I am always amused by the phrase which can emerge sometimes in readers’ reviews of plays – ‘judicious editing’ or some variant along those lines. It raises the issue of what cuts and where? How is that impression arrived at? And so on. I think what lies behind these comments is the larger concept that drama as a written medium exists primarily in the spoken domain – and that domain has rules and structures which outweigh and overrule the written. The key one for example being that character, action and narrative exist within a certain tension which must be finely balanced or judged – that too many words which do not serve a dramatic purpose are thus seen as superfluous. This is often vindicated in rehearsals where some lines simply do not work and hold up the action or the story – and so on. These are the lines which will be then ‘judiciously cut’. This is an aesthetic in which language – words – remain as a tool to illustrate character and story – that in some ways, words themselves are supportive to larger aesthetics.
There is an odd irony in all of this, though. The theatre is the last public domain in which an audience assembles to hear the word clothed in flesh; in skin. That the body is incarnated through words – be they poetic, political, subjective or abstract. It is the pleasure on an almost primeval level to that most profound act – of listening to the body speak out there. We assemble to imagine and experience the world of another and it is through language that we peer into that realm.
It is – for me anyway – a pleasure above or beyond those issues bound up with story or character – and that particular bugbear of contemporary theatre – action.
Words, language, a spinning of ideas vocalised into a new subjectivity, that sublime experience of seeing words manifest – these are the pleasures of theatre. In my world anyway. I remember writing a short scene in which a Senator finds himself in a room full of silent, cloaked, figures – he is there to hire them as assassins but is unsure of their skill. He talks too much. They remain silent. He pours out his plan. They demonstrate their skill on him with a mock kill. Always remaining silent. Eventually, this Senator is suitably impressed and hires them. However, he of course is their unknowing victim and is killed a second time but for real. Virtually the entire scene is just this Senator’s monologue to the assembled cloaked figures (who are also masked) as he struggles both with his own conviction to hire them to kill another Senator and his need to convince himself that they are as good as he has been told. In one moment, he says –
My enemy will feel such fear and see it also as did I – and yet, perhaps, such a death is too much? Can revenge have limits, I wonder? Perhaps his transgression, now so long ago it has lost its imprimatur, was not so abominable after all? There is the matter of decorum it must be said. This death is a cosmic death and perhaps exceeds the style permitted to those who feud?
What struck me when I re-read the scene with a view to editing was the word ‘imprimatur’ – as a writer it flowed from the pen both as exactly what this self-obsessed character would say and also as a wonderful word in its own sound – that the shape, the taste, of it in the mouth was right. Then I wondered whether it was a word suited to the theatre – a live medium unlike the written word where the audience does not have the liberty to re-read something unusual and pleasurable for the sake of it. This word was perhaps a word best left to the page and not the stage. I kept it in, of course, more out of the perverse pleasure of using a word that perhaps has rarely been used on the stage – after all, perhaps that is the real power of theatre – of making us hear words and language we do not normally hear anymore in unusual and unsettling circumstances? What really struck me though was that I was even thinking in those terms at all. In pushing characters into unusual fables and tortures, it should follow that their words, their language also, should twist equally out of the normal.
As readers of plays, I expect we all have that moment of hesitation when we turn a page of a new work over and see that block of text filling the next page – of a monologue which sits heavy, glacial-like, dominating the page without let or relief. Reading that block is like reading a piece of prose with no paragraphs in it – there is a certain unrelieved monotony wherein our ability to visualise stage action freezes – caught in that torrent of words. The reader in us shivers then and is already unconsciously expecting spaces in it that should be cut or edited. And as always in the theatre, if we look to find something, we invariably will.
Yet that monologue, that falling wall of words, is not alone on the page. It has a skin. That skin shimmers with these words as a mirror trembles with reflections. Language is speculative in the purest sense of that word. It is not something which echoes a literary or dramatic style – naturalism for example – or an aesthetic – a stage where character and action order words. Language has its own pleasure and release. Poetic language; words shorn of some naive subservience to a reality which follows conventions; a language which is regarded as perhaps the reason for the very existence of theatre itself.
Words are not necessarily indexes to thought in any psychological sense – which is its own narrative after all – and therefore should not automatically inscribe action as a corollary. That eternal triangle which sits so easily on the stage (character>action>narrative) tips around and around and within it swirls always those tumbling words. But perhaps another form of drama allows those words out and into a space which bends the character into a new emotional and subjective world – a stage in which language leads rather than supports. If one cuts judiciously one is also censoring. That censorship is never just the words, it is always also the body which clothes them. Editing a speech is cutting the body back.