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Take My Word!

A Playwright's Fictional Character Raises a Question

March 04, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

We've all heard authors of fiction say that once their characters are created, they seem to take on a life of their own, and sometimes a novel or play will turn out not at all as the author had originally intended. Recently, I was given a small example of that phenomenon.

Because I've been writing mostly about words for many years and am known to be surrounded by dictionaries, friends occasionally call to ask me about points of language. Ruth Phillips called a couple of weeks ago. I've known Ruth for almost 30 years. Back when we met, she was a very talented young actress. Three decades later, we reluctantly admit that we are no longer quite so young, and some changes have been wrought. While she is still a talented actress, Ruth has shone more brightly in recent years as a remarkably talented playwright. In 1984, her play "Emily and Kate" won the Julie Harris Playwright Award, given by the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild, and another of her plays, "Four Women," won the Maude Adams Award at Stephens College, in Columbia, Mo. I came home one day to find a message from Ruth on my answering machine: "Tom, it's Ruth. What are the toolies , like in the expression, 'I've been out in the toolies'? I can't find it in my dictionary. Help!"

I hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about, never having heard of a toolie or the expression "out in the toolies." Before calling her back, I looked up toolies . Couldn't find it. I had a vague recollection of having seen the word tule somewhere, so I looked that up and hit pay dirt. Depending on which dictionary you go to, you'll find it pronounced "toolie," "toolay" or "toola." It's an American bulrush, especially abundant in California and Mexico. If Moses had been a Californian, Pharaoh's daughter might have found him in the tules, and we wouldn't have the gag about old Pharaoh telling his daughter, "Hoo-ee! That is one ugly child!" and Pharaoh's daughter replying, "That's strange. He looked great in the rushes!" "He looked great in the toolies" doesn't work.

I found not only tule , but tule beetle, tule fog, tule goose, tule mint, tule perch, tule potato and tule wren . I called Ruth back and told her about all the toolies and that the word was spelled "tules," and I said, "Why did you ask?" "I'm writing a new play," she said, "and I have this woman who says, 'I've been out in the tules.' " I was a bit puzzled. "What do you mean she says she's been out in the tules. Who decides what she says, you or she?" "Well, I do, but that's the way she talks. I mean, I've heard the expression, but I don't know what it means. This woman just talks that way."

I was reminded of Unamuno's fascinating novel, "Mist," where the protagonist, Perez, is about to commit suicide. Unamuno tells him he won't let him do that, and Perez tells Unamuno he has no voice in the matter. When Unamuno protests that Perez is merely a fiction of his--Unamuno's--imagination, and that what he does and does not do is entirely at the whim of Unamuno, Perez makes the trip to Unamuno's office in Salamanca to argue with him. Perez makes the point that the fictional character is more real than the author. As I recall (it's been about 40 years since I read "Mist"), Perez argues that Don Quixote is much more real than Cervantes, and that Perez is more real than Unamuno, and they have quite a go-round about who is the fiction and who the reality. Ultimately, Perez kills himself--against Unamuno's wishes--by gorging himself to death on a rich, gargantuan banquet, which he consumes all alone.

If Ruth's creation, her make-believe character, wants to say she's been out in the tules, it isn't particularly surprising that Ruth goes along with it, even though she doesn't know what tules are. Unamuno's Perez had a point. Let's face it: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Romeo, Juliet, Miranda, Portia, Shylock, Falstaff and all the rest of those incredibly credible characters do, indeed, have a far more real existence than William Shakespeare. We don't even know for certain that Shakespeare had anything to do with them. But as long as there are human beings who can read English, King Richard will offer his kingdom for a horse.

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