ANGLES OF VISION FROM A PARTICULAR PLAYWRIGHT, ABOUT THE SPECIAL PRESSURE COOKER THAT IS DRAMA.
by Frank Gagliano
Beginning quotes and notes toward a book: HOLOGRAPHING THE PLAY-TEXT
(or DEMONSTRATING THE PLAY-TEXT) — a new approach for theatre practitioners who have to bring a text off the page, in order to “do something” with it: Act it, design it, direct it, stage manage it, produce it —give cold readings of it— (or, for readers who simply love to read plays, they might find it easier to stage a play-text in their mind’s eye) . . .an approach that suggests that insights into any play-text require insights into the artist-playwright’s art.
First, a few quotes from theatre theorists that will support, throughout the book, the Holographing technique —
(Followed by Gagliano’s methods of play-text analysis):
From “THE DEATH OF TRAGEDY,” by George Steiner, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1961, 355 pp
“…drama is the formal embodiment of crisis.” (pp.217, 218)
If there are bathrooms in the houses of tragedy, they are for Agamemnon to be murdered in.” (pg. 243)
. . .And the big one from Steiner’s, “THE DEATH OF TRAGEDY:
“Drama is language under such high pressure of feeling that the words carry a necessary and immediate connotation of gesture.” (pg. 275)
(Explore and amplify in greater detail this towering definition throughout)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
From THE LIFE OF THE DRAMA, by Eric Bentley, Atheneum, New York, 1964, 371 pages
“. . .while the novelist may see events through the medium of other men’s minds, the dramatist allows us to see other men’s minds through the medium of events. If plot is an edifice, the bricks from which it is built are events, occurrences, happenings, incidents.” (pg. 4)
“Why does even a bad description of violent actions please us? How could it fail to? We tend to feel our lives are lacking in violence, and we like to see what we are missing. We tend to be bored, and we like to be caught up in someone else’s excitement. We are aggressive, and we enjoy watching aggression. . . .violence interests us because we are violent. And the gentlest outwardly can be the most turbulent inwardly. . ..” (pp. 8 and 9)
“The flowers of dramatic art have their roots in crude action.” (pg. 10)
“Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative: it is soap opera plus.“ (pg. 14)
“. . .a born playwright is a man who does not need stage directions: reality as he sees it. . .can be compressed into dialogue and expressed by it.” (Pg. 78)
(Include my first wants and obstacle assignment to new playwrights—no stage directions allowed — all stage directions must be in the pressured dialogue.)
From The Teachings
In drama, all acting and production conceptions of the text (on stage), can be found in the text. Therefore, text precedes collaboration. But collaboration, of course, is essential to pull out just one of the many conceptions’ inherent in the text. (And why is it that a hundred stage conceptions can work — and a hundred cannot? Elaborate)
What defines drama? . . .The live actor.
It is the live actor to whom the playwright hands over his/her play-text to tell his/her story to the live audience.
(That, alas, is the game.
And more about that “alas” later.)
Therefore, the art of playwriting (for the artist-playwright) is all wrapped up in the art of acting. If this is true, dramatic dialogue (good dramatic dialogue) should —on the page— have an already projectile quality to it. This is because the live actor needs to catapult the words out over the stage-apron moat to many live people. If the language is already pressured in the text, the live actor can more easily ride that already-pressured text missal off the page, out to the live audience, and let it detonate there (elaborate with examples from the great plays).This is why dramatic language (a character’s speech) should already be pressured out of the character on the page. It is the playwright’s job to do this.
On stage, for the actor, there can be no such thing as a “private moment;” all moments —no matter how intimate, must be shared with (be projected out to —“put out there” to) the live audience. Is there enough pressure in the speech, in the line, in the word; in the pause; in the ellipsis; in the semi colon — the force of which will take it off the page — so that the actor can more easily contact it, give it an emotional life, and more easily project these pressured words out to the live audience?
