Tom Sutcliffe: Characters in search of the title

The week in culture

Share
Related Topics

Anyone who's ever done a jigsaw or a crossword will know that there's an odd psychological moment when you finally work out a difficult clue or place the last piece. What you experience is simultaneous gratification and disappointment – not one and then the other exactly, but both at the same time. I think it has something to do with the paradox of such puzzles – which is that all your work is directed to extinguishing the very quality that gives them allure. Naturally you're pleased to have found a solution – and the brain will deliver its little kick of endorphin, or whatever other chemical it is that makes these things so addictive. But you're also aware that you've just killed off what had you fascinated in the first place. Was it all for that, you think. Like a fish lifted out of water, once the elusiveness has gone the shine goes too. And I think that feeling has a distant kind of kinship with the odd feeling you get when a play title appears in the play itself.

There's a nice Family Guy gag about the spurious jolt this can deliver. Peter, the flabby father figure, is trying to calibrate his exhilaration about something that has just happened. "I usually only get this excited", he says, "when they say the title of the movie in the movie". The image then cuts to him in an auditorium, yelping delightedly as Jack Nicholson says "What if this is as good as it gets?" in – well, you hardly need me to tell you, do you? This is instantly followed by another example: "The only way for me to solve this crisis", says an urgent voice on screen, "is to be Superman IV – the Quest for Peace", after which you hear Peter's thoughts: "Oh that's why they call it that". It's a joke both about his simplicity as a viewer, and about the unwritten rules of how such moments work.

One of those unwritten rules is that the title itself should be an unplaced jigsaw piece, an intriguing shape whose connections to the work as a whole aren't entirely clear. Take All My Sons, for example, Arthur Miller's 1947 play about a military contractor who knowingly shipped faulty aircraft parts, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. This isn't one of those titles that offers a kind of synopsis for the play (such as Death of a Salesman) or that gives you a suggestive hint as to how to interpret it (such as The Crucible). It just establishes a mild mystery. Who are the sons and why all of them? And what longer sentence would make sense of this verbal fragment? Then, in the final scene, Joe speaks those words aloud and the mystery is resolved. And it is – these days – a moment that carries with it a faint awkwardness. It's as if those words have been highlighted or underlined. This was what you were waiting for, they say, this is what the play means.

It's why, I take it, such moments tend to come late in the play, though Shakespeare does it in Act Four of All's Well That Ends Well, and Lucy Kirkwood – a relatively rare contemporary example of the phenomenon, did it even earlier in her play it felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now – presumably because she had to account for that unwieldy title as early as possible. It's also, I take it, why contemporary examples are rare. The device hints at a slightly old-fashioned notion of theatrical significance – in which a play was gravid with a meaning which it would eventually lay like an egg in front of you.

The hazard is nicely toyed with in another famous example. "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality", says Lady Bracknell in the penultimate line of Oscar Wilde's best-known play. "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," replies Jack in the last line, "I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest". Wilde could afford to have people think that his title was a punchline and the play itself the shaggy dog story that led up to it. Most writers can't.

Contemporary art gets its gossip girl

I'm not an expert on Heat magazine but I take it that their recent coverage of Marc Quinn's current exhibition at White Cube gallery doesn't represent a developing interest in the field of contemporary art. Sandwiched between "Look of the Week" on body-con skirts and a picture story on Kanye's LA crib, you can find "Metal Pammy Double Whammy" – a touch sprightlier than the headlines you generally encounter in Art Monthly. The piece refers to Quinn's bronze sculpture of Pamela Anderson, depicted life-size in a bikini and twinned with herself. If they'd only mentioned that Michael Jackson features in the exhibition as well, they might have persuaded some of Heat's regular readers to actually visit the show, thus considerably enriching the gallery's demographic. I think it represents an interesting challenge for gallery publicists. Can anyone do better in reaching the places that most contemporary art doesn't reach? Let's have some ambition. Who's going to be first to crack Top Gear magazine and Angler's Mail?

Nike taps into the beautiful game

Not all the critics cared for Alejandro González Iñárritu's new film Biutiful, which has just been unveiled at Cannes. But it's hard to imagine that many people will be bored by his other recent release – Write the Future. It's a three-minute long Nike ad that taps into the mounting anticipation of the World Cup, and it's a little masterpiece of densely compressed storytelling. The conceit is that any given moment on the pitch can give rise to one of two alternative futures. As a Didier Drogba shot appears to float inexorably towards goal you cut to the imagined reaction, with fireworks in the sky over an African city. Then an Italian defender blocks it an inch from the line with a lunging over-the-head kick, and African joy is instantly replaced by a jubilant Italian variety show, which has already incorporated the move into a cheesy dance routine. It's possible that not everyone feels the same way, but I thought it captured the tension and hope of the contest so perfectly that we can now dispense with the long version.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam