The following is an excerpt from “Unspeakable: Speech Onstage,” which appears in Dan O’Brien’s new book, A Story That Happens (CB Editions, April 2021).
I stood in a mansion beside an old poet who sat in a chair like a throne. You know the place. We were waiting for the dinner gong; writers were drinking wine. He was a formidable and forbidding figure in most ways. We’d dined near each other along the interminable communal table many evenings that month, but I hadn’t yet found the courage. It could have been the wine but I said, “You teach at this school. I went to this same school. Do you happen to know this writer I know?” He fixed me in a sidelong squint: “Quit bugging me, man.”
I was speechless. The Supreme Playwright might well have written “awkward pause,” or a Pinteresque “silence,” in the script of our minuscule drama. The unspeakable yawned between us as I exited the mansion without dinner, pursued by my shame.
What makes a play play?
Other ways of writing can tell stories of struggle and change like prose; are stirring and linguistically pleasurable like poetry. Ask any actor—ask Hamlet and he’ll tell you: What makes a play playable is speaking the speech.
And not “a speech” necessarily but words as they are spoken: fractured and failing yet striving and flailing toward the mouth’s translation of the heart’s tongue.
As I once heard Terrence McNally explain, when we write speech we are really writing behavior. For what we say is arguably the most conspicuous thing we do. And what we do as playwrights is fashion words for a myopic medium. Film and television, theatre’s well-compensated cousins, communicate in close-ups on screens as big as houses, or discreet like decks of cards that we hold to our faces in bed at night: every twitch and flicker of mind made transparent. Onstage the most charismatic actor stands only about three hands high, or peanut-sized, depending on what we’ve paid for our seats. We see plays primarily with our ears.
To write a play is to write literally what is said. Writing what-is-done is at best presumptuous and, in the worst cases, cinematic. Acting notes in a script are insulting; parenthetically describing your characters’ inner lives is uncouth if not verboten. Stage directions should be written modestly and with regret. (Entrances and exits, kissing and killing excepted.)
When I am writing well I don’t envision my plays so much as overhear them. I read the words on the page, but I try not to. I don’t stage my plays in my mind except vaguely, as if in shapes and colors, movement and dimension. Because the theatre is that most practical of magics, words must reach the rear of the balcony where the face of the actor has become a blur.
So playwrights listen. It is a cliché of our craft: We imagine we are taking dictation. The better we know our characters then the clearer we will hear them speak. We find ourselves distracted and intrigued by what they say—what it is they have to say.
Conversation isn’t dialogue, though. It is a beginning. It is a beginner’s exercise to transcribe a meal with friends; assuredly as a performance it will bore. If your meal has been extraordinary—a breakup or a seduction—enacting its transcription will still probably produce a scene that’s redundant and malformed, both underdeveloped and overelaborate.
By contrast, speech onstage is compressed and precise. Each line, theoretically each phrase or word, reveals something new, increments—or more—of plot or characterization or theme (in that order of efficacy) conveyed without patronizing or outpacing the audience, while allowing for laughs and gasps and utterly airless points of apprehension, and all this without shattering the illusion of reality, if our style is naturalism, or the reality of the illusion if something else.
What is the audience apprehending exactly? Alas, it’s hardly ever what’s been said but the meaning: Something true has transferred with the line—“on the line” is actors’ lingo—but the truth is decidedly not the line. The truth in well-written speech is commonly and somewhat depressingly referred to as subtext.
I am trying to avoid jargon for mostly aesthetic reasons. But subtext—let’s get this out of the way—consists of objectives and motivations and stakes. These words are technical so I choose to speak when I can of the inarticulate, the unspoken and often unspeakable.
The unspeakable in life is easy—or easy to recognize. We read it, or try to read it, in conversation all the time. Because whoever says what we mean? Who truly knows what we mean and how best to express it? Who can be sure what others mean when they’re trying to speak to you? When your doctor tells you “50-50,” he may mean survival rates are single digit. When your friend sees your play and says “congratulations,” she may mean she has despised it. We don’t tend to trust people who speak in rehearsed, conclusive sentences and, God forbid, paragraphs—these are salespersons, politicians, TV news commentators. Most real conversation proceeds by hints and guesses, feints and dodges, implication and inference. As playwrights we don’t so much write speech as improvise it, and then we craft it.
I spend many of my days at my desk deleting dialogue. Because I am inveterately cautious I like to bracket first by hand, then strikethrough, then remove words when I am sure; and by decluttering my speech of the words that don’t need to be spoken—that cannot be spoken—I find I am loosing, if you will, a more living speech. Actors in rehearsal may help a new play along with, “Can I cut this line and instead be it or do it? If I step from Line A to Line C, or leap to D or F, without these intermediate and preparatory words and phrases, will the speech still make sense? Will it make more sense? Will the speech—will I, the actor—come alive?”
