Writing for Performance 4 – the Language of Theatre by Bill Kirton

In the theatre, masks worn by skilled actors can be even more expressive than real faces. War Horse on stage was infinitely superior to the screen version because of the magic of the puppetry. Theatre has its own reality which draws on elements different from those of the everyday. And one of its masks is language. Othello’s wrong when he claims ‘It is not words that shake me thus’ because they’re exactly the things that show us his disintegration from:

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!


Lie with her? lie on her? We say “lie on her” when they belie her! Lie with her—that’s fulsome. Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! To confess, and be hanged for his labor. First to be hanged, and then to confess—I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is ’t possible? Confess!—Handkerchief!—Oh, devil!—

Dialogue in plays is artificial; naturalistic rather than natural. Part of the writer’s job is to control, exploit and hide the artificiality. Nearly fifty years ago, I saw Albert Finney in E A Whitehead’s Alpha Beta and I still remember him saying he was just ‘lurching from one derelict sunset to another’, which is a great image but hardly the sort of thing you'd hear in the pub or even Jane Austen's withdrawing room.

On the other hand, how’s this for some everyday chat? Mr and Mrs Smith, a typical English couple, are at home. She’s knitting, he’s reading the paper and he sees that it says Bobby Watson’s dead. They exchange a few lines about him being well-preserved, not looking his age, being the best-looking corpse in the country, having been dead for four years and yet still warm, describing him, in a nice inversion, as ‘a veritable living corpse’. Then comes:

MRS SMITH: Poor Bobby. What a shame for her.
MR SMITH:   What d’you mean, ‘her’?
MRS SMITH: I was thinking about his wife.  She was called Bobby too.  They had the same name.  That’s why, when you saw them together, you could never tell which was which.  It was really only after he died you could see the difference. But you know, even now, there are still people who mix her up with her dead husband and offer their condolences.

It’s Ionesco and Theatre of the Absurd, of course, which is about language rather than people, but shows how language controls and defines the characters. Simultaneously, this exchange is totally natural, grammatically and linguistically correct, intellectually and emotionally challenging, and yet complete nonsense. Language in the theatre is a very muscular element – writers, directors and actors can all use it for much more than mere dialogue. As long as it’s running smoothly, the audience is lulled, satisfied, but if the register or its rhythms change, rhymes fail or come more frequently, it’s the breakdown of language and the power of silence that creates the necessary effects. Pinter, remember, ‘wrote’ brilliant pauses.

In France, where the Aristotelian ‘rules’ for theatre were strictly applied until the Romantics came along, supporters of the two schools actually fought one another in theatres. The first night of Hugo’s play Hernani was famous as ‘La bataille d’Hernani’ (the battle of Hernani), and the gauntlet was thrown down by the opening line.
‘Is he here already? That sound from the secret
The verse form – the Alexandrine – demands 12 (and only 12) syllables in a line and insists that each line should be self-contained in terms of meaning. Here, though, you get enjambement, i.e. the meaning runs past the end of the line. Not only that, the line break comes in the middle of what’s effectively a compound noun. As soon as they heard it, the classicists went crazy, yelling, booing, preventing the actors from continuing.

Eventually, a sort of order was restored but, only a few lines later, one of the characters, the King, asked, ‘Quelle heure est-il?’ And got the reply, ‘Minuit bientôt’. (‘What time is it?’ ‘Nearly midnight.’) Cue more mayhem. Kings don’t say, ‘What’s the time?’ They say things like, ‘Doth Time’s dark finger touch the witching hour?’ And even if they did breach protocol so grossly, no courtier would dare reply in such a familiar way. No, they’d say, ‘The bell swings heavy with the knell of yesterday’.

Night after night, the battles raged, not over characters or themes but over versification, linguistic forms and theatrical conventions. And all of it just a month or so before the 1830 revolution. I’m not sure we still see that sort of passion in theatres, although in Italy some opera-goers tend to get rather excited now and then. But it does have the capacity to create its own, sometimes bizarre reality.

One of my favourites comes from the year after the battles of Hernani. Alexandre Dumas’ melodrama Antony was a huge hit. In it, Antony and Adèle are passionately in love, but she’s married. In the final scene, he bursts into her room and wants to take her away. Despite the fact that they're deeply in love, her honour forbids such an action.  He’s just about to drag her off by force when there’s a knock on the door.  It’s the husband.  Adele says Antony must kill her to preserve her honour, so he kisses her, stabs her, the door crashes open, the husband sees his dead wife and Antony says, ‘Yes, she’s  dead. She was resisting me. I killed her’. And the curtain falls.

That final line became famous. Crowds flocked to hear it, but one night, an over-eager stage manager dropped the curtain when the husband came in.  The audience went wild, demanding to see the correct ending and, most of all, hear the line. The actor Bocage, who played Antony, was already back in his dressing room. However, Marie Dorval, the actress playing Adèle, saved the day. She adopted her dead pose, the curtain was raised, she got up, walked downstage and said, ‘Yes dead. I was resisting him.  He killed me’. Cue ecstasy from the stalls to the Gods.

In its way, that incident is as absurd as the conversation between Mr and Mrs Smith, but it demonstrates the intensity that theatre can generate and the gap between our day to day language and the words we put into our characters’ mouths. It’s also a powerful reminder that, on stage, words have a different impact and meanings can be compromised in all sorts of ways.

If you want to take advantage of the excitement that implies, your writing needs to be informed by a thorough knowledge of the medium and its potential. So volunteer to work on shows to learn the business and the craft of putting on plays.  Help backstage, build sets, make costumes or even just go to watch some rehearsals. When it works, theatre has an intensity and an intimacy that transcends 'normal' communication. It’s about identity – a ‘real’ actor suppressing him/herself  and ‘being’ someone else. It accesses responses beyond the merely conscious bits of your mind. If you want to experience that as a writer you need to know and use its overt and hidden conventions.

Even then, though, it’ll still have the capacity to surprise you.


Jan Needle said…
Great stuff Bill. Thanks
Susan Price said…
Another terrific blog, Bill. I've learned so much from you about theatre.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Jan and Susan. What I didn't say is how disappointing it is that 80% or more of the plays i see don't surprise or move me much. It's an infuriating pursuit in that respect.
glitter noir said…
I hope you keep this stream flowing, Bill. Lively,informative fun once again.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Reb, but I think 4 lots of my meanderings are enough for the time being.

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