Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

One woman, one voice

Seven funny, bizarre, poignant and emotional pieces of theatre by five highly-praised writers in a fabulous celebration of the success and diversity o

Modulations of Monologue

The medium of drama is not words, but persons moving about on a stage using words . As so often, Ezra Pound s own words don t make complete sense. But they do make common sense. We certainly don t normally describe as drama words that are divorced f
rom physical movement, action, entrances and exits, or (No l Coward s nightmare) bangings into the furniture. But, in turn, these perambulations are themselves as nothing without language. Mime, for example, is a great and entertaining art, but you c an t do King Lear in it; or, if you can, it is only because the words of King Lear are, however voicelessly, being appealed to. Words may not be, as W.B. Y eats once put it, the only certain good , but we cannot begin even to think, let alone imagine,
without them. They are at the heart of what it feels like to be human. They remain the basic currency, and nothing emphasises more their power of purchase than that particular dramatic
form, the Monologue, where words have plenary power, where they are not pressed simply into literal action.

Even then, the term monologue is jostled from all sides by all sorts of other, cognate forms. How, for example, does a monologue worth our attention differ from, say, mere thought ( Sometimes I just sits and thinks. . . ), from workaday speech (any natural, memorable outburst you can think of), from a crucial political speech I have a dream today. . . ), from a lyric poem ( When I consider how my light is spent. . . ), from a song ( O the lark in the clear air . . . ) or - back within the fo ld of drama proper - a soliloquy ( To be or not to be . . . )? Of course, on a small enough sample, there need be no difference at all. Indeed, one of the great achievements of the monologue form is that it breaks down barriers of form. It is not so much hedged about as edged around by them. There is no reason why a monologue cannot even contain, or modulate in and out of, say, song, poetry, or a tangential, extended aside , even within what is already a basically soliloquizing mode. The soliloq uy proper, of course, has more the air of what Frank Kermode recently called speech in silence, the speech of silence . Even though it might momentarily address an audience, a soliloquy normally acts as if there were no audience there to address, as if the words are not, in a sense, spoken at all. Whether across footlights or over the airwaves, a monologue has a more solid sense of an audience addressed, overheard, or listened to. Christopher Ricks once described the unusual genre of the Masque as different from either a poem or a play, while still making use of wha t plays and poems do

The same can be said of the monologue. The monologue forgoes the need for Pound persons moving about on a stage , and yet still has to activate, in the viewer/listener s imagination, persons, movements, places. It can by all means use descriptive language, but it cannot afford to be me re description, like an essay, any more than it can afford to be all narrative, like a short story. It cannot, either, be merely the undistilled outpouring of the writer s own joys, despairs or dreams. Those emotions have to be personative and imper sonative - terms used by the novelist Thomas Hardy even of his poems - creating, that is to say, a speaker that is never just the writer herself or himself. However, the best analogy for the theatrical or broadcast monologue, of the kind represented in this volume, is still an analogy with poetry. But a particular form of poetry: the dramatic monologue - as in Robert Browning My Last Duchess , T.S. E liot Portrait of a Lady Pound s own Portrait d une Femme . This is not to expect from a monologue the rhythmic form or the consistent metaphoric life that makes a poem, though rhythmic form and metaphors will certainly play their part. It is, r ather, to expect that one woman or one man s voice should be this woman s or this man s voice. The voice must reveal a vivid invented character, and all through the medium of words. At the same time, as with a dramatic monologue in poetry, a theatri cal or broadcast monologue must have the power to evoke also the vividness of a situation or a predicament - again out of pure language. Whatever it needs - persons, things, movements - these have to be achieved without their literal appearance on st age (the occasional glass of water or sound- or lighting-effects notwithstanding). A monologue of this kind may not need the precision-focus of a Browning dramatic monologue

Nay, we ll go
Together down, sir! Notice Ne ptune, tho
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me

- where those 24 words evoke speaker, listener, movement, object and response all at once.
But the theatrical or broadcast monologue still has its work cut out to remind us that, pace
Ezra Pound, the medium of drama, ultimately, is words. And the mon ologue has also to remind itself that, having volunteered to forgo a cast, scenery, scene-changes, the very different soundboard of dialogue, or the accidentally-overheard, fly-on-the-wall power of soliloquy, a monologue must use its words all the mo re capaciously. Traditionally, actors are described as treading the boards . To borrow a phrase from a poem by Philip Larkin, monologues are a case of words, just words, inventing where they tread .

* * * *

The five dramatists and seven monologues collected here have been chosen because they display these aspects, n ot as artificial requirements, but as organic qualities, in degrees varying according to the individual vision that drives each work. Each is in its own way what Lucy Gough calls a landscape of imagination . Each knows, in Sharon Morgan s words, that she could be another woman/ But she wants to be herself . Each knows, in Lucinda Coxon s words, of the other little girl, who wasn t me b ut could have been . And each knows (irony being one of the moods most deliciously made room for by monologue) that of course she could have died here, if she d made the effort . That all these quoted claims come from the monologues themselves shows how alertly circumspect the form itself can afford to be. It is hard these days, says the already ambiguous speaker in Lucinda Coxon s piece, to be ourselves . But what is powerful is the wide range of human emotion and experience, of pleasure and o f tragedy, that this negotiability of identity allows, quietly, to emerge. Sharon Morgan s Magic Threads is woven around both a literal and a metaphoric quilt of memory. The bed-quilt is not just parti-coloured; made from actual pieces of family clothing, it evokes a family s history, inseparable from the collective uncon scious of a race. Its magic realism evinces not only the question Who am I? but also What is a Welsh woman? Christine Watkins s Welcome to My World features the tortured questionings of Ada, a Builth Wells spinster who has recently buried her crazed mother. It is addressed to her sister who vanished mysteriously at the age of four and has now, equally mys teriously, reappeared. A deft mixing of the comic and the tragic powerfully evokes, not only fear and madness, but also submerged and suppressed memories. Christine Watkins s Queen of Hearts is equally witty and disturbing. The 82 year old Annie imag i nes the bizarre appearance of the dead Diana, Princess of Wales, in an Aberbargoed park. The monologue explores the fears and fantasies of Annie s flatmate, Raye, a young highly-disturbed transvestite besotted with Diana, and Annie s own robust take on the strange obsessive world she is locked into. During the course of Lucy Gough s The Red Room, Charlotte Bront travels into an imaginary landscape of ice and snow. Strongly theatrical in a stage sense (the apostles cupboard, the sound effects), it still shows a mind engaged with what words on t heir own can best present - the feel of things and people not actually on stage. In Lucy Gough s The Tail, an anorexic girl, on the edge of womanhood, is reacting to how her body is changing. She is also, in her bath, on the edge of the flow of consc iousness and shapeshiftings evoked by water. Freed in this way, the piece becomes the monologue of a mermaid. Lucinda Coxon s I am Angela Brazil is a piece for a woma n in her mid-forties but to be played by a male actor . This prefatory direction then feeds immediately into an opening flourish by the actual actor: I am not, of course, Angela Brazil I am not prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be . . . ), so the illusion of theatre is both broken and confirmed at the very outset, thereby objectifying the shame unfolded in the various aspects of the life of this particular Angela Brazil of the text. Gwenno Dafydd s No Regrets came into monologue form indirectly, and yet, on a different view, from a very direct, significant source - that of song. The author, having lived in Belgium in the early 1980s, being fluent in French and blest with an exp ressive singing voice, performed frequently back in Wales in French cabaret. Edith Piaf s songs ar e, of course, a crucial part of that musical form, and the author accepted an invitation to link the sung texts within a one-speaker context. The result enables the author to contract and distil earlier episodes in the speaker s life and merge them with the speaker s here-and-now. It makes moving room for the direct speech of a former, as well as a present, self. Moving room - there s a metaphor to ponder. Perhaps nothing highlights the nature of monologue as a form better than this otherwise odd connection with song. The idiom of monologue is, of course, spoken words, not song, but song is still a good name for the resonances that can be contained wi thin spoken words. Song suggests the sap and sheer expressiveness of all spontaneous (or craftedly spontaneous) forms, including the expressed and implied monologues of others, their madnesses and their loves. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many of the monologues collected here use song itself as an ingredient. Are You Lonesome Tonight , beautifully, sadly sung by Jim Reeves or Dwedwch fawrion o wybodaeth / O ba beth y gwnaethpwyd hiraeth , beautifully, sadly sung by a whole culture, convin ce us even half-way through just listening to them. The work of words displayed in these monologues shows that this power comes even when the words are not, as Ezra Pound called them, those of persons moving about on a stage .

author:Hazel Walford Davies

original source: Parthian Books
01 December 2000


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