It’s nice to know where you stand, isn’t it? Says the man who avoids checking how many people are reading this blog. Sometimes, I’d rather not know where I stand. But for the sake of this opening paragraph, I would.
So here’s the thing.
In comedy, you almost always know where you stand. You express something you believe to be funny and the subsequent laugh – or the strangling “dead spot” – immediately tells you how it went, graded in calibrated degrees, from “amused chuckle” to “They laughed till they peed.”
Under standard conditions, “audience response” is the laugh maker’s indisputable “Report Card.” You may think you’re hilarious but if nobody else thinks so, you’re not. You may actually be crazy. Or simply comedically ahead of your time. Which amounts to pretty much the same thing, varying only in strength of medication.
I like comedy because, although the received news may sometimes be bad, at least there’s a (generally) reliable “measuring stick.”
Which, from this (aspiring) funny person’s perspective does not seem similarly available in drama.
You knowwhen you’re funny; the audience lets you know. If you’re, like, trying out a play, or something, and there’s no laugh where one was expected, the signifying “No laugh” identifies a "Srinkeroo" problem, and you come up with a replacement.
What I am curious about is,
How is the writer’s qualitative success or failure determined in drama?
They fall asleep? An uncertain indicator. I fell asleep in a London theater – make that “theatre” – during a performance of Hamlet. Substandard writing? No. Jet lag.
They cough? Maybe they’re sick. They fidget? Maybe the seats are uncomfortable. They walk out? Maybe they walked into the wrong theater.
Normally, a drama plays out onstage and the audience sits quietly in the dark. But “sits quietly” could mean anything. Including simple politeness. How can a dramatist tell if it’s the right kind of “sits quietly”?
What is the indicating dramatic counterpart to the laugh?
You had their attention. But was it “rapt” or was it “wavering?” Was it “casual” or was it “intense”? How do you know? Do you canvas them after the show?
“Excuse me. Was that ‘rapt’ attention or was it ‘wavering’?”
“I would say more ‘rapt’ than ‘wavering’, although not a hundred percent ‘rapt.’’
Does anyone actually dothat?
If I knew any drama writers I would ask them the not entirely polite question,
“How do you know what you’re doing?”
Because I honestly have no idea.
Say I decide to write a confrontational dramatic interlude. A couple’s standing in the woman's apartment living room, after a serious dispute.
Okay, here we go. The argument’s climactic payoff.
SHE: “I want you to leave.”
Wait! “What”? Why did he say “What”? I have to knowthat. You can’thave some gratuitous “What?”
Maybe he’s surprised. (SURPRISED) “What?” Maybe he’s upset and it’s affected his hearing. “(I’m sorry.) What?” Maybe he’s confused, momentarily believing they’re standing in his apartment, the “What?” thenimplying, “What are you talking about?”
Maybe he forgot his next line, injecting an improvised “What?” to buy himself time.
What if, instead of “What?”, he does that Method Acting“echoing” thing, where she says, “I want you to leave”, and he says, “You want me to leave.”
That’s kind of a cliché, though, isn’t it?
“That ‘echoing’ thing. Really?”
It also impedes the narrative’s progress. We already heard she wanted him to leave. Repetitions, though purportedly realistic, can slow down the performance, kicking the babysitter’s charge into the next hour.
What if she said, “I want you to leave” and he staresat her, daring her to say it again? That feels kind of dramatic, creating a “tension of wills”, the audience, anxious to see who wins.
But how long of a stare, is the question? You specifically write in “A long stare.” But you know actors. They take advantage. How do you keep the “stare-length” in check, before it turns “a dramatic moment fraught with unimaginable tension” into an opportunity for the audience to check incoming e-mails?
So many ways to go. He could say, “Fine.” He could say, “No.” He could suddenly turn English and say, “Pardon?” What’s the optimal alternative? And how do you know when you’re doing it right?
“The audience laughs dramatically”?
There’s no such thing!
In the meantime, with literally hundreds of such choices to be made writing a play, I’m stuck forever on “I want you to leave.”
I don’t know, maybe it’s like everything. Quoting the inimitable “Senor Wences”:
“For you easy; for me diffi-cult.”
It could be as simple as that. Writers of comedy can write comedy; writers of drama can write drama. Though I still think there’s a difference, one, which, it now occurs to me, can be, though educational, also potentially shattering.
Along with signaling “laugh” comes the hecklering,
“You’re not funny!”
You neverhear anyone shout,
“You’re not sufficiently dramatic!”
In that regard – though in that regard only–
I would definitely trade.