On Quotations and Playwrights

This morning’s New York Times got me thinking about the language we use and the importance of the grammarian role.

We are What We Quote is a lovely piece in which Geoffrey O’Brien muses about our tendency to quote. He writes

Quotes are the actual fabric with which the mind weaves: internalizing them, but also turning them inside out, quarreling with them, adding to them, wandering through their architecture as if a single sentence were an expansible labyrinthine space…Quotations bring other people, most of them long dead, into the solitary realm of thinking and writing until there is a sense of sitting in the midst of a room noisy with passionate confessions and pointed interjections…

At a certain point, in a necessary act of appropriation, you make it part of who you are, whether or not you ever quote it to anyone but yourself. Culture then is not a wall “over there” but the very tiles out of which your own thoughts are constructed. The tiles are variegated and of different ages and subject to every kind of manipulation and juxtaposition. They take their place finally among quotes of a different kind — the quotes that are quotes to no one but you, all the things that friends and lovers and family and strangers and random voices on radio or television have said that cling to your memory and come back at odd hours of day or night, the words that become part of an alternate canon of what has not yet been written down. Out of all that mixing, with luck, might come the rarest thing of all, a new thought or fresh insight that can take its place with all those other sentences, a quotation that waited until just this moment to declare itself.

Then, in The Rough Beauty of Everyday Speech, Christopher Isherwood writes about the familiar beauty of the spoken language created by artists of the past and the cadence of everyday speech that at least some contemporary dramatists try to capture.

The Elizabethans did not address one another in iambic pentameter, after all, and few marital set-tos burn with the wit of the brawl between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The language we thrill to onstage is often a more literate or stylized expression of human speech, whether it’s the filigreed lyricism of Tennessee Williams’s characters, the eloquent dialectics that perfume Shavian drawing rooms or the staccato fireworks with which men flay one another in the best of David Mamet.

But since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least, there has been a countervailing trend: an attempt to bring the halting, admittedly unbeautiful way average men and women communicate to the stage without dressing it up. Chekhov probably set the standard for this more earthbound approach, although his characters still often engage in reveries that are hardly likely to have naturally fallen from the lips of real-life equivalents of his gentrified Russians.

Since then innumerable playwrights have brought the rhythms and colors of everyday speech onstage, to match the drab wallpaper and the proverbial (if not literal) kitchen sink.

O’Brien has a dual appreciation I think—for the compactness and the clarity of expression; in Isherwood I feel appreciation for word choice and cadence. All of these are crucial to expressing our thoughts in language that our listeners will appreciate and understand. The message for us is that we should read, watch, listen, and learn. And it’s a grammarian’s skillful and attentive ear that can guide us. Don’t sell the role short when you’re serving in the role; don’t disregard the good advice you get.

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