Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Language of Dialogue

Dialogue is the spoken language of dramatic narrative. When two or more individuals within a drama exchange information,  they do so to a significant degree in dialogue. These exchanges may be straightforward.  "Where would you like to have dinner?"  "Which film would you like to see?"  "Hey, your call, Mozart string quartettes orThe Miles Davis Quintette?"

Exchanges of information in dialogue have the potential to supply subtext, with the hand of coded or implied meanings hovering over each sentence like the subtitles of a foreign-language movie.  A notable, often used device to amplify the need for subtext can be achieved by the simple addition of a third person to a scene where two individuals were on the point of arranging a romantic tryst.  

The line of dialogue, "Your place, or mine?" is still floating between them when the third person appears, and with that appearance brings the dynamics of suspense and tension into the scene.  "My dears,"  the new arrival says.  "What a surprise, seeing you both here."  Then, after a beat, "I had no idea you two knew one another."  Then a longer beat.  "Look at the two of you, sitting off in the corner like this."

Dialogue is not the only means available for the conveyance of meaning, intention, and thematic content.   

In a figurative sense, body language speaks worlds of information related to personal and professional relations, social caste systems, and contemporary conventions.  Consider the meaning of the arms, clasped protectively over the chest.  Consider ways actors and individuals express their tension or relaxed natures, their enthusiasms or embarrassments.  Visualize a person on her toes, arms extended.  What is she saying?  Imagine a person turned to watch the setting sun, a mist of tears moistening her eyes.  What is she saying? 

In many contemporary languages outside of English, there is the distinction between polite and familiar, most useful in defining degrees of respect or intimacy.  A person may use the pronoun tu in Spanish to speak to a child, for one degree of meaning, to a romantic interest to define another.   On the other hand, a lover may wish to use usted to convey respect.

Rumbling along its way to democratization, English has set such niceties as thee, thou, thine, aside for the you and your and yours, with subtext to fill in the blanks.  But at one time, these social and status differences among the pronouns provided as complete a tool kit as a burglar's lock-picking instruments.

Witness the use of language in the famed Act I, Scene II from Shakespeare's  Richard III, where Glouster, who would become Richard, has arrived at the funeral of Lady Anne's father-in-law, Henry VI, and her husband, both of whom Richard has had killed.  And don't think Lady Anne doesn't know it.  She even tells Richard that her father's coffin is bleeding because, back in the day, it was believed that if a murderer was near the coffin of his victim, the corpse would bleed.

LADY ANNE Black night o'ershade thy day, and death thy life!  
GLOUCESTER Curse not thyself, fair creature thou art both. 126
LADY ANNE I would I were, to be revenged on thee.
GLOUCESTER It is a quarrel most unnatural,  
  To be revenged on him that loveth you.  
LADY ANNE It is a quarrel just and reasonable,  
  To be revenged on him that slew my husband.  
GLOUCESTER He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband,
  Did it to help thee to a better husband.  
LADY ANNE His better doth not breathe upon the earth.  
GLOUCESTER He lives that loves thee better than he could.  
LADY ANNE Name him.  
GLOUCESTER Plantagenet.
LADY ANNE Why, that was he.  
GLOUCESTER The selfsame name, but one of better nature.  
LADY ANNE Where is he?  
  She spitteth at him  
  Why dost thou spit at me?
LADY ANNE Would it were mortal poison, for thy sake!  
GLOUCESTER Never came poison from so sweet a place.  
LADY ANNE Never hung poison on a fouler toad.  
  Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes.

Richard proceeds to make a move on Anne, who calls him a minister of hell. She calls him any number of other things, in most cases, thee and thy, but in a notable shift, moves to you, moments after he has offered to kill himself should she request it.  She lets him know she already has

Contemporary drama has the potential for the cell phone, the electronic tablet such as iPad or Kindle, which opens the door for additional exchanges through phone calls, electronic mail, and texts.  Pen and paper hover about our culture like moths about a candle on a Summer evening, the door of convention still open for the diary, the journal, the love letter.

Talk in drama must always have some kind of charge, some electricity, some signals of lightning energy, waiting for the chance to strike.  It must never be conversation.  The mortal enemy of story is conversation.  What appears at first to be conversation must evoke the response of dialogue or there is one more unfinished book in the pile, one digital file in the reader, sent off to the Cloud for storage.  "Have you done what I asked you?"  "Is this something we both need to do?"

In real life, there are conversations, many of which are necessary exchanges of information, but if the conversation is too conversational, the information and intent may be lost.

In real life as in drama, individuals may sit for a time in silence, the chemistry moving in free, direct discourse, to hijack a scholarly term.  Thus even in silence, each may be completing sentences for the other.

Annie and Jake, your own parents, took conversation to dramatic levels after developing the art for over sixty years.

"What ever happened to--"

"He's been dead for years."

"No, not him.  I mean his cousin, I think it was.."

"They weren't related."

"Not him.  I mean, I think it was Mort or Murray."

"Some help you are.  What percentage of Jewish men are not named Mort or Murray?"

"I'm not a Mort or a Murray."

"Before I met you, I went out with a Murray."

"It was a Joey.  And he couldn't have been much fun.  Look what you got instead."

"Sixty-two years of fun, I got."

You are left with memories of such moments of them, watching sunsets or sitting on the front balcony, watching the evening turn to dusk, Jake's cigar beginning to glow in the growing darkness, Annie's eyes, shining with memory.

"So that time you didn't come home until six?"

"I told you, I couldn't leave.  I was winning."

"You couldn't say, 'Excuse me, I have to get home to my family.'"?

"I had to give them a chance to win it back."

"Big shot."

"So ask me then, ask me what have I done for you lately."

"Big shot."  Then:  "Where are you going?"

"Get you a jacket.  When the sun goes down--"

"Bring one for yourself, big shot."

Thanks to Annie and Jake and how many hundreds of books read, plays watched, things written, you learn to live life so that the conversations, even the ones alone with yourself, are alive with the lightning of dialogue.  

There are sure to be times when it is possible to watch the sun dropping below the horizon at sea level, and you want to have something to say, even if it is awed silence.


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