Clarity of language = creative thought: a new post from Gwendolyn Schwinke

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In writing my director’s notes for the She Stoops to Conquer program, I quoted a poem by Taylor Mali – one that we had looked at last year in my Extreme Shakespeare class. Because of space considerations, I’ll only share part of the poem in the program, and so I wanted to share the entire thing here. 

Totally like whatever, you know
In case you hadn’t noticed,
It has somehow become uncool
To sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
Have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences – so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not –
have been infected by a totally hip and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just the like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

 What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of  . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
It is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY,
You have to speak with it, too. 

See:  Mr. Mali generously gives readers permission to share his work as I’m doing now.  I encourage you to visit his website for more poetry and ideas. 

So, what does this poem have to do with She Stoops to Conquer, a comedy written and set in 18th Century England?  In selecting a show to direct for this season, I wanted to find something that gave our actors the challenge of speaking with conviction. To me this means speaking with clarity, speaking from the heart, and also having fun with words. The language that She Stoops to Conquer playwright Oliver Goldsmith has given us does exactly that.  This play is from the Georgian period (when King George III ruled England), and was written in 1773, about the time of the American Revolution. The language is much more contemporary than that of about two hundred years earlier, when, say, William Shakespeare was writing.  It sounds pretty much like the way we speak today, with the exception of some unique words and phrases.  The cast and I have had a lot of fun learning those archaic words – as well as re-discovering words that are still at play in contemporary language; our Assistant Stage Manager, Matt Vichlach is serving as de-facto dramaturge, sitting in rehearsal and visiting the Oxford English Dictionary online at our beck and call.  Michael Achenbach wows us with his lightning-fast research abilities on his new I-Pad.

We’ve expanded out vocabularies to include delightful mouthfuls of language:  tête-a-tête, bagatelle, Catherine wheel, mauvaise honte, assiduities, malignity, and – what is apparently Mr. Goldsmith’s favorite word – impudent. For indeed, Mr. Goldsmith is no Shakespeare, and does re-use some words (especially “impudent”), quite frequently. Cast members have been joking that they want shirts with a pointing-finger graphic and the text “I’m with impudent” emblazoned on the front.  But I think there’s a reason “impudent” appears so often in this play: Goldsmith was out to tweak the nose of traditional comedy, and he wrote an intentionally impudent play.  He reminds us that true communication is not a stale exercise in following rules, but is an ongoing creative act involving jokes, play, risk, rule-breaking and even mistakes.  Just as Taylor Mali challenges us to be articulate by inviting us to “join me in my uncertainty,” so Goldsmith, by creating characters that misunderstand and misuse language, invites us into a world where communicating is a creative act.

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