Even a Dramatic Monologue is never private. The internal pressure building in a character alone on stage is often so overwhelming — (as it is in those life moments of overwhelming anguish, when we pace alone — maybe even on a public street — full of rage, or self pity or painful perplexity, or unexplained giddy joy —or whatever— and can’t hold it in, need to speak out loud that pressure to the void) —that the actor, in such inner explosive moments, has the live audience to turn to, to de-privatize the inner explosive pressure. People in the streets might find it strange, seeing you talk to yourself — perhaps having a confrontation with some inner demon — live audiences, on the other hand, will welcome it.
In drama, there is no such thing as conversation; only ‘confrontation.There can be ‘conversation’ in film or television drama because the camera and editing can supply the confrontational, tension-making, pressured aspects needed; close ups, quick cuts, sounds, music underscoring, ETC. But in drama — it is always confrontation.
At a production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN in Stratford, Ontario some years back (before the more recent Broadway production), I was amazed to see that the play was Linda Loman’s play; or, at the least, that she was so much a vital center of the play (ditto the recent Goodman-Broadway revival of play). The Willy Loman, in the Stratford production, was an excellent actor, the kind of character actor that makes sense to play this “little man” of Miller’s tragedy. But the actress had rendered the largeness in Linda’s smallness; the actor playing Willy had rendered the smallness in Willy’s smallness. And then I recalled the original production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN. I had purchased standing room for $1.25 and was blown away by the largeness that Lee J. Cobb found in his rendering of Willy. The Linda of Mildred Dunnock, on the other hand, rendered the smallness of the character. I then saw subsequent productions of DEATH OF A SALESMAN on Broadway, always with Mildred Dunnock in the role of Linda; but the Willys changed: Thomas Mitchell, Gene Lockhart and Albert Dekker — all of whom rendered the smallness in Willy’s smallness. In those subsequent performances the play, in a way, came into better balance; an across-the-board rendering of smallness by everyone (although Kazan’s direction and Melziener’s design were large) — AND I then began to believe that the text of Miller’s play was, in fact, a smaller play than I had first thought; and that it was Lee J. Cobb’s performance that superimposed a largeness on it. Until I saw the actress play Linda in Ontario. (To be developed: “In Search of Bigness —OR—the destruction of bigness in contemporary playwriting and acting — and the reasons for that corruption).
Ironically, when Lee J. Cobb played the role of Lear in KING LEAR (I saw his performance at New York’s Lincoln Center in the 1960’s), his innate Bigness turned out to be a naturalistic Bigness, which, for Lear’s Bigness, was too small (develop and explore why classically-trained actors are often better equipped to play the naturalistic roles; use Shaw’s comments on this and talk about my own experience with the British Actor Paul Rogers’s first reading of “little man” Morden in my play Father Uxbridge Wants To Marry, and how that great cold reading at the New Dramatists in New York ruined my future experiences with the play because of the naturalistically-trained actors who then played the role).
from the teachings of Frank Gagliano continued:
In drama, characters are newly pressured to do something: Confront someone, defend themselves, run away, stick around, fight, give up, despair, express joy, fall in love, seek revenge, become paralyzed, go crazy, ETC. New pressure is the new force that moves the character to —. . .whatever. It is the artist-playwright’s job to supply the new pressures. It is the theatre practitioner’s job to conceptualize and render those new text-pressures in space; and for the actor to render these text-pressures in the present tense, in front of a live audience that is witnessing the results of those new pressures — while the new pressures are being newly activated. (See George Steiner entry above)
In drama, the pressures are constantly shifting. A dramatic speech is like a plot of earth; it may seem stationary but, in fact, the tectonic plates way down deep (under extreme pressures) are constantly shifting. It is the actor’s job to render those pressure shifts. (Elaborate)
In drama, the “why-this-day-is-different-from-any-other-day” pressure is the gun shot at the beginning of the play’s relay race. And should be triggered as close to the top of the play as possible. We are there to see the play start. We are not there to see the warm ups. (Elaborate)
A dramatic event (DE) is a new pressure (NP) that journeys (J) to a —C— consequence (NP+J+C=DE) that sets off a new pressure that journeys to its consequence — that sets off a new pressure that journeys to its consequence that—. . . When the final consequence has been arrived at, it is time to bring down the curtain. It is the consequence that defines the ‘dramatic event.’ The ‘dramatic event’ is Drama’s DNA. (Elaborate)
In drama, each element in the definition of a dramatic eventmust be present in order to have a true event: New pressure/journey/consequence. Each word is operative; for the event dissipates, falls apart, marshmallows away — when even one word (element) is eliminated. In a particular drama, its particular dramatic structure is the mounting and accelerating journey of its particular dramatic events.
