Understanding theatre language

By Timothy Daly

In this article, I will look at what makes for a theatrical language. Previous issues dealt with characterisation, and dramatic structure, which are usually regarded as the two principle ‘problem areas’ of playwriting. If only this were true…

The fact is, that even if you, as writer, get the ‘structure’ right, and have a believable/likeable, “interesting” character, that won’t guarantee anything. Many American plays, in particular, are full of very tight plots, and a Jonsonian spectrum of characters from the mean, hard-assed to the girl you’d take home to meet Mom… but mostly, these plays are dead. They are dead, not because they have plot problems, or character problems, but because their language is dead. In fact, there is no theatrical language– there is only dialogue.

I personally prefer to avoid the word ‘dialogue’. It suggests one purpose above others– to be functional. You hear it a lot in films (which are the true inheritors of the 19th century ‘well-made-play’). In films, the dialogue,(ie, what characters say) is used primarily to advance the action. And that action is mostly outer action.

If you accept the view I’ve put in previous articles– that the job of a play is to dramatise the inner life, but in a social context– then the role of language is to symbolically represent that inner life and its struggles.

How is this done? I’ll list, in no particular order, some thoughts and ideas on how to create a truly symbolic and complex theatrical language.

  1. TELEVISION. Avoid watching television unless you’re there to laugh at it. Its banalities, literalness and, ironically, mundane pretentiousness would be laughable in a more sophisticated climate of thought and imagination. This is not just mud-throwing or elitism. One of the greatest threats to vital dramatic language is the banality, the obviousness and the so-called social realism of what passes for dialogue on Australian television. Far too many theatre scripts, produced and unproduced, replicate these crudities, with disastrous artistic effects. A number of the ideas below are specifically designed to counter the shallow realism that dominates TV and seeps over into playscripts.
  2. LITERATURE. Avoid duplicating the distanced, contemplative feel of literature. Theatre is not literature– or rather, as Dorothy Hewitt said, it is not JUST literature. It is also visceral, emotionally-driven, imaginatively anarchic, mystical, untameable, and mysterious. The most common symptom of this particular ‘dialogue disease’ is the script full of ‘beautiful writing’, lots of images, which reads wonderfully, but is lifeless when physicalised and moved by actors in time and space. There is no fire in the words, no emotional focus, only the distanced abstraction of the experience of literature, that ‘recollection in tranquility’ that produces a lifeless theatrical experience. Again, a number of the suggestions below are about rekindling the fire that should be blazing under the words you write.
  3. Drastically under-write, which makes an actor put great feeling into the highly-compressed phrases, motifs and words you write; and most importantly, it makes an audience work to imagine and experience the ‘gap’ between the words.
  4. Have key motifs that are obsessing the characters, which they may repeat at various points in the text. These ultimately build up the rich thematic network of ideas, themes, references and multiple meanings that make a play so memorable. Think of the relentless effect that Big Daddy achieves with his “Mendacity” motif, in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
  5. Avoid cliches, and other predictable “what she’d say in this situation” type of language. Pummelling an audience with ordinary and expected language is a sure way to train them not to listen hard in your plays.
  6. Avoid directness (or rather obviousness) of meaning, unless it’s at near-white heat. In one sense, theatrical language is always at white heat. The only question is in what direction the heat is aimed– at other characters, or towards the character him/herself.
  7. Create a different syntax, linguistic rhythm and vocabulary for each of the characters in your play. The principle is this: A character with a specific emotional and inner life should talk differently from another character with a different set of emotions and outlooks. Shyness has its own syntax and vocabulary; so does anger, envy, lust, ambition and apathy.
  8. Try to create definite rhythms in your language, with emphasis, flow, rhythmic modulation and variation. Until you are used to this notion, you should aim to be over-emphatic. Treat each of your lines as a piece of verbal music. Study the principles of phrasing, treated briefly in the next point.
  9. Analyse what makes an ‘actable line’. I would define it by saying that an actable line has focussed movement toward a clear rhythmic point of emphasis. That is, the line has a clear payoff, a strong emphatic climax toward which the whole line was moving. Personally I find that if the line can’t be gestured to (with arms), ie if you can say the line and it has no momentum to it, and your hands stay firmly in your lap as you speak the line out loud, then it is very likely not an actable line. As strange as this sounds, you should try it before laughing. It also probably explains why a typical theatre foyer is such a dangerous place, and your drink is in constant fear of being sent flying by a gesticulating arm.
  10. Use the ‘musical notation’ that dashes, dots, exclamation marks, and brackets to create a page that is alive with performance indications. Here is some of your notational repertoire– ( ) — … !!!! ?!?!?!, not to mention the occasional CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! In other words, Make the text look alive on the page. It also indicates that you’ve devoted time to making the text actable, a volatile linguistic ‘music’ with all the appropriate ‘phrase marks’. But don’t go overboard like some U.S. scripts which have banal language followed by FIFTEEN EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  11. Practise multi-directionality. By this I mean, create language textures where (for eg) character A is firing words at B, while also addressing C who is offstage, while also talking to D on the telephone. This helps to create the theatrical space, where energy is fired in several directions at once.
  12. Ask a question rather than make a firm statement. This creates the impression of a questing, striving character who is not just dealing with the surface requirements of the plot but is also dealing with something mysterious and deep within him/herself.
  13. Rarely answer a question directly. There are several good reasons for this. First, to most questions asked, there is an obvious answer, and it is not your job but the AUDIENCE’S to imagine that answer. Alternatively, if the answer to a question is obvious, then it shouldn’t be spoken.
  14. Miss steps in the rational flow of dialogue. By this I mean that if there are four steps in the question-answer sequence between two characters, it’s to divide up that thought-flow into what can be spoken, what should simply be implied and not spoken, what can be physically acted, and what can be felt or experienced by the actor/character.

    A good example of this is from Stephen Sewell’s early play, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, where one woman says, “I’m looking for the woman that’s sleeping with my husband”, and the other woman (the guilty party) says, “What do you see?” Note how many steps in the chain of logic are missing. It’s precisely what’s missing that supplies the imaginative magic for an audience. They act out the obvious responses in their minds, leaving the actors free to come up with a better, more subtle one.

  15. Practise (but not over-use) the art of the ‘pick-up’, which is where the last line of character A’s text is picked up and spoken as the first word of character B’s.
  16. Avoid literalness, and aim for lateral language, which answers the issue from another angle.
  17. Write imagistically (a whole area of investigation in itself) but do so in a highly-textured speech (full of clausal intercutting) where pace, rhthym and emotional intensity stop it turning into ‘literature to be read’. ((My up-coming book The Techniques of Contemporary Theatre Writing has a whole chapter on writing imagistically.)
  18. Finally, remember a principle that David Mamet espoused: “No character should say what s/he wants unless that is the best way to get it.” The creation of a secret inner life that is driven by desires that cannot be stated is the foundation of much of the ideas I’ve raised in this article. The end result for an audience makes it well worth the extra work.