Saturday, August 15, 2015

Shh! Silence on the Set.

The audience makes a basic assumption when purchasing seats at a theater or when settling in to watch some form of filmed drama.  Some combination of speech and dramatic action are on the way.  Even now, they are in the wings, waiting for their cue to enter, to, as theatrical persons say, "take stage."

Taking stage is a euphemism for becoming a notable presence, some projection of personality, setting, contemporaneousness, even so minor a presence as time of day.  Lest you think time of day is of no matter, this example.  Hamlet.  Within seven brief lines of dialogue between two guards on the ramparts at Elsinore Castle, we have the time set.  'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.

True enough, most of us know the details establishing the backstory.  The ghost of Prince Hamlet's father appears, his goal to enlist Hamlet into his plot to avenge his recent murder by his own brother.  But think about it.  "Tis now struck twelve--"  

Would that be noon?  Of course not.  What ghost is going to come out at noon?  A ghost needs darkness to be effective.  Conditions are bad enough for the ghost in the first place, without asking the wretched spirit to appear at, say, four of an afternoon, or a bit later, at dinner time.  Midnight has a longtime reputation for being the witching hour.  The old Scottish prayer alerts us:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Even this witching hour has a stage presence.  The fact of the play beginning at midnight prepares us for the arrival of the ghost and its vengeful mission, which not only--to use a contemporary euphemism--kickstarts the story, the ghost's mission pushes it off the edge of potential and into pure, unrelenting story

With these assumptions in mind, and with great, often mischievous design, the writer has approached the craft of storytelling well aware how speech and action owe they effectiveness of the presence in each of the most magisterial trait, silence.

How easy to forget about silence when you consider the onslaught of ideas, sensual images, and details, all clamoring for inclusion in any kind of narrative with any notion at all of being dramatic.  Easier still to forget the silence that sometimes goes along with out attempts to wrest dramatic effect from the tight fists of reality.

Silence on stage is not mere deliberation in the delivery of lines or the pause before a gesture or movement.  Think instead of a long, sepulchral moment in which the audience becomes caught up in the pause, wondering if the character is afraid, bashful, overcome, perhaps even wondering if the actor has forgotten lines.  Some writers and many actors are quite active in their use of silence as a manipulative tool.  

Unless we are in some Quaker or Buddhist meditative ritual, silence is often not the norm.   Silence causes us unease.  If we happen to be Lionel Esrog, the Tourette's afflicted narrator of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, such a place, a Buddhist meditation, becomes a drawn out torture because Esrog well understands his inability to remain silent in such an atmosphere.  This awareness is a precursor of consequence, much to Esrog's detriment.

Silence is the agent provocateur of story.  The audience lingers on each syllable as it ventures forth, impatience building.  The longer the speech takes, the more hesitation that precedes an action, the longer the audience/reader is prevented from finding out the things an audience or a reader need to know before the story concludes.

Safe to say, the moment the audience or reader learn what they are manipulated to want to hear, the story is all but over.

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