In drama, character behavior is not enough; it is not even necessarily “dramatic.” A character becomes “dramatic” when he/she confronts a new pressure that pressures out of the character a new response and behavior that that character has never shown before in the history of his/her life; but is rendering now, in the moment. That is why the curtain has gone up at this point in the character’s life: Tonight, that life is about to be changed. Or should be.
In the book, ‘I Wish You Love” (Conversations with Marlene Dietrich),’ by Eryk Hanut; Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, CA, 1996, 138pp—the famous screen legend and great cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich says about war, that it is horrible and fabulous—“Because it’s in moments of danger, of crisis, that people show themselves as they really are. In ordinary life, you can’t immediately tell who is the coward and who is the real man. At the front, you can no longer cheat.” In a sense, drama is a battle front; even on the page — especially on the page — where the playwright cannot cheat.
In drama, character discoveries (that is, new responses to new pressures) are what keep the play in the present tense.
In drama, if the pressure on a character in a scene is an old one, it ceases to have vitality on the stage, because the character has already lived, and responded to, that pressure; and because that pressure is now a past pressure and vitiates the present-tense imperative.
This is why Horatio is needed in the first scene of Hamlet.The ghost pressure is new to him; it is old hat to Marcellus and Bernardo (they’ve seen the ghost twice before). They have been there, done that. Horatio is about to be there and do that now. In front of us. And we’ll do it with him; because we’ll experience his confrontation with the ghost because his reactions are new, awkward, unplanned, natural, honest, emotional and full of new energy (at least the first time the Ghost appears; the second time Horatio is prepared to confront it on firmer footing — because the Ghost , when it reappears, is not new anymore, is now an old pressure, and Horatio is more prepared to deal with it ). And Horatio (a friend of Marcellus, a “high born” person who can speak on the same footing with a possibly deceased king — and, more importantly, friend of young Hamlet) is the only character who can then put pressure on young Hamlet to move his (Hamlet’s) bare bodkin to confront the ghost/father — the new pressure that really pushes the play into high gear.
“My definition of a dramatic event (a new pressure that journeys to a consequence — NP+J+C=DE) can be useful in energizing difficult moments in a text that seem to put on the brakes in a scene and stop things cold.
In HAMLET (Act 1, Sc 1), as soon as the ghost has been confronted by Horatio for the first time, Marcellus, having “approved” Horatio’s eyes to the “martial stalk” of the ghost of King Hamlet in combat “armour,” and reacting to Horatio’s, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state,” pressures Horatio to tell him why these frantic, extraordinary, round-the-clock, war-like preparations. What follows is an expository speech by Horatio that often stops the action cold.
“That can I.
At least the whisper goes so. . .”
