Talking Like Real People
By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
I recently saw a criticism of David Auburnís play, Proof, in which the writer remarked, ďReal people donít talk like that.Ē Itís a peculiar, and peculiarly interesting, assessment on several levels.
First of all, itís certainly not the consensus view. Few reviewers even discuss this aspect of the play; most focus on the issue of whether or not there is enough story there, and on the idea that mathematical proof has little to offer when dealing with real life. Some are fascinated by the idea of the undiscovered mathematical proof, others by the character relationships—love among the intellectuals is always fascinating to the intellectuals. Those who do address the question do so favorably. Clive Barnes remarked in The New York Post that Auburn ďprovides characters behaving credibly and natural dialogue without a single stagy phrase stumbling the flow,Ē and John Simon, in New York magazine, remarks that ďthose of us who want their dramatic characters to be real people need not feel excluded.Ö All four -- whether loving, hating, encouraging or impeding one another -- are intensely alive, complex, funny, humanÖ.Ē
Could it be that the characters donít mumble enough? There certainly is a school of dramatic writing today that values, curiously enough, inarticulate speech, and the more inarticulate the better. I envision the day when a script will consist of a series of stage directions: ďHe grunts. She grunts. They grunt at the same time.Ē For an art form that is wholly based on the value and importance of the spoken word as the essence of action, it is truly strange to see some practitioners attempt to do without the central element of their medium—rather as if architects were to decide that shaped space is not important to what they do.
Of course, real people do mumble sometimes, and a really gifted playwright can do wonders with characters that seem to mumble, that donít seem able to express themselves with clarity and precision. Playwrights who do that have mastered a kind of theatrical prestidigitation, a verbal trompe-l'oeil that makes us think we are hearing less than we are. The way people speak in The Grapes of Wrath is not literary or intellectual, but it can be achingly clear all the same, and it has little to do with how real migrant workers of that time spoke; it has everything to do with making us hear what they truly had to say.
Every artist, in every medium, must select, arrange, shape, edit; must give texture and flow to natural materials. So it is with dialogue. People on stage will never speak like real people; dialogue will always be something different than natural speech. If natural speech were worth listening to for itís own sake—as dialogue must be in the theater—you could sell admission tickets to bus stations, restaurants and bars; people would be enthralled by the natural, untransformed dialogue they would find there. Somehow, that seems not to be the case; a piece of good speech from the natural environment is special, unexpected, worth remarking upon and telling others about. Providing that kind of expression doesnít just happen; it takes someone who can do what a dramatist does to make it so.
The most fundamental mistake, however, lies in the idea that theater ought to be concerned with surface reality. The central strength of this art form—the only thing it has left, really, in the modern world—is the ability to portray inner reality. We donít need characters who talk as if they were real; we need characters who speak in such a way that we know they matter. In the end, that is why Auburnís dialogue in Proof works. His characters come from the gut and try to deal with a profound human issue, one especially painfully trenchant in our modern world: the issue of trust. Who can we rely upon to trust us if not those who say they love us? And what if we do not get that trust? Thatís what there is to talk about. Real people definitely do not talk that way. They canít. They donít have the words to say what needs to be said. Thatís why they need a dramatist. Thatís what a dramatist does, why the work of a dramatist is valuable: a dramatist can say what real people do not say, because they canít, and the dramatist is the rare person who can.