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Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Playwright's Craft - Dialogue

The English language as we know it came in to being so that our Norman overlords could converse with their Anglo-Saxon underlings.  It is not very much use being a conqueror if you cannot get your peasantry to go out and about ploughing your fields and reaping your harvests or fighting your battles for you.  Consequently all the fripperies of grammar that beset the parent tongues were excised and we are now blessed with a language that is so simple in construction that it has become a lingua franca (an amusing and ironic description) for trade, commerce and general communication round the world.  This stripped down form of speech means that someone from the forests of Papua New Guinea can make themselves understood to a francophone from Montreal.  English is a sort of Lego language in which simple elements can be assembled using any bits and pieces of vocabulary from any other language the speaker can lay his or her tongue to. Consequently, it is unafraid of importing any vocabulary from any other language that might prove useful.  If we don’t have a word for an item or an idea we import it. Or we just fabricate something vaguely appropriate rather than trying to make it up according to some arcane set of rules as is the practice in France.

And so, the English language outside the needs of basic communication becomes complex in vocabulary and a minefield for those who are unwary in its application.  Because of all the imports and coinages words slip and differentiate in barely perceptible shades.  And above all, the true English speaker will use words in a subtle, almost poetic fashion in which basic words assume indirect, elliptical, cryptic colouring calling up a world of strange hidden meanings and images. The writer of English must always assume the mantel of a poet and the writer of dialogue in English drama must become something of a magician weaving strange incantations and spells together.  (It is no coincidence that the word “spell”is of exactly the same root as “spelling” meaning to assemble a word correctly.  The two concepts of controlling unseen powers are directly linked).

So to record speech in English one must be aware at all times that what is said contains drifts of meaning far beyond what the words themselves convey.  The unseen and unspoken topics that are never uttered are usually to do with staus and emotional engagement.  Intentions in these ideas must never be referred to directly. Thus:

Andrew visits Barry.  Barry asks “Would you like a cup of tea?” Andrew must never reply “Yes” or “No”.  These are forceful, closing words which represent a status assertion and, as such, serve to reduce one’s o own status.  (The answer “yes” Implying something like: “You are too stupid to recognise that is why I am here” and “No” implying “I wouldn’t drink that gnat’s piss you served up last time.”) Thus Andrew must reply with a status neutral question: “Are you making one for yourself?” and so throwing the status problem back to Barry who must reply with a further question: “Do you prefer Earl Grey or Typhoo?” Answer: “Can you still get Typhoo?” (Careful, that’s nearly a status assertion in itself) “I may have some in the back of the cupboard.” And the final:  I’ll have some of that then.” 

This is typical of a complex status interaction in which both speakers are fencing to an unwritten but well  understood set of rules.  There are similar rules to follow in interactions concerning the weather which are really coded for one’s emotional engagement with the world and must be kept carefully guarded at all times.
It used to be axiomatic that in polite society one avoided conversing about religion, sex and politics.  In our dialogue here, of course, these are the only safe topics of conversation as Andrew would not be visiting Barry if he did not appear to agree with his host in these matters whatever he might think in private.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Angel


The men are putting decorations on the pub
The coloured lights, the snowmen and the seven dwarves
They found dirt cheap at St Augustine’s car boot sale
“It’s too commercial now” says Arthur nailing up
A garish trumpet blowing angel on the roof.
“It’s lost all meaning” antiphones his mate
Holding still the ladder and handing up the bulbs.
“Where shall we put the star?  There’s no more room up here.”
They nail it in the vacant space above the door.
“It starts so early now that come December’s end
The gloss has quite gone off it. Shall we have a beer?”
Going inside, they leave, for anyone who cares to see,
A star that gives a welcome to the inn.
An angel floating up against the star filled sky.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Playwright's Craft- How long should a play be?

One of the things that comes into consideration when writing a play is "How long should it be?".  On the face of it that sounds an eminently daft question to which the answer should be "As long as it needs to be."  But there is a reason for the question which involves an audiences ability to concentrate and the playwright's ability to juggle all the elements needed to tell a story well.

When I started in the theatre back in the sixties, an evening of drama would be expected to last around two and a half hours with at least two intervals for drinks at the bar.  Bar takings were an important way of subsidising what went on on stage. I've known customers ask for their money back if a play ran under two hours.  And let's face it, Shakespearian audiences expected four hours with a Jig ( a shorter comedy thrown in for good measure). Of course, all of that was before TV came on the scene so audiences today are desperately consulting their watches to see if they can be home in time for the "I'm a Celebrity" catch up.  Two hours is now a maximum and I have seen pieces down to an hour and a half and even an hour.  I suppose Opera audiences are still able to concentrate for longer and there are some honourable exceptions in the theatre but these are actually flagged up with warnings about their length.  I saw a magnificent production of "The Wandering Jew" some years ago at the National which clocked in at four hours.

But for me, an ideal length is around two hours for the sort of story I want to tell.  There is usually a bit of a pattern I like to follow with a main turning point half way through and several smaller twists on the way there and back.  So that readily falls into two acts with two or three scenes in each act with the climax coming just at the interval.  The number of scenes varies but I don't like to have more than three per act or the steps become too complex and we lose audience focus.  Anything over a total of eight scenes becomes a television drama in which audiences have to rush in and out to the kitchen whilst watching and so can't be asked to watch for more than two minutes at a time.  The beauty of live theatre is that the drama unfolds before your eyes at an appropriate pace not driven by the next ad break.  Longer scenes give the characters space to breathe and demonstrate complexity and development.