In fact, one often feels that the actor playing Horatio often is getting through the speech as quickly as he can so that we can get to the ghost’s reappearance (or the speech is truncated, or cut). The reason why the speech puts on the brakes, is because it is not encased in a dramatic event. This is unusual for Shakespeare; just about every speech in his plays is encased in a dramatic event (especially in HAMLET), journeying from some new pressure to a consequence. That’s why the plays of Shakespeare are so much easier to act than most plays; the mounting of dramatic events are so clearly defined that the actor merely needs to surf the wave. The question is: Can Horatio’s speech be activated by approaching it in “dramatic event” terms? I think so. If one thinks of the speech as still part of the consequence of a new pressure — “the journey” part. (Elaborate)
In drama, character is event and event is character. (To be explored in greater detail)
“In drama, everything is compressed, crude, blatantly stated and rendered. (see Bentley above)”
Regarding The Use of Pressures for the Director: Blocking’ comes down to three things: The character is either pressured to move toward another character, away from another character or — to stand still.
In drama, the basis of each moment is the character’s wants, and the obstacles to those wants. In great drama, dramatic characters have great wants and face great obstacles; in lesser drama, dramatic characters have lesser wants and overcome lesser obstacles. This is one of the main differences between great and less-than-great drama.
In drama, the playwright pressures the character’s wants and the obstacles; the live actor then projects those pressures out to the live audience.
In drama, as long as a character struggles to find his/her next word, present-tense interest is maintained; because the character is responding to the new pressure and, therefore, cannot know what the next word will be — until the word drops in and is said (put out there). This is, of course, the paradox of acting: The live actor memorizes the text, sees (S) and experiences (E) the pressures and pressure shifts and then must say (S) them (S.E.S.) put them out there,’as if they were being “newly minted” (a phrase I first heard used by actress Helen Burns). The playwright has it easier, in this respect (at least in the first draft), because he/she really does not know what the next word will be, has not memorized it; the word is dropping in as it “drops in” and the writing created; the playwright is actually newly minting the word as he/she goes about the business of organizing some recent chaos from the larger chaos of his/her life and making it into this play.
“In drama, punctuation in the text is the means by which the text is scored.”
In drama, punctuation is part of the “dramatical” needs — not the “grammatical” needs — of the character. Like everything else in a dramatic speech, the character is making up the punctuation, as well as the words, as he/she journeys along. For example, a character will effectively score for him/herself a semi colon when a discovery is about to be made. The character thinks he is about to stop (the period part of a semi colon), but then decides to say more (the comma part).” (Here will follow a section on pressured dramatic punctuation. And the imperative of “discovery” in drama.)
from LIFE IN THE DRAMA again. (Bentley, on Dialogue:)
”All Literature is made up of words, but plays are made up of spoken words. While any literature may be read aloud, plays are written to be read aloud. It is because the drama presents men speaking that the theatre hires speaking men to communicate it. This is expensive. And nothing testifies more surely to people’s interest in hearing words spoken than their willingness to pay for it.” (pg 70)
“. . .the phrase ‘the magic of words’ is figurative. It covers phenomena both good and bad: Hitler, too, was a magician with words. On the positive side, “the magic of words” connotes the magic of literature and, especially, of dramatic literature.” (Pg. 72)
“ If one is not eloquent, one latches on to the eloquence of others. No one, it seems, can do without eloquence: it is as indispensable as it is irresistible. We may regret this when thinking of the eloquence of some rabble-rouser or evangelist, but to it we owe also the perennial human interest in great drama, which, as Ronald Peacock says, ‘is based on the poet’s voice.’ ” (Pg. 73)
“For the bad writing of everyday, literature provides good writing to astonish and delight. For the bad talk of everyday, the drama provides good talk to astonish and delight. The drama is the talker’s dream and the taciturn man’s revenge. For it is ‘all talk.’ A play is written by someone who wishes to do nothing but talk for an audience that is resigned to do nothing but listen to talk.” (Pg. 75)
“Bad talk and silence can in a play be used only as exceptional effects.” (Pg. 75)
“. . .to make a whole play out of bad talk would be to make a bad play. I see no real exceptions to this rule. . . . the primary pleasure of dramatic dialogue: the pleasure of perfect articulateness. Nothing pertinent is left unexpressed. Each speaker says all he should say, and says it perfectly — according to the kind of perfection that is appropriate to the context, be it witty and concise or poetic and elaborate. Which may seem a straightforward enough thing for it to do but, in the case of the confusion of things in this world, and the inadequacy of most people to most occasions, a piece of good dialogue is always of itself a source of delight and comes with the shock of surprise.” (Pg. 76)
(GAGLIANO ASIDE:“Thus the evil of paraphrasing.”)
For the dramatist human beings are articulate. Words are the sign and insignia of their humanity. (Pg. 77)
Paraphrasing: In the Theatre, Actors need to render a character’s truth. In order to do that, the actor must articulate the character’s truth through the specific words in the text that the character needs to say in order to articulate that truth. And then the actor needs to project that truth to a live audience. This is why paraphrasing is a bad thing: Since the paraphrased words are not the specific articulation of that truth, that makes the truth a half truth.
[The Dangers of the first read through]
On the one hand, the first read-through of a new play is often fresh and full of discoveries; just because the actor’s are truly “newly minting” the words for the first time — putting them “out there” for the first time — and mixing their words with new voices who are doing the same. On the other hand, many directors, at a first read through, urge the actor’s “not to act; just explore.” Unfortunately, many actors take this as license to do nothing. They mumble, hold back, paraphrase, misread — even when they have the words in front of them. They are afraid they might start “to act.” But, at that first read-through, it is impossible “to act” anything. If, by acting, one means giving the character an emotional life, there is no way an actor, at a first read through, can give a character an emotional life. But he/she can “demonstrate the text;” “put that out there,” so that the newly formed ensemble can sense the architecture of the text that they will be committed to rendering (in emotional form) for the entire rehearsal period. Elaborate.
[Another thing an actor can bring to the table in a first read through is research. The actor can know what each word means and how it is pronounced. That is the actor’s job. And it should be there at the first reading of the text. Nothing is more frustrating than an actor interrupting the rhythm of the reading, saying, “sorry — how do you pronounce that?” Or, “what does that word mean? I’m not sure.” If the actor has the script before hand, there are all sorts of places where the pronunciations and meanings of words can be found.] (Elaborate)
From DIRECTORS ON DIRECTING, Editors, Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy., Bobs Merrill, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1963, 464 pages
(From the essay, ”An Audience of One,” by Tyrone Guthrie (page 251)
“Where I think the producer’s (director’s) work requires the greatest amount of time and care spent upon it is in the vocal interpretation of the play. . . .the performance of a play is, on a smaller scale, a performance of a musical work. The script is, as it were, sung, because speaking and singing are, after all, the same process. Although I am speaking now and not singing, I am uttering a definable tune all the time. Every syllable I utter is on a certain pitch and a musician could say precisely where it was. Every sentence that I phrase is consciously phrased in a certain rhythm. The pauses, although I am not conscious of it, are expressing an instinctive need to pause, not merely to breathe, but for clarity and various other interpretive purposes. . .”
(From the essay, “Staging Shakespeare: a survey of Current Problems and Opinions”)
“The modern actor, and director, for that matter, inhibited by an overabundance of naturalism, tends on the whole either to shirk these highly colored musical/emotional climaxes (sometimes by destroying their true quality through shapeless underplaying, sometimes by cutting them) or to present them with a loud, empty rhetorical flourish. It is perhaps a reflection of this age that our actors and we in the audience seem to have lost the appetite for the big dramatic aria where a ‘larger than life’ hero or heroine faces a ‘larger than life’ conflict. We have not lost this appetite in the opera house; indeed, we should be grossly affronted if an opera singer hummed his great aria. . .”
from Gagliano again:
The actor’s first job is to say what is on the page.
The actor’s second job is to demonstrate what is on the page.
The actor’s third job is to transcend what is on the page.
