Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Play Writing - The Dialogue

( Originally Published 1915 )

Every phrase, with Dumas, hits the mark; as there is not in his plays an idle word, there is likewise none that is lost. His language is all muscles and nerves; it is action. And at the same time it gives to the idea a strict and decisive form, it sculptures it. If it often lacks literary purity and grammatical correctness, it has always dramatic relief.—GEORGES PELLISSIER, Le Mouvement Littéraire au XIXe Siécle.

I do not know whether one could find a single mot [detachable witticism] in Molière....In revenge, the mots of passion, of character, of situation sparkle on every hand....You will find not a single thing that is amusing because the person who utters it wishes to be amusing. He is so, without knowing it, by the sole fact Of the situation in which he finds himself and of the character which the author has given him.—FRANCISQUE SARCEY, Le Mot et la Chose.

After action, pantomime and dialogue are the chief means by which the personages in a drama reveal themselves and tell the story in which they are involved.


Pantomime I name first because, from the dramatic standpoint, it is the more effective agency. Quantitatively, it is by its nature limited. Gesture, attitude, and play of countenance aside, a hundred things are usually said for every one that is done. Yet, in a broad sense, as has often been averred, a good play should be reducible in its essentials to pantomime: otherwise it is likely to prove upon analysis to be largely composed of non-dramatic conversation.

The pantomime element lies chiefly, of course, in the hands of the player rather than of the playwright. The author, however, must have full knowledge of all the feasible expedients of dumb show that may best be utilized in the expression of his story and characters, and he must provide for them in advance, if merely to avoid their duplication in the dialogue. Wherever pantomime may be employed, repetitive dialogue is not only uneconomical, it is positively devitalizing. What can be shown by gesture, movement, facial expression, significant pause, should rarely also be said in words. On the other hand, it must be remembered that pantomime has its limitations,—that, after all, it is not possible to "indicate by the wriggling of the left shoulder that one's paternal grandfather was born in Shropshire."

Kinds of Dialogue

Dialogue in the English drama may usually be classed as poetic, rhetorical, or realistic.

The poetic is generally in the form of blank verse. It belongs to a convention that is now rarely employed—a form of the ancient assumption that the heroic personages of tragedy in particular speak an exalted and ornate language not common to ordinary mortals. Similarly the characters in grand opera, as everybody knows, discourse in song.

Rhetorical dialogue partakes of the same heightened nature as the poetical, though it is usually mere ornamented and elaborately wrought prose. At the present time neither poetic nor rhetorical dialogue is in much demand in the theatre. Dramatists like Rostand and Hauptmann and Stephen Phillips still employ verse; others, like Mr. Percy Mackaye in several of his plays, choose for their medium a decorated and highly polished prose; but the large majority of playwrights assiduously cultivate realism in the speech of their characters.

There are occasional hybrid efforts to combine the realistic content with the poetic form, to put everyday speech into blank verse, or to mingle the realistic and the symbolical in iambic pentameters. Mr. Witter Bynner's little tragedy, "Tiger," is an example of the former; Mr. Israel Zangwill's "The War God," of the latter endeavor. In both these plays, for the most part, ordinary, unheightened speech is cut into five-foot lengths. The presence of the symbolical element in "The War God" perhaps justifies the expedient. But--to me—the gutter-speech of the vile creatures in "Tiger" when put into blank verse produces the effect of a horrible burlesque and detracts from the forcefulness of the narrative. For the sake of the meter, moreover, the characters are made to use interchangeably complete forms or contractions—"I'll, I will; cannot, can't," and the like—without regard to the probabilities, and so in opposition to the very effect of realism desired.

Generally speaking, model realistic dialogue is that of which the playgoer can say that it sounds as if it were being spoken for the first time, had not been written, and could not, on another occasion, be exactly repeated. Of course, there are plays making some pretense to lifelikeness that employ a dialogue that is frankly artificial, crowded with clever conceits and generally reflecting the tradition of euphuism that has clung to the English drama for centuries. "Half the young ladies in London spend their evenings making their fathers take them to plays that are not fit for elderly people to see," is a typical Shavian wrong-side-out witticism from "Fanny's First Play." But, amusing though it may be, it is not nearly so telling as Dora's genially impudent retort to old Gilbey's heart-broken cry, "My son in gaol!" "Oh, cheer up, old dear," she says, "it won't hurt him: look at me after fourteen days of it: I'm all the better for being kept a bit quiet. You mustn't let it prey on your mind." Or compare Duvallet's elaborate, "You have made an end of the despotism of the parent; the family council is unknown to you; everywhere in this island one can enjoy the soul-liberating spectacle of men quarreling with their brothers, defying their fathers, refusing to speak to their mothers" --with this other delicious bit:

Mrs. Gilbey. Bobby must have looked funny in your hat. Why did you change hats with him?

Dora. I don't know. One does, you know.

Mrs. Gilbey. I never did. The things people do ! I can't understand them. Bobby never told me he was keeping company with you. His own mother!

The latter passage obviously appeals because of its naturalness; it does not impress upon you the fact that it has been thought up in advance.

