Friday, August 26, 2011

For heaven’s sake cut out the cross-talk vaudeville stuff! - the mysteries of great dialogue

‘A note for you, sir.’

‘A note for me, Jeeves?’

‘A note for you, sir.’

‘From whom, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

‘From whom, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

‘From Miss Bassett, Jeeves?’

‘From Miss Bassett, sir.’

At this point, Aunt Dahlia, who had taken one nibble at her whatever-it-was-on-toast and laid it down, begged us – a little fretfully, I thought – for heaven’s sake to cut out the cross-talk vaudeville stuff, as she had enough to bear already without having to listen to us do our imitation of the Two Macs.

A long quote, but P. G. Wodehouse is easy on the old brainpan.  Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934, Ch. 20.  Were the Two Macs an act or a bit?  I am wandering back to the subject of dialogue, of speech.

We are awash in imagined talk.  Television and screen writing is mostly talk, although the finished product may well be mostly something else.  First person novels are often simulations of speech, strangely unending one-sided conversations.  Plays are often nothing but speech.   If I complain that Middlemarch has too much dialogue, when in another sense it has little, what can I make of Uncle Vanya or Glengarry Glen Ross?

Great talk in a great play by a great writer – there is a wonderful mystery.  The author must successfully imagine and differentiate the speech of his characters, yet somehow maintain a consistent voice.  Iago sounds like Iago and Othello like Othello, yet both sound like Shakespeare.  A good trick.

One solution to the puzzle is that great dialogue writers abandon the notion that speech should be smooth or realistic or natural.  Great dialogue is so often mannered, eccentric, labored, even bizarre.    Meine Frau discovered the complete Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984) online.  Start anywhere  - start at the beginning (warning: one may stumble across a bit of profanity here and there):

LEVENE:  John...John...John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:


And pretty soon the Mametian cross-talk vaudeville gets going, clumsy and weird and obviously, just looking at the page, unactable.  The amazing thing is how quickly a reader or listener can be lulled into the pleasant fantasy that this strange talk is in fact realistic and smooth and so on.


ROMA:  They're inured to it.

AARONOW:  You think so?

ROMA:  Yes.

The playwright has the enormous advantage of professional actors who can do all sorts of surprising things with even the flattest dialogue.  I wish you could hear what David Pasquesi did with the word “inured” in the 2002 Steppenwolf production; he made it sound like it he had just learned it, like it had just turned up on his word-a-day calendar and he was testing it out.  The fiction writer is stuck with the sleepy and unimaginative reader.  I do my best with Uncle Vanya, but the actors in Vanya on 42nd Street do better.

Still, what am I doing with fiction that I am not doing with a play?  I imagine voices, clothes, rooms, movement.  Or I omit much of this – I leave the background and blocking just as gray and blurry as the author typically does.  But I cannot omit the voices, can I?  I always have to work with the author on those voices. I have to be the actor, I have to play Darcy and Elizabeth and Heathcliff and Dorothea Brooke and, I don’t know, Papa Moomintroll and young Laura Ingalls and both Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.  What a fine challenge for an actor.  What a mystery.


  1. I love what Wodehouse does with that passage. He gives us the cross-talk, and then Aunt Dahlia's line, which has much more content relatively speaking, he doesn't give us. Of course, he does, because Bertie surely has the closest of paraphrases, but it's not in the actual dialogue. Wodehouse only bothers with dialogue when it's the silly stuff.

    Okay, maybe not "only."

  2. The choice of directly vs. indirectly reported speech - that's one of my puzzles with weaker passages in Trollope et. al. Why did we need the word-by-word of that exchange; why not "she told him that..."?

    As you note here, it is not at all an issue of content.

    Camus has this funny trick in The Stranger where the narrator typically gives the "actual" words of everyone else, but never gives his own.

  3. I liked the description of how the actor delivered the word "inured."

    What always strikes me when I reread an Austen, especially after a batch of Victorian novels is how much dialogue Austen uses and it often carries the story along w/o a lot of narrator help.

  4. That "inured" was one of a long string of fine touches in that production. It was as good as, and quite different than, the movie.

    Wodehouse was, of course, a true disciple of Austen. Mrs. Norris, Sir Walter Elliot, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, characters who we really only know through their speech - Wodehouse absorbed them into his own world.

  5. Ibsen had the following to say about Tolstoy's play "The Power of Darkness":

    "I have no doubt that, carefully and respectfully performed, it must make a considerable effect on stage. Nevertheless, it seems to me thatthe author does not possess a complete insight into dramatic technique. The play contains conversations rather than scenes, and the dialogue strikes me in places as epic rather than dramatic..."
    [From Michael Meyer's biography of Ibsen]

    Sadly, there is no record (that I know of, at least) of Ibsen explaining what precisely is the difference between "conversations" and "scenes", or between dialogue that is "dramatic" and dialogue that is "epic". We may, of course, try to figure that out from close reading of Ibsen's own plays, but whatever ibsen may have meant, he clearly felt that dramatic writing is somehow fundamentally *different* from narrative writing.

    One major difference between drama and narrative is, of course, that a narrator can take us into the characters' minds. So, even if the character's speech does not reflect what the character thinks - either because the character is not sufficiently articulate, or because the character intends to deceive, or because the character does not fully understand his or her own self - the writer may communicate this, either by going directly into this character's mind, or by going into the mind of someone else who is observing this character. In drama, however, we are restricted only to what a character says and does, and that does surely does require writing of a different sort.

    When Ibsen's plays were first performed in English (in William Archer's translations), they made a huge impact. Amongst those who attended the first performance in English of "The Master Builder" were Thomas Hardy, GBS, and Henry James. James was a great admirer of Ibsen, and tried his hand (with notorious lack of success) with drama. After his failure, he attempted, I think, to write a novel in essentially dramatic form: "The Awkward Age" is narrated almost entirely as a series of conversations, with a minimum of narrative prose in between. And it is for this reason that I find this book unreadable: I have never got beyond the first hundred pages. Whatever it is that is required for dramatic writing, James did not have it. He was a complete master of the prose narrative, of course, but clearly, drama required a completely different technique.

    Conrad, too, wrote a piece effectively as a drama: it is a short story called "Tomorrow". Not surprisingly, it is not amongst Conrad's best work.

    Some day, I must try to work out just what it is that distinguishes narrative writing from drama - what the difference is between "conversations" and "scenes". I must admit that I haven't come close to working it out yet.

  6. I'm curious, too, about what Ibsen means, besides "I know it when I see it."

    It's funny that you use James as your example. Meine Frau, discussing this issue, found some passages in The Ambassadors, some conversations, that really were dramatic, sparkling, etc., that were comparable to Wilde. Wow, James is so good with conversation! Then she showed me passages in the same novel where the conversations were absolutely dead, dry, dull, just like you found in The Awkward Age. Amazing - could James not see the difference, whatever that difference is? I should confess that I barely know James.

    That difference between plain conversation and a real scene is a mystery. I know it has nothing to do with "realism," that great dialogue scenes are often pretty artificial. Writers get in trouble trying to make their dialogue "real." Real can be awfully dull.

    Thanks for the insightful comment.

  7. I think the main difference between a novel and a play is that a play is essentially social. It's experienced by a group of people, in one room, all at once. And the language is heard, rather than read. And you learn the particular problems of stagecraft from logging in stage time (which, unfortunately, I've had a lot of, which is why I'm piping up here).

    One basic example is the pointing of dialogue: you put the word that triggers laughter, applause, or the desire to hear the next line, at the end of a line, so that it can work most directly. You don't need to do that on the printed page, and, in fact, it often reads as stilted or abrupt. But when you're addressing a group of people, from second to second, it works differently.

    There are also techniques of suspense, audience sympathy, timing, concision, conflict, and so on, but all hinging on that need to keep a group of people engaged in real-time. I do think that all of that makes drama more suitable for some subjects than for others.

    Anyway, cheers, and blog forward...

  8. Doug, thanks. The only point I would add is that a novelist can borrow those stage dialogue techniques for his more dramatic "performative" scenes, as in those good James dialogues, scenes where the characters are acting and the savvy reader can read the dialogue as if it is being acted.

    I guess. I think I mean what I just wrote, and wrote what I mean. A subject for future research, at least.

  9. That does sound fascinating. I haven't read much James; I'll have to take a look.

    I suppose I should add that I'm no fan of those theatrical techniques. The bag of tricks is shopworn; I don't find the "well-made play" much fun. And the need to appeal, every second, to a crowd cramps everything. I often prefer unrealistic dialogue -- like in Roussel's plays, where people simply tell each other stories.

    It's funny stuff, dialogue.