While the second and third jobs move the actor off the page and onto the stage, the first job always remains; always stays the underpinning for the demonstrating of the second job and the transcending of the third job. Elaborate.
Explicating a speech from, “A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,” by TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, through the punctuation, pressures, and pressure shifts (Act One, Scene I — 294 words in speech):
I,I,I took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish! You just came home in time for the funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths — not always. Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, “Don’t let me go!” Even the old, sometimes, say, “Don’t let me go.” As if you were able to stop them! But funerals are quiet, with pretty flowers. And, oh, what gorgeous boxes they pack them away in! Unless you were there at the bed when they cry out, “Hold me!” you’d never suspect there was the struggle for breath and bleeding. You didn’t dream, but I saw! Saw! Saw! And now you sit there telling me with your eyes that I let the place go! How in hell do you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella! And old cousin Jessie’s right after Margaret’s, hers! Why, the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep! . . .Stella. Belle Rive was his headquarters! Honey — that’s how it slipped through my fingers! Which of them left us a fortune? Which of them left us a cent of insurance even? Only poor Jessie — one hundred to pay for her coffin. That was all, Stella! And I with my pitiful salary at the school. Yes, accuse me! Sit there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go! I let the place go? Where were you! In bed with your — Polack!
What sets off this speech of 294 words are two questions by Blanche’s sister, Stella, regarding the loss of the family property, a decaying plantation known as Belle Rive; a loss Stella has just heard about.
Stella: But how did it go? What happened?
Blanche takes these two simple, seemingly reasonable, questions as an attack.
Blanche (Springing up): You’re a fine one to ask me how it went!
Blanche: You’re a fine one to sit there accusing me of it!
(Note the difference between Stella’s two responses: The first is an exclamation; the second is exclamatory in italics. I’ll return to this)
So Stella’s two, seemingly reasonable, questions have elicited a seemingly excessive response from her sister Blanche. And that response is just the beginning. Blanche now needs 294 words more to fill in that response.
What does the scoring of that 294 word response tell us about Blanche? About her frame of mind in the moment? And about clues to her emotional life (and at this point we are only ten minutes into the first scene of the play)?
If we just look at what’s on the page, the speech has italics (five of them); exclamation points (25 of them!); quotations from other characters (three); dashes (four); question marks (two); and one curious ellipsis, followed by a one word sentence: “. . .Stella.” And nine periods and sixteen commas.The pressure shifts in the speech are staggering. No other character in the play has the chops (or subtext) to sustain anything like it. And no other character in the play has the innate tools of articulation to brilliantly phrase the result of all the demons that are gnawing at her and will continue to destroy her on her journey to madness. (And she hasn’t met Stanley yet!) The genius of this play is that the dialogue is brilliantly individualized for all the characters. But none of the other characters have the ability to come up with a phrase like, “ the struggle for breath and bleeding. . .”
The speech is also a textbook example for activating exposition: Light the fuse and let it sizzle along from detonation-to-detonation until the big bang, “Where were you! In bed with your — Polack!”
If one voices all the punctuation — has the courage, for example, to take the time to come to a FULL STOP when one says, “PERIOD;” exclaim when one says, “EXCLAMATION POINT!” (twenty five times!); give a vocal dash-ness to a dash when the “DASH” is seen and said; say “QUOTE” before demonstrating the quote, and “END QUOTE” when the quote is over; say “COMMA” when one contacts a comma (and perhaps uses that comma to take a breath); slowly say “DOT” (beat) “DOT” (beat) “DOT” when an ellipsis is contacted —if one takes the time to that, one will immediately demonstrate the journey of the speech at that moment, and one will already be on the way to touching (technically) the inner turmoil going on in Blanche.
One should also begin to see the enormous variety that the scoring is rendering in the speech — and to demonstrate that variety. Williams, of course, is a master of dramatic punctuation scoring.
(TO BE CONTINUED)