The importance of being a play with a really good title

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The Independent Online
YEARS ago, when I lived in London, I knew a writer called Gordon Williams who used to go to work every day in an office he had rented in Oxford Street. He had once shared the premises with another writer, a young man fresh up from Bristol, who was secretively at work on a play. One day the temptation to look at the play overcame Gordon (I think I have got this right, and even if I haven't, it's a good story) and he sat down to read the playscript. The young man came in and caught Gordon reading it.

'What do you think?' he asked.

'It's coming along nicely,' said Gordon, 'but you've got to do something about the terrible title. I mean, who would ever go and see a play called Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead?'

Yes, dear reader, that young man was Tom Stoppard, etc, etc, but I have to say that Gordon had a point. It isn't that great a title. One reason that it is not a very good title is that it should be called Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, but it can't be, because there is already a play called that, by another well-known writer, namely WS Gilbert. Another reason it is not a very good title is that it doesn't lend itself to a handy abbreviation, beloved of those ticket agencies in London who talk about Phantom and Les Mis and so on. Would you like to see a blackboard on which was written 'Two tickets for Rosie tonight]'? I think not.

That this problem is still alive and well was borne out by recent experiences in Edinburgh, where I found myself interviewing the ingenious creators of a show called Stop Calling me Vernon. Literal-minded members of the audience were worried by the fact that the name Vernon never enters the play and therefore the title is totally irrelevant. That didn't bother me. What bothered me was what to abbreviate the title to, and I eventually settled for Vernon, which I was pleased to discover was what the two creators called it as well.

I was totally baffled, however, by the one official Festival event I managed to get to this year. It was a play by the German dramatist Peter Handke, called The Hour We Know Nothing Of Each Other, and I suppose you could say that it was translated from the German, except that as there was no dialogue there was nothing to translate except the title. For an hour-and-a-half a lot of actors criss-crossed on the stage, doing lots of very significant and insignificant things - from rushing out of doorways clutching rifles to skateboarding.

Reaction to the play varied enormously. The Scotsman reviewer thought it was magical and wonderful. The (Glasgow) Herald reviewer thought that sitting in an airport terminal for an hour, watching the passers-by, would be a lot more fun. My own feelings were closer to the Herald's than the Scotsman's, on the grounds that I thought that The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other was mildly amusing for 10 minutes and a load of pretentious tosh thereafter. But if I have one really harsh criticism, it is of the title. The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other. What sort of a title is that? And what do you abbreviate it to?

Well, as it turns out, it is a title very like the original title in German, which was Die Stunde Da Wir Nichts Voneinander Wussten or, as you might say in English, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other. In other words, a really duff title and not unsuitable for a duff play. I really think that if you are going to write a play and get it put on, you must have a friendly title which translates and abbreviates easily.

There are two possible solutions. Change the play or change the title. Odder things have happened. In Edinburgh on the Fringe there were several productions of Sartre's play entitled Huis Clos. None was actually entitled Huis Clos, of course. The title was always translated as No Way Out. Fair enough, except that when the play was first written and translated, 40 years ago and more, the title was always In Camera. That was fair enough, too. 'Huis Clos' is the French legal phrase for 'In Camera'. But somebody must have felt that nobody in England these days knew what 'In Camera' meant, and that it was safer to get across the idea of an enclosed, claustrophobic space by using the title No Way Out. In 20 years' time, maybe, it will be called Sorry, No Exit. And maybe in 20 years' time Peter Handke's play will be called Not as Much Fun as An Airport Terminal.