The Principles of Dialogue

Every line of dialogue, Mr. Augustus Thomas tells us, should either reveal character, advance the story, or get a laugh. As for the detachable witticism, it is justifiable in the realistic drama to the extent that it is probable. A clever man will say clever things; a dull man will not. And even the wit will not always be at his best—though it is no deadly sin if, on the stage, he is.

Any speech that does not harmonize with the mood or tone of the scene or with the general atmosphere is, of course, strictly out of place. Hamlet has said his say about certain villainous practices that make the judicious grieve, and it applies as thoroughly to the tasteless playwright as to the tasteless clown. In farce and fantastic plays wit per se will be much more welcome than in serious drama. Indeed, keynote and tone may sometimes be struck and maintained to the best advantage by means of detachable witticisms. All the rest of the dialogue, however, should be composed of that which reveals character or advances plot or does both.

The principles that chiefly apply to satisfactory dramatic dialogue are selection, or economy, and emphasis. The characters should speak in what appears to be their natural everyday language, and yet they must avoid the repetition and digression of ordinary conversation, and what they say must be carefully arranged with a view to forceful effect. Above all, the dialogue must never be allowed to get in the way of either plot or characterization, lest one or the other trip over it.

An inevitable concomitant of naturalism has been the introduction of inconsequent verbosity on the stage. Compare the leisurely irrelevancies of a play, say by Mr. Granville Barker, with the crisp, abbreviated, fragmentary speech of the characters in. say Mr. Augustus Thomas's play, "As a Man Thinks." In the one case you find interminable disquisitions, which impede action and are at best only slightly revelatory of character—sometimes not at all.

Necessarily this makes for monotony and, if continued long enough, for madness.

Equally reprehensible is the use of long and involved sentences, where short staccato abbreviations and fragmentary phrases are indicated by both the characters and the situation. As a matter of fact, very few of us speak much in full-rounded sentences: a word or a phrase does ample duty, and what is suggested suffices without being actually said. "Create characters that are human beings," was Clyde Fitch's formula for success in the drama; "place them in situations that are reflections of life itself; make them act—and, above all things, have them talk like human beings."

The soliloquy, the monologue, the "aside," the "apart," as we are so often reminded, are practically taboo on the stage of to-day. It is not worth while to spend time in a discussion of the reasons and justification for their banishment. The would-be playwright should simply avoid them. As a matter of fact, in view of our universal leanings toward strict realism, he would do well also to discard certain related devices which, though still in fashion, are essentially unnatural. Such, for example, is the dialogue carried on "down stage" by two characters, which the audience can distinctly hear, but which is supposed to be inaudible to the other actors on the scene. Cases in point are the restaurant scenes in "The Phantom Rival" and "Life." Similarly, the pantomime conversation indulged in "up stage" and letters read aloud purely for the benefit of the audience are artifices which the ultra-realistic might reasonably regard with contempt. Occasionally some of these conventions actually lead to a deplorable absurdity, as in the case already cited of "La Samaritaine."

Connotation in Dialogue

Naturally, the best dramatic dialogue of all is that which is not merely denotative but also connotative—that which implies and suggests a freightage of emotional significance it could not possibly carry in actual expression. For example, in "L'Ange gardien" the audience as well as several of the characters are eager to ascertain who it was that for five seconds turned on the electric switch beside the outer door and so discovered Madame Trélart tête-à-tête with her lover, Georges Charmier. At length, in the presence of Monsieur Trélart, when direct speech would be out of the question, Thérèse Duvigneau, Madame's self-constituted guardian angel, remarks—in reply to another's platitude, "So many things can happen in half an hour,"—" Even in half a second. The instant of a flash of lightning is long enough to change a destiny."

"Very true," observes someone.

"And very banal," adds Thérèse with a smile.

Georges Charmier watches her narrowly as he suggests,

"Banalities sometimes have a very specific meaning." "That," replies Thérèse, sustaining his gaze, "which

one wishes to give them."

And a moment later she casually remarks to Georges, apropos of his quarters, which are under discussion, "You don't even have electricity here!" adding, "Though I'm quite sure you have had plenty of it!"

In the fourth act of "Cyrano de Bergerac," after Roxane has arrived at the camp with her carriage-load of provisions, the famished cadets of Gascony, who have been stuffing themselves, observe the approach of the unpopular Comte de Guiche. Quickly hiding victuals and drink, they proceed to make merry at his expense. He has just signalled for an attack of the enemy, which is to be directed at their position, and he announces that he has had a cannon brought up for their use in case of need.

"As you are not accustomed to cannon," he adds disdainfully, "beware of the recoil."

"Pfft!" sneers a cadet. "Gascon cannon never recoil." "You're tipsy," says Guiche in surprise. "But what with?"

"The smell of powder!" is the proud reply.

Earlier in the play, it will be recalled, the Comte, angered at Cyrano's defiance, demands, "Have you read `Don Quixote?' "

"I have," replies Bergerac, "and I take off my hat to him."

"Meditate, then, upon the episode of the windmills," says Guiche, going; "for when a man attacks them, it often happens that the sweep of their great wings lands him in the mud."

