  We’re talking no-holds barred, cage match kinds of emails.*

Dig a recent exchange below, in which we render a certain Joseph Campbell concept meaningless.


Lewis: What book(s) do you recommend for learning the fundamentals of playwriting?  And don’t say Aristotle.

Tony: Does it have to be playwriting in particular?  Because there are fewer “rules” for the theater.  Most of what I learned about playwriting I learned from reading and studying other plays (and Aristotle).  For dramatic writing in general I like Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which basically simplifies Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and puts it into movie terms.  I like using that book as a skeleton for an outline and for keeping characters straight as archetypes.  I think it translates to theater and prose as well.

L: I’m not sure how I feel about the monomyth.  It gets boring, not necessarily to watch, but to write.  To keep with one structure gets tiresome.  Granted, a lot of beautiful poetry was written in the sonnet form, but who the fuck reads sonnets anymore?

Audiences are stupid, and I don’t mean that they’re idiots. I mean these days, when someone sits down to watch something, they turn their brain off.  Same with books.  It’s a bit discouraging, but perhaps we can use that knowledge to our own nefarious ends.  It’s like mass hypnosis where thousands of people voluntarily put themselves into a trance, open to any suggestions we want to give them.  I’ll bet you $5 to $7 that teen pregnancy declines in the wake of the Twilight movies.

T: You can’t ignore the monomyth, dude.  We’re hardwired for it.  You can, however, manipulate it to some very cool ends.  Why the interest in playwriting anyway?

You should definitely stop fighting the audience.  And don’t assume they’re stupid either.  Instead, fight all the cooks in your way on the audience’s behalf because all those cooks are scared to death of the audience.  Every argument I’ve seen won between TV producer and network was won by the producer creatively convincing a network exec he knows how the audience thinks.  As if…

L: And when I say “fighting the audience” I mean fighting against their stupidity.  We have all grown into this habit of turning off our brains when we settle down as audience members.  The prevalence of monomyth in our movies is clear evidence of that.  However entertaining Star Wars or LOTR or whatever may be, they offer stories where the common people mean nothing, where the aristocracy always rules without giving a say to anyone else.  The audience has no say, and happily follows that aristocrat who happens to be the Good Guy.  Therefore, as illustrated in Gladiator where the Roman populace is manipulated through a few gladiatorial games, audience stupid.

And we are not hardwired for monomyth, or else we would all be servants.  We’re hardwired for stories, and if you think every story is a monomyth, then what good does the concept of monomyth do us?  My interest in playwriting has been to seek out more stories and structures that are not so molded in the fashion of the monomyth.  Like Waiting for Godot.  Or Glengarry Glen Ross.  You might be able to break those down into the Hero’s Journey, but I doubt they were conceived of along those lines.

Get over the monomyth, dude.  Even if it is true it will only limit the realm of your thinking.  It’s more useful to you to not believe in it.

T: I’m telling you, monomyth is everywhere and inescapable, whether it’s intentional or not.  Glengarry Glen Ross is multiple monomyths colliding — each character is a different hero questing to keep his job, and each guy also ends up filling an archetype’s shoes along the way, affecting one another.  It’s just not obvious because the bulk of the action just happens off stage.

That’s what I mean by hardwired.  It’s going to be somewhere in the story/characters, even if it’s not on the page, because it’s the way our brains work when it comes to making sense of a story.  Don’t fear the Jung, dude!

Godot is another story.  Actually, it’s not a story.  Maybe that’s why.  I also haven’t read it in a long while.

Are you against ignoring the audience?  Why are you so caught up on making them think or not?  I don’t see why you need to take responsibility for their intellect either way.  Just tell a story the way it makes sense to you.  Someone else can sort out stupidity later.

L: You realize how silly “multiple monomyths colliding” sounds?  Multiple characters with their own character arcs doesn’t fit the strict definition of the Hero’s Journey.  I get what you’re saying, but I think you’ve illustrated just how useless the term and concept of “monomyth” has become.  Like “postmodernism.”

Yes, human beings enjoy stories where stuff happens.  A character goes on a journey and runs into obstacles is much more entertaining than a story where a guy just sits on his ass all the time.  (Though there are lots of enjoyable stories where a guy sitting on his ass is beset on all sides by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.)  And we also enjoy stories where characters change during the course of a story.  (In the TV series with Moyers, a change in consciousness is central to Campbell’s idea).  But there’s a difference between a story and the monomyth.

You want Jung, check out the Trickster.  Just about every culture has him: Jack and the Beanstalk, Coyote, Little Peach Boy, etc.  The Trickster may often go on a journey, but he doesn’t usually change, doesn’t grow in consciousness.  Like Jack, he may gain more wealth on his journey, but other than his pocketbook, he’s the same person at the end of the movie that he is at the beginning.

At the end of the day, the monomyth is no longer useful. Here’s proof.

We’ll be better off trying to write stories that are in some ways counter to Syd Field‘s monomyth ideas, if not Campbell’s. There’s not much of a paying audience for Un Chien Andalou or Grin Without a Cat, but they’re both more memorable than Ninja Assassin.

* In this case, I lost.


One response to “Split Decision: Killing the Monomyth

  1. Pingback: Avatar vs. Antichrist « split edit

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