So given, the format I like to work in, and given that I aim for around two hours running time I find that my best guide to length is word count. And I reckon that at somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 words including stage directions.  (Usually stage directions last as long on the stage as they do to write).  Of course, this is a bare guide but it does give me an indicatiion that I've given the characters enough room to develop fully without become windy and verbose.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Playwright's Craft - Pig Unit

My new play “Pig Unit” is about my experiences of working on a pig farm some years ago. I hasten to add that while the situation is true, the drama is not.  I’ve got most of the dialogue down and I’m quite pleased with that.  I love the process of writing dialogue and getting it down to a sort of abstracted verisimiltude.  That usually means cuttting and cutting.  Slicing away sentences and whole paragraphs until I’ve pared it down to that almost incoherent series of non sequiturs that contain just enough information for a conversation to carry some sense to the protagonists.  And also remembering that real life people have difficulty conveying meaning, not listening to what others are saying and, sometimes, just lying.

The next stage, which I find more challenging is trying to order the set pieces, that is scenes within the main flow of scenes, that tell the story to the audience.  One of the characters comes out with a long piece of explanation about himself and what motivates him.  But where do I put this revelation?  Too near the end and it well appear like an Agatha Christie denouement.  Too near the beginning and it will have less impact without the audience knowing the other characters thoroughly.  And I want it to plant a few ideas that will play out at the end.  What’s more, I have to ask, which of the other characters will need to know about it?  Will they be present when he spills the beans? Or will the news filter through to them piece by piece?  And how will the other characters react? Will they realise the significance of the revelation there and then or will it be a slow burn with them reaching a slow dawning of understanding? Will the audience find it too obvious or can I disguise it in some way as if our character is appearing to reveal one thing whilst accidentally revealing another?

There are no rules to guide the writer here so the simplest way is to try the passage in different places in the play.  Cut and paste is a wonderful tool.  And with each experiment, if I read it out loud as I always do, I will rootle out what is right and most effective for the piece.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking about Typewriters

Today the last typewriter made in the UK was produced and sent straight to the Science Museum in London.  The BBC produced a eulogy for the machine with a contribution from a friend of mine, Keira Rathbone.

Here is something I wrote after talking about typewriters with Keira a little while ago

Talking about typewriters last night has set my mind racing back over all the machines I have loved and lost over the years.  I had been writing poetry since I was about three and by the time I was a teenager I knew I was going to be doing it as a serious part of the rest of my life.  Both my brothers in law used typewriters in their work and I knew I had to have one like theirs if I was going to be taken seriously.  One was a nuclear physicist and the other was a journalist and both had portable Olivetti Lettera 32s.  At that time I could only dream of such style and such cutting edge technology but on a visit to a small typewriter shop close to the station in Southampton I found a portable Remington.  It was a bit old fashioned and ungainly but I loved it and I used it continuously for the next seven or eight years.  It took me all the way through college but, strangely enough, looking back through my papers I tended not to write essays on it. (When I could be bothered to write essays at all). I think it had become too personal and was only for poetry and plays. The typeface is clear and precise with only theT and H showing signs of fading.  But that could have been down to my self taught typing style which means I press more lightly on those keys.

Once I was writing for a living I knew I had to upgrade and I traded in the Remington for an Olivetti Dora, a lighter (and cheaper) version of the Lettera. This did me equally as well and lasted some ten years.  On it I wrote all of my early performed plays.  Again I swopped and this time I opted for an electric Smith Corona.  This was still much the same as a manual in appearances but had a sort of motor which made key operation much lighter and consequently, typing speeds could be much quicker.  The ribbon was made of plastic film and came in a cartridge that you slotted into the side.  There was also a correcting ribbon which could be inserted in place of the ribbon and by typing back over your last letters you could delete them.   It may seem primitive from here but it was a huge improvement over tippex and correction papers that we used up to then.

By a series of chances I was out of work for a year and a half and it was almost inevitable that I managed to find a job selling typewriters.  I worked in a shop that specialised in office machines and had the franchise for a Swedish brand called Facit.  These were probably the top brand at the time and competed head to head with the IBM golfballs which, by then, had reached the peak of their development.  The problem with the IBM was that the golfball tended to wear out and the replacements cost nearly as much as the typewriter itself.  People used to prowl into our shops and ask if we could get replacements but they could only be obtained direct from IBM.  The Facits had a typehead arranged in a daisywheel.  These were very simple to replace and relatively cheap and came in many typefaces.  The staff and owners of the shop knew I was a writer and when I left they presented my with an expensive fountain pen and a Facit T120 portable electronic.  This was a beautiful state of the art machine with memory and automatic correction.  The pen lasted about a fortnight. The typewriter lasted me for fifteen years and even after I had gone entirely over to computers I still kept the Facit for form filling.  That machine only went to typewriter heaven as late as the autumn of 2007.

It was whilst I was working at the typewriter shop that I saw the writing on the wall for the typewriter.  We had the first consignment of Amstrad word processors and we could see straight away that this was going to be the future.  Ironically, at the same time, we also had a consignment of Russian portables that were the last hurrah of an old technology.  I can’t remember the brand name but they were truly awful and were always breaking down and I spent more time trying to persuade people not to buy them but they were cheap and a lot of people were prepared to battle with them to produce the occasional letter.

Am I nostalgic about typewriters?  No.  I loved all of my typewriters at the time and I loved the lifestyle that they formed a part of but when I think about ribbon changing, cleaning, tippex, carbon paper I’m happier with my computer.

Here is the link to the BBC news article