"Or else," retorts Cyrano, "in the stars!"

In "Within the Law" Mary Turner marries Richard Gilder as part of her scheme of revenge for the wrongs done her by his father. When in the Gilder home a "stool pigeon" is shot by an accomplice of Mary, the police at first accuse her of being guilty. This she denies; whereupon the officer, pointing to her husband, asks, "Did he kill him?"

"Yes," she answers.

Naturally, the immediate suggestion is that she intends to add the disgrace and possible death of Richard to her revenge upon the elder Gilder.

However, the next moment Mary adds, "The dead man was a burglar: my husband shot him in defense of his home."

Perhaps these examples are not the most apt; but they will probably suffice to illustrate connotative dramatic dialogue. Mastery of this medium is, of course, to be gained only through much practice and an infinite capacity for revision, as well as through the most complete imaginative grasp of character and situation.

Connotation in Pantomime

As may readily, be understood, this element of connotation or suggestiveness in the drama does not confine itself exclusively to speech. Pantomime, "business," depends largely on the same quality for its effectiveness.'

"Cyrano de Bergerac" is rich in instances. The proud cadets, unwilling to let Guiche see that they suffer from their hunger, pretend absorption in their playing and smoking, as he enters the camp. When he boasts of his trick in escaping the enemy by throwing away his white scarf, asking, "What do you think of that for a stroke?" the other Gascons feign not to be listening for Cyrano's reply. But they keep their cards and dice-boxes poised in the air, and the smoke of their pipes stays in their cheeks, till Bergerac answers, "I think that Henri IV would never have consented, even though the enemy were overwhelming him, to have stripped himself of his white plume." Then there is silent delight among the cadets. The cards fall, the dice rattle, the smoke is puffed out.

"The ruse succeeded, though!" Guiche maintains. And there ensues the same general suspension of play and of smoking.

"Still one does not lightly resign the honor of being a target," retorts Cyrano. And again cards and dice fall, and smoke is exhaled.

Bergerac's superb "gestes"-the tossing of the purse of gold to the discomfited comedians; the flinging at the feet of their employer, Guiche, of his vanquished bravos' tattered hats; the unexpected production of the white scarf which the Comte had said no man could retrieve, and live—these and many others are obvious examples of connotative pantomime. And, to repeat what must be often said, dialogue in the drama should never begin until after pantomime has left off. That which the "business" . has so emphatically expressed is only weakened by repetition in words.

Sarcey, writing of the "Fédora" of Sardou, tells us, "This whole first act is a marvel of mise en scène. It is made up of nothings, and yet there issues from it an inexpressible emotiOn. It is life itself, real life, placed upon the stage. The author, in his malice (I use this word purposely), has set the inquest on the front stage, while the wounded man is being cared for behind a closed door. Each time this door opens for some detail of service, the image of the dying man appears to interrupt the investigation, which a moment later is resumed."

It all springs from the fundamental fact which Sarcey himself more than once avers he will not cease to repeat—and which his followers have often enough reiterated: "Tout est illusion au théâtre."

Dialogue Not a Substitute for Character or Plot

So far as dialogue is concerned, above all else the playwright must remember that no mere verbal felicity will ever substitute for character and story in the drama. There are, as I have said, whole scenes of scintillant epigram-making in Wilde, but there are also brilliancy of characterization and ingenuity of plot. There are many lines of fresh and captivating music in "The Playboy of the Western World," but there are humanity and struggle in generous measure besides.

In the plays of lesser yet able playwrights action often lags while dialogue flourishes. It is thus even in so interesting a conception as Mr. Israel Zangwill's "The Melting Pot," where at times declamation too greatly predominates over dramatic incident. It is so, too, in "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,"—oddly enough, dramatized by that arch-realist, Mr. Eugene Walter, in "The Winterfeast" of Mr. Charles Rann Kennedy, and in the "To-morrow" of Mr. Percy Mackaye.

"The work of the theatre," Sarcey avers, "is above all a work of condensation. The mind of the author must make all the reflections, his heart must experience all the sentiments the subject comprises, but on condition that he give to the spectator only the substance of them. This phrase should sum up twenty pages; that word should contain the gist of twenty phrases. It is for the playgoer, who is our collaborator much more than we realize, to find in the little that is said to him all that which is not said; and he will never fail to do so, so long as the phrase is just, and the word true."


1. From one of your own plots, describe a situation and give explicit directions for the "business "—all pantomime.

2. From any printed modern play quote a specimen of excellent poetic dialogue. Be sure to choose a play that has had actual stage production.

3. Similarly, give a good specimen of rhetorical dialogue.

4. Similarly, of realistic dialogue.

5. Write two specimens of realistic dialogue based on one of your own plots.

6. Write a specimen of dialogue using either epigram or delicate humor.

7. Write a bit of dialogue intended to reveal character.

8. Write a bit of dialogue intended to advance the plot. Base it on one of your own plots and explain your object in using the dialogue.

9. Cite as many instances as you can of (a) connotative dialogue; (b) connotative pantomime.


Home | More Articles | Email: