Words, words, words

Writing scripts can be a bother. It can be immensely frustrating. And I don't mean just the process of writing, which in itself may be a struggle, but what comes after that, what happens when the blasted piece is finished and turned over to others. I mean the production of the script.

The actors can be all wrong. Oh dear how wrong they can be. Or they can be right but they just don't get it. Or they can have their own ideas about how the lines ought to be interpreted. (Or indeed be unable to do the lines in a certain way.) Very often this brings new layers of meaning to the piece, sometimes it just kills it.

Very often, however, whole sequences of dialogue are written in such a manner that they may be spoken only one way. Speaking them in another way, interpreting them, quite literally destroys them, takes away the meaning, renders them without any sense whatsoever, just an incoherent jumble of arbitrary lines. And that makes the author look bad, through no fault of his own.

Then there's the director. They too have their own ideas. They read the script and are inspired by it. They too have their own ideas, their own vision of how things should be. Sometimes that's supported by what is actually in the script, sometimes it brings a wealth of riches to the structuring and the dynamic and the texture of the piece, at other times not so much.

But whatever happens - however the script is produced, whether magnificently and intelligently and with a great deal of tact and delicacy, or shabbily and not really giving a toss about what the script is about - one as the author does tend to have the same primary reaction to every production: why can't they just say the lines the way they're written on the page? Why can't they just speak them with a loud and clear voice (unless indicated otherwise) and as if they understood what they're saying? Surely that cannot be too much to ask?

But of course it is. Demanding that actors speak the lines exactly as they're written is foolishness. They lines aren't written in a certain way just because the author believes so. They have no inherent meaning as such. It isn't a question of their being open to interpretation. Everybody reads, understands and interprets them in a different way, quite automatically. The author's intended way is one of them and only one. Is it more correct than the others? Well that may be, at least if you consult the author, but it has no practical bearing on the case.

Unless of course the author directs the blasted thing himself.

Occasionally that seems like a very good idea indeed.

A few years ago in Berlin I heard a radio drama I rather admired. I cornered the Austrian author and complimented him on what I thought was a very interesting and effective production. The author, incidentally, had also directed the piece. I asked him about that, since authors directing their own material interests me (and also frightens me a great deal). It turned out he'd done the whole thing in a highly peculiar manner. The actors of the piece never met each other, he'd taped them all separately! Wasn't that a problem? I asked. By no means, he replied, I knew exactly how each line was to be said, how each line should sound, so I taped every line separately and did re-takes until it sounded like it should. Then he just put all the lines in their place and the drama was finished. Didn't even take too long.

I understood the author completely. To me it made all the sense in the world. He'd done it like music. When each line sounded a certain way the whole of it made sense. Only then. Each line had to have a certain inflection, a certain cadence, a certain nuance. Only then did it sound like it sounded in his head. (Otherwise it never sounds like it sounds in the author's head when he writes the script - never once. Not even close.) True directors will of course pale at the very thought of this, probably even faint, but I find it quite fascinating. When the radio play is understood as music, when every line ought to sound just so, it may be the only way. Would be jolly nice to have a go sometime.

One author who recently had a go at directing is Neil Gaiman. He too has had his problems with productions. In Neverwhere, for instance, he was greatly surprised to find that the director's (or possibly the producer's) interpretation of The Great Beast of London, that terrifying, absolutely horrific nether-worldly creature, was a rubber cow of some sort. Not quite what he meant, actually.

Ah, but to have the actors speak the lines exactly the way one wants them spoken. What absolute bliss! In his directorial debut, the short film Statuesqe, Gaiman didn't do quite that. In fact he went the other way altogether. He didn't use words, there wasn't a single line in the entire film. Not one word was uttered by anybody.

Which to me sounds like a stroke of genius. How liberating it must have been not to have to bother with words, just do away with them, just show everything and not tell about it.

If there's one thing in writing that often gets on one's nerves it's the words, the absolute and inescapable tyranny of words. How envious one is of actors and musicians and painters and film-makers who don't need words, who can just go out and do things. Concrete things, physical things. And be understood by most anybody, not just those who by some quirky chance are able to understand the remote and obscure northern language one happens to operate in.

On the other hand again, the writer is the only free man. His work depends on nobody else. He and he alone is his own man. (Or woman, as the case may be.) The work of a great many others depends on him (or on somebody else, anyway). So maybe it isn't such a bad deal after all.

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