by Mary Jackson (Feb. 2008)
A country road. A tree. Evening.
Oh God, God Oh. I’m bored already. But Beckett’s stage directions are no more boring than his dialogue; in fact they seem pretty much interchangeable:
A country road. A tree. Evening. A ditch! Where? Over there.
Most stage directions are mundane (“Enter the King”), but some are quite challenging. Mel Gussow in the New York Times:
If taken literally, the demand for obeisance to an author’s stage directions may in other hands represent a gauntlet thrown in the face of potential directors and designers. Recently there was the case of Heiner Mueller’s ‘Hamletmachine,’ which, in passing, announced as a stage direction, ‘Snow. Ice Age.’ The New York director discreetly ignored those instructions. The following examples, climactic stage directions in acknowledged classics, are unattainable except in one’s imagination:
‘As the castle burns, the bud on the roof bursts open into a giant chrysanthemum.’
‘The avalanche buries him, filling the whole valley.’
‘Rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning. The earth opens and swallows him up.’
In order, these directions are from Strindberg’s ‘Dream Play,’ Ibsen’s ‘Brand’ and Moliere’s ‘Don Juan.’ Though I have seen productions of all three, some of them ingeniously conceived, none has equalled the fantastical quality described by the author. And what does one do with such a sweeping pronouncement as that made by Christopher Marlowe in ‘Doctor Faustus,’ ‘Hell is discovered’?
Arguably the most famous stage direction of all time, in ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ has been consistently disregarded in performance. As written, the line is ‘Exit, pursued by a bear,’ not ‘Exit, pursued by a man in bear costume.’
Indeed it does not do to be too literal minded, otherwise you might have problems with this, from Titus Andronicus:
Enter Lavinia, her hands cut off, her tongue cut out and ravished.
My favourite stage direction of all time is from Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun. The play, which is about the conquest of the Incas, is on an epic scale and has a huge cast. The stage direction in question is a laconic: “They cross the Andes.”
This is tricky. I saw an amateur production in Bolton many years ago. The dry ice didn’t work, and there was a lot of clomping about. It wasn’t much better at the National two years ago. The New Statesman gave it marks for effort:
With stage directions such as “They cross the Andes”, the play makes big demands of its director. Nunn responds with fluttering sheets of coloured silk. Hauled up into spikes and coloured white, they make mountains. Billowing red across Cajamarca, they are blood, and coloured gold they become – well, gold. There is lots of dry ice, and with green lighting and some clambering over benches we are supposed to think “jungle”
The Independent was more scathing:
Picture, if you will, much pointless banner-swirling, then pretend horse-riding followed by lots of vague clambering over imaginary logs in the Peruvian jungle amidst lashings of dry ice. It is as if decades of more sophisticated physical theatre have been obliterated and we are back at square one. On top of that, Shaffer’s most famously challenging stage direction – “They cross the Andes” – merely inspires what looks like laundry day: a couple of white sheets yanked up on ropes to suggest the awesome peaks.
Had I been consulted, I would have advised not crossing the Andes at all, but getting around them, as it were, by means of a neat little ad lib, viz:
“We’ve got to cross the Andes now. It’s going to be tough.”
[Curtain down. Pan pipes. Curtain up.]
“Phew. Glad that’s over with. A bit of a bugger, but we did it. We crossed the Andes. What now?”
The Andes crossing would be much easier on the radio. A few trudging and panting noises against a background of Andean sounds – howling wind, pan pipes, braying llamas, more howling wind – and they’re over. The listener fills in the gaps with no need for dry ice. Radio has other advantages. It is sometimes said of a homely actor that he has a face for radio. On the radio, within limits, the homely can be beautiful, the old can be young and vice versa. I say within limits: it is easier for a young person to sound older than the other way round. Conversely, can a handsome man or beautiful woman sound ugly, or does the attempt produce an aural version of “Ugly” Betty, whose plainness is as easily discarded as her nerdy spectacles?
If you cannot see your fictional character, you can better imagine him. A stage or film version frequently disappoints. The character is not as you pictured, and invariably, if this is a Hollywood film, too good looking. (I wonder if we will ever see a Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth is not prettier than Jane. And will we ever see a plain Jane Eyre or Mr Knightly?) Generally, your mind’s eye is superior to your real eye. But what if a character’s handsome looks are so at odds with his thoughts and deeds, that the picture may be contaminated? On the stage or screen we can see our handsome villains, but the matter is more difficult if you can’t. In Lolita, Nabokov makes Humbert Humbert remind readers of his attractiveness:
I do not know if in these tragic notes I have sufficiently stressed the peculiar “sending” effect that the writer’s good looks – pseudo-Celtic, attractively simian, boyishly manly – had on women of every age and environment. Of course, such announcements made in the first person, may sound ridiculous. But every once in a while I have to remind the reader of my appearance much as a professional novelist, who has given a character of his some mannerism or a dog, has to go on producing that dog or that mannerism every time the character crops up in the course of the book.
If such reinforcement sounds artificial or contrived in a novel, in radio drama it can be farcical: “Hello, John. Still got the old war wound, I see. My word, Rover looks older – cocker spaniels don’t usually last that long.” “Jennifer, what a lovely dress. Blue is so flattering to the over forties, wouldn’t you say?” Radio, as you see, has a problem all of its own: it needs to identify people as well as describe them. In the long-running radio soap opera The Archers, close family members constantly address each other by name. Moreover, they are easily startled and have defective peripheral vision: “Oh, Phil, I didn’t see you there.” “Jill, I’m glad I bumped into you.” ”Eddie, is that you? I didn’t see you come in. Still wearing the same woolly hat?”
Coming back to my original theme of stage directions, radio would handle “They cross the Andes” quite well. “Hell is discovered” and “The avalanche buries him, filling the whole valley” are not impossible, as they would be on stage. But I am at a loss to see how radio would deal with “Exit, pursued by a bear”. Footsteps and growling noises? An extra line: “There goes the bear too, hope it catches him”? Any suggestions would be gratefully received.
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