Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dialogue - The Bane of the Novelist Turned Playwright

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.

The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.

Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

-Chuang Tzu (C. 400BC)



A few years ago I wrote a post about David Guterson's novel Our Lady of the Forest. At the time, I concluded my little mini-review with this thought:

"There is poetic brilliance and exposition in the prose, but the dialogue just seems so contrived and leaden, especially in the beginning sections. As a playwright, I am around dramatic texts all of the time and I am witness to the struggles and pains that playwrights take towards getting dialogue right, because, basically it is all you have. I think it would serve some novelists well to try and write a play or two. Guterson included."

Today, the Guardian has an essay about just this problem that novelists- turned-attempted-playwrights have with rendering believable dialogue:

What Compton-Burnett never quite realised is that, in a novel, speech can be much more affected by conventional elegance than in a play, where someone actually has to say the lines and any kind of falsity will be ruthlessly exposed.

Any novelist who writes a play must face up to this simple truth. Graham Greene's plays, William Golding's The Brass Butterfly, Muriel Spark's Doctors of Philosophy, or any of Iris Murdoch's lamentable attempts at drama share the same problem. In a novel, dialogue needn't sound realistic, and it can be backed up by all sorts of comments about the interior life of the characters. All these authors painfully found that they didn't know how to write dialogue an actor could enunciate, and they didn't know how to convey the drama only through external facts of speech and behaviour.

Dialogue in theatre is not just about sounding realistic. Dialogue in the theatre can be elegant and heightened, it can be cryptic and halting, it can be in a completely made up language, and it could even be spoken 0nly in in physicality. It doesn't have to be "realistic", but it has to be believeable. The audience has to be able to surrender to the playwright's philological universe. It doesn't have to sound like speech we hear everyday, but it has to be a believable system of communication.

If the audience buys into that that system, there is more work to do still. There must be a reason for dialogue or monologue, (a reason other than exposition.) The character must want to, or need to, communicate. Why? It calls to mind Chuang Tzu's quote.

Eric Bentley in his Life of the Drama said that dialogue should be poetic, but he did not mean flowery or ornate. Instead, he suggested that dialogue should approach that purer definition of poetry, the one where we try to express in words that for which there may not be any words. The effect of good dialogue should be the perception that the character is actually "inventing" language as they are speaking. Bentley holds up Shakespeare as the prime example because, after all... Shakespeare did invent some of our language.

In theatre, dialogue is all we have.

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