You been back in town long, Noe?
I’m not strictly back in town, Pete.
You open a script. You see lines of dialogue. Dialogue interspersed with stage directions. You’re told there is a couch upstage center, a small table beside it. If the directions go on too long or start to use furniture-catalogue words you do not understand, you skip it. (So does the designer.) Or maybe you’re the stick-to-it-ive type: you keep reading even though the more you read about this simple room, the less you can picture it. OK, now we’re getting somewhere: the dialogue. People are bragging, conversing, fighting, seducing. This is the good stuff.
You try writing a play. You waste quite a bit of time describing the set, so clear in your head, so cumbersome on the page. Whatever–let’s get going. Let’s get Sam and Nancy on stage and startTALKING! Now we’re rolling. Blah blah blah. They have a lot to say. It’s quite natural, chatting away...This is not a play. You scrap this draft. You get right to Sam and Nancy and really get talking. This is...not working. Hmm. Wonder why? The dialogue is great! But the play stinks.
I don’t know. They’re giving me something.
A play is not dialogue. A play plays, it has to exist in time and space, it has to move along, action to action, getting from here to there, even if we just spend a couple hours waiting for Godot. Good dialogue makes that wait go better, yes. But even the best dialogue, the really sparkly stuff, just annoys the audience if it’s pointless.
It seems a little...I don’t know...OCD.
Is it? Is it? Is it? Is it? Or is it just what modern life demands?
Some of my favorite dialogue: His Girl Friday, screenplay by Charles Lederer from the Ben Hecht play. Dialogue dialogue dialogue. At top speed. You don’t have to catch all the words (but they’re good and worth catching). The function of this dialogue is to sound busy and breezy and make it very clear to one’s ex that I just don’t have time for you because life is so fabulous without you, ok? So the pace is far too fast for normal conversation. It’s a wall of words, a wall between two people who have no intention of actually talking.
Dialogue is not people talking. Dialogue is a form of theatrical action. It sounds like people talking (sometimes). But it’s not. It’s really not. Prove it to yourself: TAKE YOUR HEADPHONES OFF, ride the subways and buses of your town, lurk in coffee shops and eavesdrop eavesdrop eavesdrop. Now write it down. Neat stuff. Not a play.
Argentina. That’s the one place in Europe you can still go.
But you might hear something (like that) that brings you a whole scenario. Just don’t fall in love with any of the lines.
*dialogue from Mercurial, Hell’s Waiting Room, Organization Man, and The Goods, all by Catherine Castellani.