The Under Ground Writing Project

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The 'Sanctity' of Language

Posted by Jenny Maloney on May 5, 2013 at 8:15 AM

Imagine a stage.


Imagine whatever you’d like on it. Shitty apartments in the downtown of some nameless city. A bar with row upon row of liquor. A draughty castle with dragon scales littering the floor. An enchanted forest filled with fairies.


Now imagine an actor walking onto that stage. He (or she) wears an elaborate costume. A set of shining armor. A sexy negligee. A tutu with Keds. His hair is styled. His makeup is on. He looks like an ogre, or a prince, or a television preacher.


This actor opens his mouth and says words. Words that move you: the audience member. Words that inspire you, frighten you, amuse you. Perhaps he says these words with a Southern loll, or a Cockney twang, or a New York brawl.


The various arts that go into creating a single play are multitudinous. (There’s your SAT/ACT vocab word for the week.) I’m in the middle of participating in such a play at the moment and am currently surrounded by some truly creative people. It needs some tender, loving, creative focus to get pulled off correctly.


During rehearsal the other day, after several tedious repetitions of the same scene, one of the actors said that she wanted the person “on book” (that’s the person following along in the script and prompting whenever an actor spaces out a line) to be really nitpicky. If the actor said a word incorrectly, she wanted to know and know it immediately. Her reasoning was that she did not want to cement the wrong dialogue in her head. She said that writers like Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams just had to be done (emphasis mine) verbatim.


This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a proclamation declared in a theatre. Once I had a director who insisted we say every word as printed (emphasis mine again), because, she said, “I’m a language girl.”


While, as a writer, I appreciate the adherence to the playwright’s intention, I have one word for their belief in the sanctity of words:




As evidence that the language is not really all that sacred, I point to the Streetcar script. Tennessee Williams revised the play several times – and quite a bit in response to Marlon Brando’s performance. In the stage directions there are a lot of suggested dialogue pieces. Have an actor cry out here. Have her call him a jerk there. It’s scattered around like confetti.


Williams also changed whole lines around – sometimes it’s pretty obvious he was making a line easier, more natural, to say. There was one line I was tripping over, I just couldn’t get it right or make it sound like something a human being would say. I grabbed a later, revised version of the play and lo-and-behold: the line was significantly simpler and more natural. I would tell you what that line was, but I can’t remember the old line now.


Honestly, I think that Williams would have a hard time remembering whether he put a ‘that’ or an extra ‘but’ or a character’s name twice in a line of dialogue. He’d probably be really flattered that actors take the time to get every syllable correct, but I don’t think he would be able to call them out if they missed something.


In fact, I would bet a lot of money I don’t have that Williams put the important lines in triplicate (read the play – he totally does) because he anticipates some things getting away from the performers. Which is why Williams is a fantastic writer. He understands the potential pitfalls and uses the play structure to combat it – because it’s doubtful that an actor will forget the important information three times. Once, possibly. Three, probably not.


Don’t get me wrong. There are lines that you are not allowed to jack-up or fiddle with. For example, Lady Macbeth doesn’t get to say “Off damn spot.” And Blanche in Streetcar doesn’t get to say “I’ve always depended on the niceness of strangers.”


However, if the playwright is any good, the lines you shouldn’t jack-up are pretty obvious.


Most of the time it is not going to matter if you drop a “that” or call a “girl” a “gal.”


Even Shakespeare is not sacred. King Lear alone has three different versions. While we might want to say that the poetry of his language is the reason we love and admire Bill – and it is totally awesome – the poetry of his language has been twisted and turned and adjusted.


As writers, this might be distressing news. Our words don’t matter? Readers and actors can just interpret it however they want? That’s not really what I’m getting at.


I’m getting at the fact that, as writers, we have to make the heart of the story obvious. Tennessee Williams makes the heart of the story obvious by repeating things at least three times. William Shakespeare makes the heart of the story obvious by planting a dude alone on stage and spelling it out for the audience.


While I think that actors and readers should make every effort to use all the words in front of them (after all, I did freakin’ write those words), I don’t think worshipping the Exact Word is the best frame of mind. Who says the author was right? The author just started the thing.


Readers have to finish.




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1 Comment

Reply Debbie Meldrum
12:10 PM on May 7, 2013 
This reminds me of a scene late in the movie Stage Door. Katharine Hepburn's character delivers a short monologue in a play. Offstage two men involved in the play are watching. Could be the director and playwright or the stage manager and a producer. No matter. One man says "Those are not the lines." The other responds, "No, but it's the mood."

Maybe once you understand the mood, or the subtext, you don't need to worry so much about the text.