Sunday, August 16, 2009

Play on Words

Here’s a wrap-up of my weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, some thoughts on the plays we saw, and what I learned about my own writing and the craft.

All plays are about words, but some more than others.

It was perhaps a coincidence that the four plays we saw — The Three Sisters, The Importance of Being Earnest, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Bartholomew Fair — are less about plot than they are about the characters and their verbal exchanges. The spoken — and the unspoken — dialogue matters as much if not more than the action, and the evolution of the characters is portrayed in what they say and how they say it. Indeed, the plot of Cyrano de Bergerac — a handsome but tongue-tied soldier employs the words of the eloquent but proboscis-challenged Cyrano to woe his love — is all tied up in how language works and the perception of what it means. And even in plays with twists and turns and convolutions of the storyline such as Bartholomew Fair where the names of the characters — Littlewit, Winwife, Quarlous — tell us what they are, their games of language and wordplay make the plot — Puritans and rogues meet up at a county fair and fun and thievery ensue — secondary to the fun and revelry. By the way, if you need an introduction to the language of the Elizabethan era and find Shakespeare daunting, Ben Jonson is a wonderful primer.

It goes without saying that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is nothing without his words and wit. It’s not called a “verbal opera” for nothing. The plot revolves around words, the title is the lead-up to the last line of the play — it’s the only three-act shaggy dog story I know of — and the entire premise of Wilde’s mocking of society is built on the language and the fashioning of it. (He left it to his contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, to write a play, Pygmalion, about the difference between the classes as defined by the way people speak.)

I’ve never been a student of Russian literature, and I can neither speak it nor write it. But if my reading of Dostoevsky in high school and my attempt to get through War and Peace is any guide, it is a language that is heavy with history, story-telling, metaphors, and allegory. Chekhov’s plays are layered with meaning, and I imagine that translating his works to English is a daunting task. Lanford Wilson once undertook a translation of The Three Sisters and he said he used to come home from his Berlitz classes with pounding headaches at the complexities of the verb tenses and syntax, not to mention learning the Cyrillic alphabet. But it doesn’t make it impenetrable, and there is wit and grace in Chekhov’s dialogue, not just in the spoken word, but also what he leaves unsaid by his word choices, and the tiny little moments that convey great import without being ponderous. Chekhov remembered these little moments — in a letter to Olga Knipper in 1903 he wrote, “What torture it is to cut the nails on your right hand!” — and I can think of few playwrights who would think of such a thing and marvel at it. (Pinter tried, but I don’t think he succeeded as well.)

Words on a page are just that, though; it takes skill and craft to bring them up to the stage and deliver the message. Playwrights view the script the same way a composer sees a score or an architect sees a blueprint: two dimensional without the collaboration of others, and the trust that they give their child to go out into the world on its own is tenuous. The performances at Stratford rarely fail to meet or exceed the expectations, and I think that’s because they truly do honor the work of the playwright as much as they do the efforts of the rest of the company. The performances we saw this weekend were all exemplary, hardly a false note in the bunch, and they were tackling some hard works. As I noted previously, Chekhov and Wilde require the same deft touch; even a raucous comedy like Earnest can turn heavy and grotesque. There are those who would say that casting Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell pushes the limit, but he’s following in the footsteps of legend — William Hutt did it at Stratford in the 1970’s — but it is a role that is less about Lady Bracknell’s gender than it is about what she represents: “We live in a world of surfaces.” Colm Feore gave Cyrano de Bergerac the perfect touch; he played him as an unattractive man in both appearance and manner so that you had to listen to his worlds to realize what charm, delicacy, and “panache” was underneath the exterior.

The other night during The Three Sisters, my mother nudged me with her elbow and whispered, “Wake up!” That was because I had my eyes closed. But I wasn’t asleep; far from it. There was a point in the play where I could listen better with my eyes closed, and sometimes the words mean more when that’s all you have.