Monday, December 8, 2014
The greatest dialogue in plays, films, or books, manages to impart that which is said and that which has been left unsaid. The elephant in the room, as it were, will keep everyone guessing. A literal definition of subtext describes a message which is not stated directly, but can be inferred. It pertains to the hidden, less obvious meaning perhaps archly delivered by some of our greatest actors.
How is it done? Isn’t dialogue hard enough without adding this to the mix? The answer is yes.
Studying the book entitled,Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger I have gained some insight as to how a writer can manage to achieve this. If the audience is let in on a secret, there will be much that can be read into the simplest of statements. A daughter may pretend to like the suitor her father picked out for her, but if we know that she secretly loves someone else, there will be a subtext to all she says. If a mother only wants what is best for her son, but does not want a daughter-in-law who is above her in social standing, she may seem to be welcoming this newcomer, but we will read into her attempts to be friendly. In some cases, such as the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the whole of Denmark can be slightly rotten. If the road to power is suspect, the dialogue will be full of subtext. Obviously, Shakespeare was a master at this skill. He would even have a character walk downstage and let the audience in on a few secrets. A sudden windfall, an unlikely suitor, a change of leadership, or even a new invention, can put all known truths under a new microscope. Perhaps everyone is trying to make an adjustment, but no one wants to. There you will see subtext.
A character at odds with the culture about which the audience is familiar will provide many a laugh as the poor fellow bumbles along, unaware of his missteps. Subtext is an essential tool in the comedian’s toolkit. In a tragedy, the very elements left unsaid, can be the ones propelling everyone to their doom.
While thinking about this topic, my thoughts lead me straight to a much- loved play, namely, The Importance of Being Ernest. Oscar Wilde states it flat out in Act 1, Scene 1. Two characters, Algernon and Jack, have a discussion while waiting for guests to arrive for tea. Discussing names Jack says,
“Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”
“I have always suspected you of being a confirmed Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.”
“Bunburyist? What do you mean Bunburyist?”
“I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious and modern literature a complete impossibility.”
By the time the guests arrive, we have learned that both Bunbury and the Jack/ Ernest situation, are used as an excuse. When in town Ernest must leave at once as his brother Jack is in a pickle. When in the country, it is Ernest who calls him away, thereby providing the perfect excuse to escape social functions to which he is less than enthusiastic. Bunbury provides a similar ruse. Through the remaining scenes of this immortal play, all references to these characters are loaded with subtext.
Characters sometimes do not know themselves. Their most basic drives and instincts may be covered up by social convention, or self-delusion. The stage may be full of actors whose roles are at cross purposes. Therein lies the subtext.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
Recently, Marilynne Robinson was the guest of Bill Moyers. Even in this interview, I find that there is something of her elegant writing in every sentence.
If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
William Butler Yeats
Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature 1923
Do you read to be entertained, to be edified, or to expand your horizons? I suppose most of us would answer all of the above. Some writers can do all three in one book. That goes triple for John Irving. Starting with The World According to Garp that won the National Book Award in 1980, I have been a fascinated and loyal reader of his work. The character driven stories and complicated yet subtle plot-lines have always appealed to me.
In One Person is our selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club this month. The story centers around a young man’s desires, as he comes of age in Favorite River Academy. Sexuality is a complex subject, and the protagonist is confused as to whether his preferences are settled or remain in flux. The theme of tolerance runs through the novel from start to finish, making us question our beliefs, and our rigid limitations, as we follow Billy’s journey. Through high school and into maturity, Billy Abbot is an endearing character.
When authors speak of their work, you will often hear these words. “I wanted to explore…” It is a great achievement to go from that statement to a fully fleshed out novel where the reader is then put into a position of questioning their thoughts on the matter. Hence, the fodder for a great discussion.
John Irving says,
“Billy is not me. He comes from my imagining what I might have been like if I’d acted on my earliest impulses as a young teenager. Most of us don’t ever act on our earliest sexual imaginings. In fact, most of us would rather forget them-not me. I think our sympathy comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings-to be honest about what we felt like doing.”
Irving states that he writes from the perspective of emotional and psychological truths. He writes having envisioned the ending first. The fully complex architecture of his novels is something I can absorb viscerally, but cannot quite identify. I feel it, but I cannot see the scaffolding. In other words, I don’t know how he does it. That is fine by me. He is the man behind the curtain, a man I admire, and a man who sets my imagination on quite a journey. He will have a new book coming out soon. Stay tuned…
The year was 1976. The nightclub in Aspen where I worked had booked a two week gig with comedians from The Comedy Store. Steve Martin had been our guest a few weeks prior and I thought whoever was sent from L.A. could not come within a hundred miles of his rising star. Since I would be hearing the show night after night, I thought I would be in for a big snooze.
On the night I met Robin Williams, I arrived at the club early and checked in with my friend who worked in the office. He said the guys were setting up backstage. Remembering I had left my black, high-heeled boots there earlier in the day, I thought I could sneak in unobserved and retrieve them. I pushed the curtain aside and reached down to pick them up, almost bumping in to a handsome young man wearing a long sleeved tee shirt, suspenders and khakis.
“I’m sorry to disturb you. I just came to get my boots.” I put out my hand and introduced myself.
“I’m Robin,” he replied. “I was going to use those in my act.” He took one boot from my hand and put it on like and evening glove. As soon as he started making jokes, I thought the week might be looking up after all.
Being that I was the lowly coatroom girl, I was free to watch the show. I stood in the back when he took the stage introducing himself as “Russia’s only comedian.” After the show, we all gathered for our one free drink, sponsored by the owner, and then went out on the town after that. Word spread like wildfire and the crowds grew larger every night.
