The Art of Theatre: 19 Pauses: NICHOLAS WRIGHT'S MASTERCLASS

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ORSINO: . . . Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia.

VIOLA: Ay, but I know -

ORSINO: What dost thou know?

VIOLA: Too well what love women to man may owe.

In faith, they are as true of heart as we.

My father had a daughter loved a man

As it might be perhaps, were I a woman,

I should your lordship.


by William Shakespeare, Act 2 Scene 4

McCANN: Do you mind sitting down?

STANLEY: Yes, I do mind.

McCANN: Yes now, but - it'd be better if you did.

STANLEY: Why don't you sit down?

McCANN: No, not me - you.

STANLEY: No thanks.


McCANN: Nat.


McCANN: He won't sit down.

GOLDBERG: Well, ask him.

McCANN: I've asked him.

GOLDBERG: Ask him again.

McCANN: (to STANLEY) Sit down.


McCANN: You'd be more comfortable.

STANLEY: So would you.


McCANN: All right. If you will, I will.

STANLEY: You first.

McCANN slowly sits at the table, left.

McCANN: Well?

STANLEY: Right. Now you've both had a rest you can get out]

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY by Harold Pinter, Act 2

PAUSES aren't holes in the action: they're packed with incident. Nor are they 'thinking time'. And they certainly aren't breakdowns in communication: once the ambiguities of speech have been stripped away, what's happening between the characters is more starkly revealed than ever.

In the quiet, what's just been said echoes like the tick of a clock which has just run down. 'What dost thou know?' What Viola knows is the truth about love. But she can't let on. She's disguised as a boy.

To appreciate what follows, you need to know a small but important fact about Jacobethan verse. Each line is made up of five blocks - 'feet' - each of which contains two syllables, the second of which is stressed. 'My father had a daughter loved a man'. When the line is less regular than this, it creates a counterpoint which - in Shakespeare's hands - has emotional truth. To ignore this is to wreck the writing.

'Ay, but I know' completes the previous line. 'What dost thou know?' is incomplete: three feet are missing. They can't be made up from the following line, which is of regular length. They can only be made up by a pause.

It's quickly filled. Viola's reply is a cover-up which is also a confession: she's in love with Orsino. By contradicting him so vehemently, she's caught his attention: he's watching, waiting. Later in the play, when he finds out that she's really a girl, he'll propose at once, his only proviso being that she put a dress on. Even now - in this dangerous, earlier scene - attraction is in the air. It's no wonder a moment passes before Viola answers.

During the first of The Birthday Party pauses, the penny drops. What is McCann to do? He can't force Stanley down on to the chair: the rules (it seems) forbid it. Besides: to abandon nuance is to lose the game. Pause two sees a thoughtful, craftier McCann confronting a stronger Stanley. The man who comes out of the pause is never quite the same as the one who went into it.

'They're transitive,' says Nick Woodeson, who plays McCann in a forthcoming revival, of these two Pinter pauses. The passage transforms the action too: without it, the rituals and routines which follow wouldn't be called for. Stanley would follow his captors meekly out of the door on to the windswept esplanade, and The Birthday Party would be a celebrated one-act play.

The 'beat' is the pause's dwarfish cousin. This modern device consists of an emotionless mini-pause inserted to make the writing seem better than it is, or to get a laugh. Ignore it. The stage direction 'Silence' means something different again: that the action stops. The tissue of reality becomes transparent: chill emptiness is revealed. Coriolanus, in a real Shakespearian stage-direction, holds 'his mother by the hand, silent'. The tradition continues through to Beckett and Pinter.

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