The Art of Theatre: 10 Games & Parties: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

RICHARD: We don't seem to be getting on with the game.

JUDITH: We haven't thought of a word yet.

MYRA: 'Brightly.'

SIMON: Too obvious.

MYRA: Very well - don't snap at me]

JUDITH: 'Saucily.' I've got a lovely idea for 'saucily'.

MYRA (To Simon): I should think 'rudely' would be the easiest . . .

SOREL (off): Hurry up]

JUDITH: Quickly now] We must think]

JACKIE (helpfully): 'Appendicitis.'

JUDITH (witheringly): That's not an adverb.

SIMON: You're thinking of charades.

HAY FEVER by Noel Coward, Act II

SID (. . .is silent, studying his soup plate, as if it were some strange enigma. Finally he looks up and regards his sister and asks with wondering amazement): Soup?

MRS MILLER: Of course it's soup. What did you think it was? And you hurry up and eat it.

SID (again regards his soup with astonishtment): Well] (then suddenly) Well, all right then] Soup be it] (He picks up his spoon and begins to eat, but after two tries in which he finds it difficult to locate his mouth, he addresses the spoon plaintively) Spoon, is this any way to treat a pal? (Then suddenly comically angry, putting the spoon down with a bang) Down with spoons] (He raises his soup plate and declaims) 'We'll drink to the dead already and hurrah for the next who dies.' (Bowing solemnly to right and left) Your good health, ladies and gents.

(He starts drinking the soup. MILLER guffaws and MILDRED and TOMMY giggle. Even RICHARD forgets his melancholy and snickers, and MRS MILLER conceals a smile. Only LILY remains stiff and silent).

MRS MILLER (with forced severity): Sid]. . .

SID (solemnly offended): Are you - publicly rebuking me before assembled? Isn't soup liquid? Aren't liquids drunk? (Then considering this to himself) What if they are drunk? It's a good man's failing.

AH WILDERNESS] by Eugene O'Neill, Act II

'ONE BEGINS with two people on a stage and one of them had better say something pretty damn quick,' said Moss Hart. Why? Why not one person talking to him- or herself?

Because, without a context, what we see on the stage is extraordinarily hard to judge. Are we watching a once-in- a-lifetime crisis? Or something the character goes through every day of the week? Is it acceptable behaviour, or does it breach a taboo? Is it normal or aberrant? We'll know soon enough, when we see how another character reacts. Till then, we're puzzled.

Introducing a familiar ritual into a play is a time- honoured method of providing instant context. What's 'wrong', 'correct, 'unexceptional', 'weird' becomes apparent at once. The ritual needn't be religious: parties do the trick. So do games. So do most of the things we do round tables: meals, seances, board-meetings. What matters is that the rules are fixed and clear enough for us to know when one of them is broken.

The Hay Fever parlour-game leaves us in no doubt whatsoever. 'Appendicitis' indeed] Moments later, the hosts are screaming at each other and storming out. It's in the nature of dramatic action that, 99 times out of 100, the ritual will break down and 'normality' will litter the ground like glass after a motorway pile-up.

Shakespeare provides innumerable examples. 'Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once,' Lady Macbeth exhorts her guests, after Banquo's spectre has ruined the banquet. They arrived (we assume) in precise hierarchical order: post-ghost, they beat it any old how. Timon of Athens has spent his life selflessly giving away his riches. Midway through the play, he holds a formal banquet - but the dishes contain only water. Soon he's throwing them round the room: a shattered ritual cues in his new role as misanthrope. Hamlet is a succession of disturbed rituals: a wedding-announcement spoiled by the Prince's depression, a play interrupted half-way through. Though, typically of this most ambiguous of plays, the rituals are mostly off-key to begin with: a funeral where the priest suggests that rocks be thrown at the coffin, a chivalric duel which is in fact a planned assassination.

The O'Neill excerpt shows Uncle Sid, supposedly sworn off the booze, reeling back to the Fourth of July family dinner drunk as a skunk. It links with O'Neill's most tragic obsessions - his morphine-addicted mother (Long Day's Journey), his beloved alcoholic brother (Moon for the Misbegotten) and his doomed self. But Ah Wilderness] - said O'Neill - shows his life not as it was, but as how he'd like it to have been.

Drunk Uncle Sid comes within an ace of destroying the ritual. Will it hold? Or will Lily's anger force them all to face the truth? Later - when Sid has gone - she'll speak her mind:

. . . everyone always laughing, everyone always saying what a card he is, what a case, what a caution, so funny - and he's gone on - and we're all responsible - making it easy for him - we're all to blame - and all we do is laugh]

But, for the moment, she stays silent. Sid's lapse is absorbed and forgiven by laughter, providing a rare dramatic example of a ritual being threatened and surviving, though only just.

Next week: Anagnorisis

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