Does Netflix's 'The Circle' Count As An Epistolary Drama?

22 hours ago
Originally published on January 29, 2020 5:19 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

There's this buzzy new reality TV show on Netflix called "The Circle." The hook is that the characters live in total isolation from each other. They only communicate through social media like IMs and group texts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Circle, please message, what's popping everybody? Send message.

KING: Something about this reminded NPR's Neda Ulaby of a venerated tradition in the theater.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's a kind of play where people just read letters...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "84 CHARING CROSS ROAD")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Frank P. Doel) Dear Ms. Hanff, your $6 arrived safely.

ULABY: ...Like "84 Charing Cross Road," which was made into a movie in 1987, or the play "Love Letters" that follows a long-term romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LOVE LETTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Would you consider coming to the Yale-Dartmouth game Saturday, October 28?

ULABY: I wondered, would the show "The Circle" count as an epistolary drama? I asked a theater professor to watch it.

THOMAS MEACHAM: I had my doubts.

ULABY: Thomas Meacham of Lake Superior State University found himself convinced by "The Circle," where voice-activated software - or so we're told - lets the cast dictate messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Circle, type, hey, guys. Smiley face emoji. Send.

MEACHAM: From the very beginning, letters are meant to be performed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ORESTES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Orestes, take this letter from your sister.

ULABY: All the way back to Euripides. Messengers were often important characters in Greek dramas since they shared news about battles and events too epic to show on ancient stages. Before literacy became common, Meacham says, letters were written to be read aloud.

MEACHAM: And this actually goes back to the Middle Ages.

ULABY: And to the plays of William Shakespeare, whose plots often rested on lost or belated letters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Proteus) Here is her hand, the agent of her heart. Here is her oath for love.

ULABY: Love, a recurring theme in epistolary drama, like in "Cyrano De Bergerac."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CYRANO DE BERGERAC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) As the tender sapling thirsts for rain, as the wave hurtles toward the shore, my heart yearns for you.

ULABY: But deception is another theme. In the original play from 1897, a homely man with a giant nose writes letters for a handsome soldier. They're conspiring to trick a beautiful woman with Cyrano's masterful language.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CYRANO DE BERGERAC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Every page was like a petal fallen from your soul, like the light and the fire of a great love - sweet and strong and true.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Sweet and strong, true?

ULABY: Or not so true, says Thomas Meacham.

MEACHAM: There is this love story that's taking place behind a mask, behind a persona. He is catfishing in a real sense.

ULABY: Catfishing, the online phenomena where people use their Internet anonymity to pretend to be someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: #CatfishMuch - send.

ULABY: In the reality show "The Circle," one guy catfishes as a woman in order to try to win.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

SEABURN WILLIAMS: They're going to be absolutely heartbroken to know that Rebecca's not real.

ULABY: But what's funny is that you find yourself rooting a little for a catfish like Rebecca or Cyrano. It's a paradox, this hope that people might look past the superficial and connect with something genuine, something that can't be faked. Amid our current cultural obsession with authenticity, there's something optimistic about the idea that writing expresses who you really are more powerfully than an image.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CIRCLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Message - yeah, I'm terrible at writing funny or witty or even cool messages. So I wish I was better so people could get to know me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Honestly, I hate these public group chats because it's so hard for me to fit in groups.

ULABY: In a confusing digital landscape crowded with bots, sock puppets, catfish and trolls, perhaps writing still reveals a person's truest self.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGETO'S "WHAT WE HELD ON TO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.