The monologue is a form on its own, and Alan Bennett is its master. It’s really a dialogue with someone or something, although the co-respondent never speaks and is frequently not even there. The recipient may be the character itself, of course, or a facet of it. The monologue follows all the dramatic rules, therefore, and needs conflicts, tensions and resolutions as would a play. But just because we’re used to thinking of monologues as set pieces to camera doesn’t mean that they can’t work extremely well in print. The character does not necessarily have to be alone – although if other people are present the subject is at liberty to ignore them.
There is usually some debate about the veracity of the information being conveyed – a single-sided view often implies that other versions of the same scenario exist, and provides plenty of opportunities for irony. Your character needs an individual voice to be truly memorable, and this may mean using such devices as repetition, malapropisms, unfinished sentences, non-sequiturs, catch phrases, digressions, obsessions and evasions. If you can’t produce an individual personality by using one or more of those you’re not trying!
Consider your character’s status in life, and how this influences the way they see their situation. Has their experience of life differed radically from what they were brought up to expect? Do they really project the image they think they project?
Think about the situation in which you place your subject. You could use a well-worn device such as a mirror, and then make it that bit different. Is the mirror cracked? A distorting mirror at a funfair? An heirloom? A shiny kettle? You could use an imaginary friend, a corpse, a teddy bear. You could get surreal and address anything from your left elbow to a tube of toothpaste. You can make your character just start talking out loud – but think about whether you would do the same thing yourself in the same situation. If talking out loud seems silly to you, it will sound unconvincing to everyone else. Loonies are the exception, of course. They’ll talk to anyone.
Creating a character who can’t communicate with anyone at all opens up lots of opportunities. I was placed in a Bridport competition a long time ago with this story called Ducks. This is an example of someone who is treated as a loony because of her appearance, although she’s anything but. And it goes without saying that a monologue has to be written in the first person.
Every Thursday she comes for me, in her pale tweed coat and her sensible shoes. She has thick legs that finish at the knees, where the coat takes over. I’ve never seen her without it. She replaced the tall one with the protruding teeth. No one tells me their names.
We always go the same way, to the park. Her stride never varies. We stop by the lake and she sits on the green metal seat and throws pieces of bread to the ducks. Sometimes the ducks come, and sometimes they don’t. When they don’t come she purses her lips and folds the rest of the bred back into the bright waxed paper with great care, doubtless reflecting on their ingratitude. Then she puts the bread back into her brown leather bag. I’ve often wondered what she does with it after that.
They get me ready for her after dinner. They brush my hair (what there is of it) and wipe the food away from around my mouth, and then they stand one on either side of the wheelchair and lift so that they can put on my coat. They place a tartan blanket over my knees, whatever the time of year. It’s not to keep me warm, it’s to hide my legs. Not for my sake, you understand, but for hers.
The black nurse is the kindest, the one whose skin looks like the polished wood of the bentwood chairs in matron’s office. They call her Arlene. She calls me Ducks. I’ve never really understood why she addresses me in the plural.
I have no visitors, except for the woman in the tweed coat. I never have had. Sometimes I wonder if there is a family anywhere, a sister, a nephew maybe. I expect my mother died long ago. And would anyone have been able to see a resemblance between us? I doubt it.
I am no stranger to my face, not after more than seventy years. Of course, it lacks the symmetry of other people’s, but I’m quite fond of it. The mouth pulls down to one side and an eyebrow twitches from time to time. The overall impression is one of total stupidity. It’s something about the eyes, I think, no control over those little muscles that push and pull and create expressions with fractions of inches. I can’t do it and they call me a spastic. I’ve been in one institution or another as long as I can remember. I don’t know my exact age. Either nobody knows, or no one has bothered to tell me.
It’s fortunate that time passes more swiftly as you get older. I used to find life an endless round of frustration, trying to communicate, trying to show that I understood. But my smile is grimace, my touch a blow and my speech ridiculous. No part of my body will do what my brain instructs, I am imprisoned in an enemy.
I watch television. We all watch television, it’s switched on after breakfast and stays on until bedtime. I have learned a great deal from the television, in fact it taught me to read. I started with the end. Then I earned to read other things, like subtitles and advertisements and the back of other people’s newspapers. Nobody has noticed. I would read all day long if only someone would turn the pages.
So. The seasons come and they go, and there will not be many more. It is spring now, and I hate the spring. Springtime is the season of youth. They cuddled me when I was young, but an incontinent old woman doesn’t inspire the same emotions. Autumn is my time, I can relate to degeneration and death. Over seventy years have passed and I have never achieved anything, never controlled my wretched body for long enough to make one meaningful gesture.