The Playgoer: Flash: Witty Repartee NOT "Dialogue"

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Flash: Witty Repartee NOT "Dialogue"

I don't know anything about young playwright Annie Baker, but she sure has gotten some press this week for her upcoming Atlantic show Body Awareness.

Who knows if the play's any good. But I do like hearing someone say this:

“Most naturalistic plays I see are a bunch of middle- or upper-middle-class people being witty,” Baker notes. “I don’t actually find wittiness that funny.… The tragedy of bourgeois society is that we’re never that funny. People write these plays where everybody onstage is saying what we all would say—days later, when we think up what would have been the funny thing to say. But I think we are actually incredibly earnest and serious and kind of pathetic. That’s funnier to me.”
Amen, sister.

Of course that's one sure way to raise the expectations of your own work...

Correction (6/1): Didn't realize I initially wrote Barker instead of Baker. Apologies to the playwright.

13 comments:

isaac butler said...

i have read BODY AWARENESS and quite liked it. I'm told that NOCTURAMA is even better. and i would say that quote is an accurate description of her writing.

Jaime said...

I love Nocturama. Looking forward to seeing this one.

Art said...

Quick, somebody ask her where the heck she sees all this wit on stage.

I certainly see many plays with upperclass or middle class characters for whom the playwright has TRIED to write witty repartee.

True wit is an almost endless pleasure and, (yes Ms. Baker,) it is ALSO funny.

But it is extremely rare and many hollow attempts try to masquerade as the real thing.


"Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation." - Mark Twain

Malachy Walsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Malachy Walsh said...

Art, have you been to the theatre?

Did you see plays like THE RABBIT HOLE? Or anything by David Hare?

Whether the "wit" in such plays is the kind of "wit" you're talking about or not, I certainly understand where Baker is coming from.

And while I wouldn't reject the "wit" of those plays, I'm sort of interested to see how what she's said translates onto the stage.

Art said...

Sorry, I think I wasn't clear.

Actually, Malachy, I see in the neighborhood 80-100 productions a year. (34 so far this year.) And read many more texts.

My question is: Has Ms. Baker been to the theater?

My point was not that I have SEEN true wit very commonly on our stages. (You bring up very good examples of wit free plays.)It was that I haven't.

The playwright is blaming "wit" and "wittiness," without any evidence.

All I was saying is that her frustration seems to be with playwrights TRYING to be witty and failing miserably.

She isn't interested in trying to be witty, and good for her, I mean that. And I am interested in how what she's said translates onto the stage as well.

I think we're on the same page, Malachy, but don't blame wit, especially when it wasn't in the area of the crime.

Anonymous said...

Never mind failed wit. Since when is how people "REALLY" talk the measure of the best playwriting. Are we really so stuck in naturalism? Gimme some pentameter!

The Playgoer said...

Just to weigh in myself...Of course, if the witty banter truly is witty and delivers the goods, who's to complain? I don't at all object to good "boulevard comedy" when someone like, oh, Paul Rudnick, is at his best with the one-liners. There is a distinct pleasure in that kind of comedy done well. Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, of course, continue to be the templates.

The problem is when less comically gifted writers fall back on more tortured and half-laugh wit to liven up an otherwise dull and earnest play.

I must say I've found Richard Greenberg guilty of this many times--in his contemporary comedies less than his period plays, which I prefer. But it's mostly the sin of playwrights we haven't heard of because they're not famous, but get readings and workshop productions everywhere.

But it's also probably been then fallback of mediocre dramatists from time immemorial. And stems from the old prejudice that "good" writing must be "intelligent" and "articulate" writing.

Malachy Walsh said...

I'd just like to add, that I didn't hear anyone here - in the comments or the post - saying that "naturalism" is best.

And I didn't read Baker's remarks as necessarily leading there (though that may be where she goes).

In fact, I believe a lot of "witty repartee" is offered under a pretense most of us know as naturalism even though there's nothing natural about it. And that's about all I thought Baker was saying.

However, I do find it weird to read someone suggesting that "naturalism" is so terrible.

Terrible comes in all kinds of forms and has plenty of examples in all genres. Not just naturalism.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this, then, just an argument against bad writing? The first time I looked at her comments, I thought to myself, "she's just being defensive because she doesn't have a sense of humor." In truth, I'm still not 100% sure I know what she's talking about. Perhaps she's resisting the "whimsy" of Sarah Ruhl? (Something I don't respond to, myself.)

But to suggest that wit has no place in "naturalistic plays" because no one can come up with a snappy response without at least two days to prepare is simply preposterous. She must throw some dreadfully dull dinner parties.

Malachy Walsh said...

You're intentionally misreading her observation.

She didn't suggest wit didn't have a place in "naturalistic plays" - only that the point of many scenes in many so-called naturalistic plays have a bunch of people sitting around quipping and out-quipping each other. Which seemed at odds with her observation that most people aren't that funny at the dinner table.

And they aren't. Even as written.

You can watch a bunch of talk shows on cable where culturally acknowledged wits (Christopher Hitchens, PJ O'Roarke, BIll Maher) model this behavior and see for yourself: it's not funny there, either.

Malachy Walsh said...

Oh, one more thing, beyond all this funny, not funny thing...

I hear more than an argument against "bad writing" which is just a relative notion anyway.

To me, it's an argument for trusting a character's direction in a scene instead of forcing the conversation into broken up ideas with jokes at the ends.

Or, a very good improv teacher said on a similar note, Gag the scene, stop the scene.

The Playgoer said...

Piggybacking on Malachy's point, I take this observation as also a healthy caution against using your characters as just rigged mouthpieces for yourself, rather than exploring them as representative of the lives of others.