Robin came back in the summer to open for a band that ended up canceling at the last minute. It was like a classic movie scene where we learned the business would fold if we couldn’t come up with some wild scheme to fill the place. The idea of asking Robin to do the whole show was absolutely preposterous, but knowing we would all be out of work if he failed to save the day, we persuaded him to say yes. He didn’t know if he would be able to do it, to go from fifteen minutes of comedy to performing a one man show. He wasn’t sure if he had enough material from what seemed to stem from a stream of consciousness. We offered all the help and encouragement we could. He asked me to come onstage with him, doing a few bits when he lost his train of thought, or came to a dead end. While I watched for those times when he might need a new direction, I realized that he had a far greater wealth of material than we knew. He had characters and voices, he had skits, and bits, like one of his favorites, “Attack of the killer chairs.” Observing him made me stand back in wonder. He killed it, night after night. He had the quickest wit I had ever encountered in my life. His gift was staggering, yet he bore it with humility. Some nights he would stay “on” for an hour or two after the show, but once done it would all close, just as if someone drew a curtain across his eyes. Then he would be quiet.
We all knew that someone would discover him soon and it was only a matter of time before he would go on to far greater heights. The privilege of watching his career unfold, seeing him live up to his full potential, thrilled me over and over. I knew his offstage persona, his sweet, shy manner, his dazzling intellect, his moral compass, his gentlemanly sensibility and his heart. I can honestly say that I truly admired the man, and had a fondness for him that never wavered. Under what lucky star was I born that I would bump into someone like him?
We saw him when he came through Spokane in the spring of 2013, to do a retrospective show with David Steinberg. In the car on the way home, I expressed a thousand concerns and worries about Robin. That night while cheerful, generous and friendly, I sensed an overall exhaustion setting in that troubled me.
The news of his death and the manner of his demise shocked us all. He will be deeply and profoundly missed. Sometimes we forget that we are mortal. Perhaps genius at that level, comes along once in a hundred years. He inspired me, every step of the way. I have never stopped believing in the power of the imagination. He reminded me of a young colt that prances and dances as he is let out of the stall. A thoroughbred with the bloodlines of a true champion, Robin took comedy in a new direction. He knew we had more in common than we realized. His peers spoke of his generosity. He touched an entire generation of children.
We don’t have the answers. We don’t even know the right questions. After watching The Birdcage last night, I felt guilty for laughing. My ribcage hurts today, and my face aches. All those years ago in Aspen, one of our friends remembered the old English nursery rhyme and recited it as we gathered for our free drink. It was not familiar to most, but it was to me, as it was to him. These are the last lines:
“Enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.”
The Washington Post
Anthony Doerr was interested in the magic of radio. The idea of millions of messages being transmitted all over the world captivated him. He wanted to write a story that would shed light on the miracle of wireless communication. The result is All the Light we Cannot See, one of the most stunning books I have read in a lifetime of reading.
The Best Food Ever Book Club, read The Memory Wall, a few years back. When the suggestion arose to read Doerr’s latest book, the answer came as a resounding, “Yes.” He is an author for whom we have developed an abiding affection. We were not disappointed by this latest choice. This story found an immediate home in our hearts.
If you want to create a protagonist readers will root for, give them a few vulnerabilities. Blind from the age of five, a little girl lives with her father in Paris, learning to find her way around. War breaks out and they must flee the city. The story is woven between the perils of Marie-Laure’s situation which is fraught with anxiety and that of a German orphan, who has been swallowed up by the Hitler Youth.
It is not the story alone that makes the tale so compelling. It is the power of Doerr’s prose which has the ability to make a reader stop and think before turning the page.
Marie-Laure ends up hiding in her uncle’s house. War ravages the coastal town in Britanny and France is occupied.
The following passage puts us right in the house with Marie-Laure, who is frightened and in hiding:
“The distress is so acute, it is almost unbearable. She tries to settle her mind, tries to focus on an image of a candle flame burning at the center of her rib cage, a snail drawn up into the coils of its shell, but her heart bangs in her chest and pulses of fear cycle up her spine, and she is suddenly uncertain whether a sighted person in the foyer can look up the curves of the stairwell and see all the way to the third floor. She remembers her great-uncle said they would need to watch out for the looters, and the air stirs with phantom blurs and rustles, and Marie-Laure imagines charging past the bathroom into the cobwebbed sewing room here on the third floor and hurling herself out the window.
Boots in the hall. The slide of a dish across the floor as it is kicked. A fireman, a neighbor, some German soldier hunting food?” p. 303
Werner, the German orphan, does not have an easier time of it either.
“Werner folds the map into his coat pocket, packs up the transceivers and carries one in each hand like a pair of suitcases. Tiny snow crystals sift down through the moonlight. Soon the school and its outbuildings look like toys on the white plain below. The moon slips lower, a half-lidded eye, and the dogs stick close to their master, mouths steaming and Werner sweats.” P.245
This book was ten years in the making. The result is stunning, beautiful prose.
“Storms rinse the sky, the beaches, the streets, and a red sun dips into the sea, setting all the west-facing granite in Saint-Malo on fire, and three limousines with wrapped mufflers glide down the rue-de-la-Crosse like wraiths, and a dozen or so German officers, accompanied by men carrying stage lights and movie cameras, climb the steps to the Bastion de la Hollande and stroll the ramparts in the cold.” P.331
This is exactly the kind of book that fills me with enormous awe and respect. It is my idea of a perfect summer read. It is a great subject in the hands of a master. I was dazzled by it.