A living speech infused with the unspeakable will sound naturalistic. Neither expressive nor impressive, naturalism is the illusion of life and still the style of the popular, unpretentious play.
But even naturalistic plays arrive at moments of clarity in which characters say exactly what they mean. If these words are earned—fomented in crisis and issued without thinking—then the audience will feel pierced by truth. If unearned then they will feel cheated; such speech sounds too perfect, that is to say “on the nose”—like a punch on the nose, its canniness offends.
What of speech without the unspeakable? Flesh without soul? Is it truly such a sin? Like lust, it is tempting and dangerous. In melodrama, and melodrama’s laughing shadow, farce, speech is too good to be true—yet satisfyingly so, when it’s written well. A bargain has been struck: The audience foregoes intrigue for the spectacle of opera or slapstick. And yet a spectacle must beguile consistently, in exponential permutations of pathos or amusement, or we will quickly grow tired of life lived against the flats.
In the middle of writing this essay I underwent a procedure. It had been a year and a half since I finished my treatment for colon cancer. In my paper gown and turquoise hospital socks, with the curtain rolled tight around me, I laid there listening to the other patients in the prep room behind their curtains conversing with their nurses. So many things said struck my ears vividly: “I’m from White Plains. No, above the Bronx. I used to take the BQE to White Castle. I liked jogging across the Washington Bridge.” “My wife’s Nadine. I told her, ‘You go to a eatery [note: ‘a eatery’; dialogue is deliciously ungrammatical]. Don’t wait for me.’” “Hello, I’m Mr. Meeks. Gloria’s just a friend. I don’t have much family left here in Los Angeles.” All I needed were the voices, really just the words, to imagine these people—not what they looked like but who they truly were or may have been. Perhaps these specks of speech dazzled me so brightly, just moments before receiving the blessed lethe of the Propofol syringe, because I was afraid and hopeful. As my characters are when they speak. As I am when I write.
And what I am afraid of is silence. The best plays I’ve written, or the plays I’ve most enjoyed writing, have needed little or no cajoling. Their voices came unbidden, in whispers that grew insistently into a companionship of months or years.
Admittedly my reception is irregular. I transcribe in fits and spurts. I speak for my characters as a placeholder; I grow confused. How do I know I’m hearing their voices and not my own? This is a delicate question. But do I like this talk, or bit of it, a lot? Does it impress me? Is it, as they say, “well-written”? Well then, I must delete it. If a character says and keeps saying what I mean for him to say then I should disappear him from the play altogether. For some reason people still like to counsel young writers to “find their voice”; for me the practice of playwriting has always involved doing everything I can to lose my voice.
As a boy I was spooked by the story of the prophet Samuel. The seer. Though probably he should have been deemed the listener, for as a boy himself of 11 or 12 he heard God’s small, still voice in the dark of the night calling his name. When he answered, “Here I am,” his story could begin.
If you are regularly hearing voices then you are schizophrenic. But many of us have heard a voice or two in our time. While wide awake. My erstwhile mentor Charles Mee was a writer and editor of historical nonfiction, when in middle age, sitting in the audience with his daughters at the theatre as the house lights dimmed, he heard a voice behind him say: “This is the real world.” He turned around to see who it was, but nobody was there. Considering that he had never heard voices before, he figured he should pay attention to this one, so he quit his job and started writing plays.
The voice I heard was both in my head and out. I was a few months free of college, anguishing alone in a narrow room in Cork City in Ireland, in a narrow apartment above the bloody-mouthed drunks and sooty seagulls and black swans drifting along the emerald-churning, bacterial River Lee. I was pining for my home in New York, for the young woman I’d eventually marry—even for the family that abused me—when I heard plainly: “Why do you ignore the doors?” The voice was male and female and neither. Ageless. I have tried to pass through every door since, especially when I don’t know what I may find on the other side.
During my nine months of cancer treatment I did not, somewhat to my dismay, hear a voice. Perhaps I did not need to. Or I could not bear to.
But voices of a less psychotic variety have always defined my creativity. Early on I discovered I was a gifted impersonator, in person and on paper. As several therapists over the years have asserted: I lack firm boundaries. Voices get under my skin.
The first voice was my mother’s. She could talk nonstop. Telling stories of her gothically unhappy childhood, complaining about my siblings and my father . . .
When did my mother’s relentless talk first strike me as crazy? Long before I learned the word “logorrhea,” before I’d read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy or seen Katharine Hepburn’s spectral Mary Tyrone, I learned from my pathologically loquacious mother that conversation obfuscates more often than it explicates or reveals, and that, when it does come, revelation is usually accidental.
As a boy I found I could imitate my mother’s speech easily, in conversation but also in my head. And not just her voice but others, real and imagined. Hunkered in the bath I would argue with myself as if virtuosically, sustaining every dialogue in my mind’s ear—phrases and words whirling in a seemingly inexhaustible vortex. Not unlike hearing voices.
