-- David Mamet
This section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and Kindle editions of Playwriting Seminars.
If you take your characters seriously – as you must to write them well – the words coming out of their mouths will be how you genuinely hear them speak. That's all that matters. Forget about what’s proper or “nice.”
Best Practice: Write dialogue how you hear it.
Having said that, gratuitous nasty language (foul, scatological, or profane) doesn't win you many points any more if it's not essential to the characters you've created. Not so long ago, you could occasionally find a literary manager who thought audiences wanted that sort of language in the theatre – the kind that would still be bleeped today by PBS and the commercial TV and cable networks – even if it seemed inappropriate to the characters involved. A few would even encourage playwrights to spice up their dialogue to meet these expectations. We’ve gone through that phase now and come out the other end to an openness about less than polite language in plays. (More than one current cable TV series has discovered that pushing this sort of language to the kind of extremes the theatre used to revel in pays dividends – or at least raises ratings.)
Again, the general rule here: Take your characters seriously and the language they use will make perfect sense, regardless of whether it’s fair or foul. Rajiv Joseph even has the Tiger use foul language in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but it makes perfect sense given where the Tiger has to live (and later be a ghost). Language that doesn't flow naturally and logically from the nature of your characters is deadening to a play and the ears of your audience, regardless of whether it’s naughty or nice.
The talk of the New York theatre world in 2011 was Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play with an unprintable title usually altered by mainstream media to the incomprehensible The ___ with the Hat (the more “daring” press called it The Mother___ with the Hat). While the media felt compelled to edit the title for family consumption, it was nominated for Best Play in Broadway’s Tony Awards. The English playwright Mark Ravenhill had done something similar with the title of his first full-length play back in the late 1990’s. But in both cases you could argue (as the playwrights believed) that the titles came out of themes and characters in the plays. While the playwrights would probably object to this conclusion, these unprintable titles also gave their plays a landslide of publicity unrelated to what they’d written. It’s worth mentioning that these “unprintable” titles are not just a guy-thing: Suzan-Lori Parks did the same in titling her riff on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter at the turn of the millennium. No family media said or printed the offending part of that title either.
The latest envelope of this sort being blown apart is the importing of the sex and nudity typical of R-rated Hollywood feature films to the far more circumspect theatre. This was not unusual in the experimental theatre of the 1960s, but had fallen out of favor by the end of that decade. Now its back with the leading practitioner currently being Thomas Bradshaw with The Ashes and then Burning in 2011 – though most critics found more of interest to talk about besides the sex scenes. In his scripts, the general stage directions for those scenes are no more graphic that those in feature screenplays aiming for R-ratings. How portable these on-stage graphic depictions can be outside of New York (where the plays opened), San Francisco, LA, and Chicago is a question yet to be resolved.
Best Practice: The naughtiness factor still works in the theatre.
Audiences have ear-lids as well as eyelids. Nothing closes those ear-lids quicker than clichés, especially dialogue that behaves as though clichés really mean something. Characters can be clichés, plots can be clichés and occasionally you can get away with these, but clichés in dialogue don't even buy you death on the installment plan. Use them more than a few times and it's over.
These things are phrases, sayings, and aphorisms that have become so overused that they have virtually lost all significant meaning. We know them too well and as a result they have no impact on us. As language, they're like grandma's old clock clacking away in the living room. After a while, you don't “hear” the ticking. The sound is there, but it's so familiar, your brain doesn't even bother to register it anymore – or more correctly refuses to recognize it anymore. Perhaps the worst aspect of using clichés is that our minds move much faster than sound so audiences flash to the end of a cliché long before it’s left the performer's mouth. That means the audience ends up hearing these twice, first as their minds automatically complete the phrase and again when the sound of the performer's voice reaches their ears.
It's one thing to hear something interesting twice. We'll put up with that within limits. But to hear something boring twice? That's in a class with water-torture. As a reminder, here's what these look like on the page. The words in boldface are what the audience leaps to long before their ears register the noise: Let's run it up the flagpole. Strong as an ox. Pretty as a picture. Dead as a doornail.
You can use clichés to advantage, but only under very controlled circumstances. One option is making them a defining trait of a character. If a character continually uses clichés and is the only one who does so in the play, you'll quickly establish that we're dealing with an air-head. An alternative is to twist the ends of clichés so they end up defying audience expectations and don't land like a marshmallow. What we hear then is no longer a cliché, even though it starts out that way. Oscar Wilde built a playwriting career on twisting clichés, most famously with “Her hair has turned quite gold from grief.”
When a character walks into your head speaking in an accent that seems to demand phonetic reproduction in your script, resist. Even if Eugene O'Neill did it, that approach drives readers to clean their glasses or water their contacts far more than you'd ever want. And the harder you try to duplicate accents with combinations of letters and punctuation marks, the more indecipherable your script will become.
The key to rendering accents is to remember that a script on the page is mostly about plot, character, your voice, and theme. That's what's important, not the odd and accurately reproduced accents of your characters. Literary managers can always ask you what your characters really sound like in your head. Decades ago, playwrights labored over this sort of phonetic duplication as Sean O'Casey did with Irish accents back in the 1920’s for his masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock:
JOHNNY: Bring us a dhrink o' wather. Tay, tay, tay! You're always thinkin' o' tay. If a man was dyin', you'd thry to make him swally a cup o' tay!
Nowadays, most contemporary playwrights write dialogue for a character who speaks with an accent by simply capturing the rhythm and odd word order of the accent. If the accent is particularly dense and obscure in real life, they'll add an opening stage direction explaining what it should sound like, but the dialogue will be written as if it's nearly conventional spoken English. Here's what Martin McDonagh did with Irish accents (seven decades after O’Casey) in The Beauty Queen of Leenane:
RAY: Are they a bit stale, now? (Chews) It does be hard to tell with Kimberleys. (Pause) I think Kimberleys are me favourite biscuits out of any biscuits. Them or Jaffa Cakes.
An exception to the rule and an extreme one: David Lindsay-Abaire has a character (a stroke victim) in his highly successful Fuddy Meers whose dialogue is written phonetically and is incomprehensible to mere mortals like us. To solve that problem, he adds a long note at the end of the script with a translation into standard English of every line of dialogue this character has. What made Fuddy Meers work in New York and regional theatres across the country is that this character’s dialogue can't be understood by most of the characters in the play either. That’s the point, and that makes it intriguing to us instead of an annoyance. But reading the script – as opposed to seeing it in production – is serious work until you realize that understanding what this character is saying is not essential to understanding the play, at least not until the end. And in the obligatory scene, other characters help us figure out the important bits. The playwright includes the translation of that distorted phonetic dialogue for the director and the performer playing the character because it contains the subtext of that character. It was a daring move for Lindsay-Abaire to write his script this way. Most playwrights would have settled for the easy way out by writing the stoke victim’s dialogue in the script in near normal English, and adding a stage direction saying it’s delivered in such a slurred and mangled way that we can’t understand it.
Best Practice: Taking extreme risks in writing can lead to professional recognition in the theatre.
In Lindsay-Abaire’s case, the playwright was taking his characters seriously and writing them as he heard them speak. He probably didn’t think of this as a risk as he was writing the play