Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: The Art of Theatre: 6 Dialogue

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LORD JOHN: Miss Leete trod on a toad.

TATTON: I barred toads . . . here.

LORD JOHN: I don't think it . . .

TATTON: I barred toads. Did I forget to? Well . . . it's better to be a sportsman.

SARAH: And whereabout is she?

ANN (from the corner she has shrunk to): Here I am, Sally.

TATTON: Miss Ann, I forgive you. I'm smiling, I assure you, I'm smiling.

SARAH: We all laughed when we heard you.

TATTON: Which reminds me, young George Leete, had you the ace?

GEORGE: King . . . knave . . . here are the cards, but I can't see.

TATTON: I had the king.

ANN (quietly to her sister): He kissed me.


by Harley Granville Barker, Act One

LENA: I haven't forgotten the night you locked/

COLIN: Ruby, this is Lena.

RUBY: How do you do.

COLIN: Lena, this is Ruby.

LENA: me out of the house, I should have known then. Have you ever been locked out of the house, Ruby? You have that treat in store. Why did you have that machine on? You knew/ I'd ring.

COLIN: I didn't have the machine on specifically/ to annoy

LENA: Please speak for as long as you like after the tone beeeeeeeep.

COLIN: you funnily enough. I have the machine for my friends and business contacts/ who

LENA: Business.

COLIN: might ring up while I'm out.

LENA: How's business?

COLIN: Do you want something particular because this isn't a good time.

HOT FUDGE by Caryl Churchill, Scene Four

OPENING the script of a new play in the middle and taking a peek is a guilty activity, like sticking your finger into the trifle. But everyone does it. If the dialogue's good (so the thinking goes), then the play will have life.

But what's 'good'? A doomed question: dialogue makes its own rules. It may or may not correspond to everyday speech: that isn't the point. It doesn't even have to be sharp or funny or aphoristic, though God knows these qualities are welcome. The only thing I can say with any confidence about good dialogue is that it smells of the writer: that it gives you as keen a sense of what somebody else is like as slipping into their old overcoat. So it's always strange.

What's strange about The Marrying of Ann Leete is that it treats conversational debris - interruptions, overlaps, repetitions, non sequiturs, pauses, statements which go unheard or fail to convey whatever they were meant to - as a source of poetry. Till then (1899), English stage-dialogue was clean and linear. Debris was filtered out except for mad scenes. Granville Barker's perception that inner chaos isn't confined to lunatics - that it has meaning, to which debris provides the key - began a tradition which runs through Beckett and Pinter and is currently on view, alive and well, in David Mamet's Oleanna.

Ann Leete opens on a summer night, an hour before sunrise. We're in a twilight world of half- and un- formed emotions: debris excels at atmosphere. It's sometimes clumsy with facts: the first 20 minutes or so are as hard to follow as any crossed telephone line, for the same reason: too much interference, too few clues.

But it's great at lies and ambiguities. Over a game of whist, a bet was placed that Ann - a girl of 20 - could venture to the bottom of the garden without uttering a scream. On the way, Lord John kissed her and the bet was lost. 'I barred toads' (ie, specifically excluded them from the wager) shows Tatton trying to wriggle out of paying up; 'it's better to be a sportsman' shows him losing gracefully. After such circularity, Ann's directness is all the more startling: 'He kissed me.' (A few lines on comes a dreamlike swoop into inner sensuousness. 'D'you think I'm blushing?' Ann asks her sister. 'I am by the feel of me.')

Caryl Churchill is another pioneer of unofficial English. The oblique strokes are her own invention, now much copied. Each marks an interruption by the next speaker: here, Lena and her ex-husband Colin cut across each other repeatedly. Over the page he'll knock her down. Then she'll knock him down.

Till then: 'Do you want something particular because this isn't a good time.' A uniquely late-20th- century form of debris is the handed-down, mass- market phrase, regurgitated at moments of stress. Hers are sarcastic: they sound picked up from her parents. 'You have that treat in store.' His are dead: 'I have the machine for my friends and business contacts . . .' This is real debris, culled from one of those brochures which fall out of the envelope along with your Visa card demand. It could only be spoken by a man in panic. Just in case Lena's stony echo, 'Business' (no submissive question-mark) hadn't tipped you off. Colin hasn't got a business. He hasn't even got an office. The Thatcher years he so approves of have destroyed him: he's a wreck.

Next week: Peripeteia

(Photograph omitted)