Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: The Art Of Theatre: 1 Exposition

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MRS HELSETH: Is he going over the wooden bridge?

REBECCA: That is just what I wanted to see. (After a moment) No. He has turned aside. He is coming the other way round today. It is a long way round.

MRS HELSETH: Yes of course. One can well understand his shrinking from going over that bridge. The spot where such a thing happened is -

REBECCA: They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.

Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen, Act I

A booth in a Chinese restaurant, Williamson and Levene are seated at the booth.

LEVENE: John . . . John . . . John. Okay. John. John. Look: (Pause.) The Glengarry Highland's leads, you're sending Roma out. Fine. He's a good man. We know what he is. He's fine. All I'm saying, you look at the board, he's throwing . . . wait, wait, wait, he's throwing them away, he's throwing the leads away. All that I'm saying, that you're wasting leads. I don't want to tell you your job. All that I'm saying, things get set, I know they do, you get a certain mindset . . . a guy gets a reputation. We know how this . . . all I'm saying, put a closer on the job. There's more than one man for the . . .

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, Act I

EXPOSITION is what the audience gets told so that it can follow the action. It might be a piece of background information which wouldn't otherwise be obvious: 'In those days divorce was illegal', for instance, or 'At that time TB was a great killer'. Usually it brings us up to date on what happened before the play began.

In the old days exposition was bold and unabashed. 'As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion . . .' says Orlando at the beginning of As You Like It. Then he tells him.

Problems arose when exposition put on a suit and tie: when it wore its smartest clothes to make its purposes unobtrusive; when the long lost will, the previous conviction, the aunt in Australia started trying to sneak in undetected under the guise of normal conversation.

In Rosmersholm, Henrik Ibsen handles exposition subtly: first a teaser, then a partial explanation, then a payoff. But it's no use pretending that Mrs Helseth needs to drop that baleful hint about the bridge from which her employer's wife plunged into the raging torrent, or that the dialogue doesn't creak as she does so.

Read it out aloud: it doesn't make sense, it lacks 'urge'. And how would the sentence have ended if she hadn't been interrupted? Ibsen clearly hasn't the faintest idea. 'The spot where such a thing happened is - '. Is what? ' - in need of a lick of paint'?

At its height, the art of exposition is classic. Terence Rattigan, in The Deep Blue Sea, makes the two words 'Happy Birthday' convey three separate pieces of information - what's wrong with Hester's love-affair; what was right about her marriage; why, the night before, she'd laid on a celebratory dinner - and in doing so stops your breath. But the lower expository forms are just depressing: read-aloud letters, garrulous domestics, hyped-up outbursts ('To discover all this after 20 years of marriage]').

Playwrights these days almost always avoid exposition. What's it for? The mood of the times favours mystery, chaos, jagged edges. Television-watchers who hop from channel to channel are perfectly used to not knowing what the hell's going on. And isn't there something feeble about relying on a set of narrative handholds? Junking the exposition has become a test of nerve: the playwright's machismo.

David Mamet is both a macho writer and a formal one. He's obsessed with rules: their inversion, crime, is the theme of most of his plays and all of his screenplays, and his essays come packed with rabbinical pronouncements on the right and wrong way of doing things. In Glengarry Glen Ross he attacks the old expository laws, but he does it with such sympathy that they end up seeming positively interesting. And the play, far from being an anarchic work, is highly crafted.

Act One introduces four men of unknown occupation, plus their uppity senior and a stranger. We learn how they feel about each other and how they pretend to feel. The dialogue is palpitating, brutal, finely stitched. What's their job? Nobody tells us. We slowly work out what a 'lead' is, then a 'closer'. The four men are salesmen. But what's being sold? Seconds before the interval we learn: 'This is a piece of land.' And with this, everything falls magically into place.

Commercial movie-producers have a dramaturgical mind-set which dates from the early years of cinema (not that long after Rosmersholm, in fact) and this is presumably why when Mamet rewrote Glengarry Glen Ross for the screen he introduced a brand-new Act One character: a brass-balled salesman who lectures his colleagues on the perils of failure. In fact, his sole function is to explain to us, the simpletons sitting in the dark, what's happening. If only we were listening . . . But it's merely exposition, so we aren't.

(Photograph omitted)