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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.