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Stage : Wanted: A Return to a Theater of Eloquence

March 20, 1988|STEVEN DIETZ | Dietz is a Minneapolis-based playwright. His "Foolin' Around With Infinity" was seen at the Los Angeles Theatre Center last season

Language wants back in.

I recently heard a line in a Deborah Pryor play that was so provocative and prompted so many personal associations in me that I entirely missed the next five minutes of the play.

The School for Well-Made Plays (I'm sure there's a branch in your city), which believes in sublimating all language in favor of "through-line," would require Ms. Pryor to cut the line immediately.

This school would excise the line because it "took me out of the play." On the contrary, the line brought me to the play's second level . It drove the experience of the play past my eyes and ears and into my mind. What are we about, if not that?

Language wants back in. The question is: are we ready for it? Reopening the door will not be easy. There will be rebirthing pains, for eloquence is dangerous. Eloquence requires vision on the part of playwrights, courage on the part of actors and faith on the part of directors. There will most certainly be troubled conversations and awkward silences. And it will be worth it.

Of course, eloquence never really went away. Playwrights working under the Well-Made Play regime learned to go underground.

They camouflaged their articulate impulses. They learned that inserting a simple "I guess" at the beginning of an eloquent sentence or an innocuous "Don't you think?" at the end of one often convinced their director or dramaturge that the line was, in fact, realistic and conversational--and therefore belonged in the scene.

They learned to strip their characters of all self-awareness. They stayed up late concocting psychological motivations for impulsive monologues. They learned that a playwright must never, ever, under any circumstances, write a line that sounds like a theme . (This was a capital offense in many developmental circles.)

Well, a coup is brewing.

Playwrights are realizing that it is not only their wish, but their responsibility, to say what they think about the world. It is time, once again, to orchestrate ideas--not simply document behavior. It is time for theme lines to fight their way back in.

The plays we honor as masterpieces are built on these lines. It is time to honor self-awareness, or more importantly, the active quest for self-awareness on the part of characters. The characters we honor as legendary are obsessed with this quest.

It is time to honor eloquence, poetry and storytelling, and it is time to recognize that verbal does not mean didactic.

Watching a recent production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," I realized that "Cat" is just "Dynasty" with poetry. It contains all the elements we've come to associate with soap opera (infidelity, sterility, alcoholism, homosexuality), but Tennessee Williams' impeccable language lifts the play from character traits to human issues.

It is fragile, powerful and contradictory, and is born of a time when theatrical eloquence was expected. There is no greater rush than that moment when, through language, the audience perceives both character and playwright coming to an insight simultaneously. Let's stop making artists pen conversation. Let's stop burying playwrights before they're dead.

The playwright's collaborators will, obviously, be integral to this process.

The Actors' Role

First, actors. Actors are, to my mind, the wisest people in the theater. They live the play while we playwrights and directors are off to the next city. Actors know they must be both private and public. They must please themselves and, at the same time, please their directors. They must serve both their personal artistic spirits and the grand scheme of the play.

Actors in the Age of Psychological Realism have been forced to bring 95% eloquent subtext (I need this woman. I need her care and compassion. I need to hand her my future.") to 5% of text ("Hey, Wilma, nice dress.")

As we've stripped language from playwrights, we've passed the buck to the actor. We've forced them to make art of conversation. Now, when handed a play of language, they must learn to trust the 95% eloquence of the text and let the remaining 5% of subtext inform, not conspire against the language. They must let the language affect us, not their attempt to improve it, emote it, overwhelm it or comment on it. The precise reason Ms. Pryor's line affected me so profoundly was that the actress said it like she owned it.

We must embolden actors to be limited only by their imaginations, not by their personalities. They must attack the questions and revel in the contradictions. They must enjoy surprise and despise transition.

They must, as Brecht said, "guard against playing one thing out of another instead of one thing after another." Otherwise, the sheer velocity of language will leave them in the dust at the side of the road, holding their psychological suitcases.

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