SUBTLE: Thy worst. I fart at thee.
DOLL: Have you your wits? why, gentlemen] for love -
FACE: Sirrah. I'll strip you -
SUBTLE: What to do? lick figs out at my -
FACE: Rogue, rogue] -
THE ALCHEMIST by Ben Jonson, start of play
BARNARDO: Who's there?
FRANCISCO: Nay answer me. Stand and unfold
BARNARDO: Long live the King.
FRANCISCO: You come most carefully upon your hour.
BARNARDO: 'Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
BARNARDO: Have you had quiet guard?
FRANCISCO: Not a mouse stirring.
BARNARDO: Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make
HAMLET by William Shakespeare, start of play
NINETY-NINE per cent of the work, at the start of a play, is done by the people watching. They think as fast, and invent as busily, as children learning to talk. Hints are turned into clues, clues into symbols. If the lights go up on a chair, it becomes the most interesting chair ever made. Who does it belong to? Why is it empty? Or: who's that man sitting on it? Why isn't he standing? Is he too tired? Too important? What's he waiting for?
If the next thing to happen is that a door opens and somebody else walks in, there's no audience which doesn't want to know what these two people have got to do with each other, and which isn't at the same time busily inventing an answer. And they'll continue on this creative course till something stops them: the first sign of muddle, or a fearful compromise, or a lie. The art of writing plays is nothing to do with grabbing the audience's attention: it's the art of continuing to deserve it.
Having said all of which, few playwrights chance it. Most start off with a bang, if they can only think of one. Tom Stoppard begins Arcadia with an excellent joke:
THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef.
and we're in the mood before we know what's hit us. Gogol blows a starter's whistle: his mayor says 'Ladies and gentlemen, a Government Inspector is about to visit us' - and we're off] Terrific.
But the Ben Jonson excerpt feels strained. All that shouting, all that adrenalin going nowhere . . . and what are they fighting about? Jonson doesn't say, so I asked Sam Mendes, who directed the RSC's recent successful revival. He said he didn't think it mattered: that the point of this precipitate blow-up was to establish the hostility simmering inside the gang. (When playing the scene,
of course, you invent a reason.) But it was hard work
he added - to get the scene to 'settle', as it must, a page or two in.
Hamlet begins with a decisive bang - 'Who's there?' - and immediately becomes more Hamlet-like. The challenge comes not from the man on watch but from Barnardo, the man approaching. He's seen the ghost twice before, in exactly this place and at approximately this time of night, so it's no wonder he's jumpy. Francisco, who was meant to be keeping lookout, replies defensively: he's been badly caught out. That a dead king walks is an ominous fact which in this world of bad faith and deception gets revealed only to a trusted few. 'Have you had quiet guard?' is discreet fishing: for all Barnardo knows, Francisco might shriek 'Quiet? Are you kidding? I've just seen a ghost for God's sake]' But he's noticed nothing unusual, and Barnardo doesn't let him in on the secret.
'I am sick at heart.' The most startling thing - in a play where depression looms so large - is the fact that the only thing we know about a humble bit-part-player is that he, too, is depressed. Nobody asks him why: he's simply packed off to bed before he can make any awkward discoveries, and that's the last we see of him.
In terms of plot, he need never have existed. Nor - if you take that attitude - need the scene: it comes so early and plays so fast that in performance the details muzz into an impressionistic blur. If story were all that mattered,
the play could perfectly well start a page later. 'What, has this thing appeared again tonight?' The loss would be 'shadow', in a play where shadow is everything.
We've not yet met the prince. Opening scenes are spadework: the leading parts sit them out whenever they can. So Hamlet gets the Hollywood treatment: the eye- catching entrance 10 minutes in, once the interest's been drummed up by the supporting cast.
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