Monologue sledgehammer

Mary McCool monologuing for the PlayPenn reading of Hum
Mary McCool monologuing for the PlayPenn reading of Hum

I saw a tedious play a few weeks ago, and one of my issues with it was its reliance on monologues.  Each of the three characters had her own ten-to-fifteen-minute speech, during which she elaborated on her feelings and background.  More recently, I saw a play I liked quite a bit (Tigers Be Still, at Azuka Theatre), which was framed by a series of monologues by the protagonist, giving the story structure and context.

In the second case, the playwright was using “asides”, which is a specific sort of monologue.  In an aside, the protagonist is typically alone on stage, directly addressing the audience.  In a basic monologue, the speaker addresses someone else on stage, who sits there and listens along with the rest of us.

The danger with asides is that, left unchecked, they’re just an actor reading a short story out loud, which is great, but that’s another form of entertainment.  Theater is about choice, and without a second character—someone to fight with or conspire with or compromise with—the protagonist can’t choose anything.

Straight monologues have their own problems.  They can work magnificently on film (Can you really imagine Jaws without Quint’s story about the Indianapolis?), but I notice that, usually, the listeners are cut out of the shot, which solves the inherent problem of trapping two actors on stage with nothing to do but listen to a third wax philosophic for fifteen minutes.  Actors hate that crap.

I shy away from monologues.  By their nature, they insert a lull in the dramatic action.  But, like any other tool in a toolbox, they have uses.  A monologue can set up a dramatic bang later on; by telling the story of the Indianapolis now, Quint makes the shark scarier later.  Or, they can be effective as a juxtaposition to other actions on stage: near the end of my play, Hum, Eva has a long aside that devolves into babbling, but while she’s speaking to the audience, her husband is literally beaten to death behind her.

For effective as both examples are, notice that they’re intellectual rather than dramatic.  We don’t need the story from Quint—we can just watch him react to the shark—but by this point in the movie, everybody has been screaming, and Quint’s intellectualizing about what makes sharks so horrible adds a dimension to the terror.  Similarly, I could have let Eva react to her husband’s death by screaming or fighting or going catatonic.  By choosing to have her intellectualize events while they’re happening, I created a particularly disturbing scene.  And for bonus points, my other on-stage actors weren’t just sitting around listening to Eva; they were engaged in brutal activity.

So, yes, monologues can be an effective tool, but you can’t use a sledgehammer on every problem.  A character spelling out her feelings in a speech is a simple solution, but I guarantee it’ll be more dramatic to let her show her feelings in a scene with another character.

Nine times out of ten, you’ll want to use a claw hammer.  The art of playwriting is recognizing that one time when a sledgehammer is the right tool.

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