When I began writing for performance in 1972 I was keen to avoid the rhythms and cadences of so-called ‘naturalistic speech’. I noticed that in most plays the characters would talk to each other a few lines at a time and that they would often articulate insights into their situation quite at odds with their character, as if the playwright wanted to say important things yet was not able to make speech show rather than tell. The idea that, in theatre, only speech can show or tell reflects, of course, the novelistic model that informs much British theatre. The latter, in turn, can often be characterised as ‘radio theatre’ insofar as it it is not essential to be able to see what is being performed.
I determined that, since I was not concerned to reproduce the appearances of everyday life, it would be silly to attempt to simulate ‘the way people talked’. I decided that my ‘characters’ would only be allowed one line at a time. Sometimes speeches of an unlikely length would be permitted (see, for example, ‘Natural Born Lear‘). Nothing in between. The characters should not, furthermore, be articulate. Unless the non-credibility of their articulateness could be used in a way that constructively heightened the artificiality of the occasion.
I further felt that live theatre, of whatever persuasion, is a strange and unnatural affair and that language for theatre should somehow reflect that strangeness.
I have maintained this approach for 35 years. In the course of writing the full-length ‘Vanity Play’ (2006), I noticed that a small number of speeches (no more than five) of medium length had been given to certain ‘characters’. This was an indulgence and I have no desire to extend it beyond the current project. I would like to assure those who like my work that this is not the thin end of a wedge. If anything I find that I want to write increasingly fragmented and nonconsequential work. I have written of this aspiration elsewhere on the site.
In the delicious playlet ‘Popeye‘ the constraints outlined above and their underlying aesthetic principles are rigidly observed. Well, quite rigidly.
The characters in the playlet all derive from counterparts in the original. I can’t remember the plot elements I was appropriating but the text seems to read well enough without having to know who was who and what they did.
On reflection I can see that the previous paragraph is truculent so I will do some research (this research was not carried out – Ed. 2019) that will enable me to relate all the delicious playlets as closely as possible to their sources. I haven’t got time to do that today.