When I was young and feeling myself capable of poems like an oracle at Delphi or a young Dylan—Thomas or Bob, I loved them both—I’d worry that these words came to me the way a voice might tell a schizophrenic to set his family’s house on fire. My labile mind aflame, I felt elated, energized; the gods spoke through my mortal mouth and told me things I knew without knowing. The otherworld and the subconscious were synonymous, I realized then.
I have spent 10 years writing about, and in a peculiar way with, the war reporter Paul Watson. I think of him now as a friend—in some complicated ways like family. As he stood amid an angry mob in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, readying to photograph the desecrated remains of a U.S. Army Ranger, he heard the voice of the dead man speak both in his head and out: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Paul snapped the shutter anyway, again and again, capturing a series of gruesome images that would win him the Pulitzer Prize and alter the course of American history for a generation to come. I too have felt haunted by this soldier; I never heard his voice, but I have sensed his presence over my shoulder as I wrote at my desk, felt his gaze from the dark balcony at performances of my play about Paul. I don’t know how the ghost, if he exists, feels about what I have written. He may be displeased. But his voice is secondary; I took on Paul’s voice when I took on Paul’s story. As Paul is “owned” by the trauma he witnessed and suffered, so I am owned—that is, altered irrevocably—by Paul’s trauma.
Several years ago I went through a period of susceptibility to psychics. I was as interested in their charlatanism as I was in the possibility of any supernatural reality. Spiritualists are at their very least theatrical, which is undeniably the case with my Hollywood psychic, who lives in Burbank and claims to have been raised in bleakest Appalachia. He is flamboyant, his hair a frosty caramel and his accent cornpone. I know it’s a ready alibi, but I find him most sympathetic when he describes his voices—of the dead, of angels, of his spirit guide Spencer—as imperfectly heard. His skill varies from day to day. He needs rest, calm, focus. He must take care of his instrument. He is an artist.
For—make no mistake—there is a whiff of the occult about what playwrights do. And believe it or not I resist it: That way lies not so much madness as solipsism. If you cede too much control to your voices, whoever or whatever they are, they may lead you away from reality. Like elemental spirits they are tricksters. But even those readers not spiritually inclined may find the psychological explanation sufficient: Emotion suppressed will find its strange and startling voice.
I was 12 the winter my brother tried to kill himself by leaping from our attic window. I saw him stumbling around the side of the house in the snow in the moments after. I found his suicide note upstairs that read, “Dear Mom, looks like you’ll get that playroom you’ve always wanted,” and, regrettably, later that night I handed my mother the paper. She collapsed crying in my arms and whispered in my ear, “This is a secret we will take to our graves.”
I knew in that moment she was wrong. In order to save myself—and her—I would have to betray her.
Every family is a cult, or a culture at least unto itself. Ours was a tyranny in which we were not allowed to speak our minds, because our minds were teeming with words in protest of our treatment at the hands of confused and cruel parents. No, protest wasn’t our goal—love was. Compassion.
Displacing what I wanted to say, and what my subconscious needed to say, into the mouths of other, imagined people—this adaptation allowed me to thrive. At least for a while. For the stage is a displacement that offers transcendence. With the actors as surrogates and the page the public square, the play may be a festival or an execution; the danger is real, but so is the reward of the audience’s compassion.
Earlier I suggested that plays should lack the playwright’s voice. But talented playwrights and their plays do possess a kind of voice. We know it when we hear it, and we won’t hear it in the speech. Our voice is the voices we hear and how we hear them.
So we listen for what’s unspoken in our culture, and it won’t be what the audience wants to hear. But we use our art to make them hear it. They will disagree, because they see things differently; because they don’t yet know how they feel; because they don’t want to feel. The truthful play you write will make you allies and, if you are doing it right, enemies. You will hinder your career by offending those who have risen in their ranks by institutional and commercial rather than artistic acumen.
We are living through unspeakable history. The foundational poison in America has found its full flower again. Cruelty is reflexive because kindness is called weakness in their church of Mammon. Real is fake and the lie is king. Disparagement unto silence is only one strategy. The powerful are working tirelessly to stifle and extinguish our smallest, stillest voices.
Why did I begin with a memory of shame? When an aged, esteemed poet suggested that I “quit bugging him,” and I did so because I didn’t matter, I was a youthful 30 and the wrong genre. I was just a bug bothering him. And I am still stung. Though I forgive his annoyance now: Life can seem too brief for small talk with strangers. He was unwell—he died not long after. I almost respect him now for speaking his mind then.
But I wish in that moment I had spoken my mind in response. Not to wound him but to answer his real speech with mine. For by speaking the unspeakable we may find ourselves conversing freely, creatively. We may listen.
Dan O’Brien is a writer whose works include the play The Body of an American and the poetry collection War Reporter. In 2015-16 he was a Guggenheim Fellow in Drama. His most recent play, The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, won the 2018 PEN America Award for Drama.
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