Playwrights are literary (and how this affects acting beats and performance)

A good playwright doesn’t just know how to develop a plot, maximize conflict, and create interesting characters.  All these things help plays to be successful, but playwrights aren’t merely practical creatures.  They (the good ones, anyway) also know how to use literary devices to their best advantage on stage.

The kinds of literary devices I’m about to talk about help to focus the audience’s attention on what is important, as well as to make what is happening as clear as possible.

Here is the monologue from Agnes of God that Davina is working on, along with the Beat marks she is presently using.  They are slightly different than the ones she started with, because it became clear that the literary choices of the playwright help to determine the Beat divisions.agnes1

Dr.  Livingstone:  How dare you march into my office and tell me how to run my affairs – how dare you think that I’m in a position to be badgered or bullied or whatever you’re trying to do.  Who the hell do you think you are?  /  You walk in here expecting applause for the way you’ve treated this child.  /  She has a right to know!  That there is a world out there filled with people who don’t believe in God and who are not any worse off than you!  People who go through their entire lives without bending their knees once – to anybody!  And people who still fall in love, and make babies, and occasionally are very happy.  She has a right to know that.  /  But you, and your order, and your Church have kept her ignorant, because ignorance is next to virginity, right?  Poverty, chastity, and ignorance, that’s what you live by.

What are the literary devices John Peilmeier uses in this monologue? 

REPETITION.  Repetition means at least two of something.  It’s typically used to emphasize something, and Peilmeier uses it (forgive me) repeatedly in this monologue.  Two examples:  “how dare you” and “She has a right to know.”

GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES.  We talked about lists of threes in comedies, that three is the necessary number for a joke to be funny when it involves a list of some sort.  It doesn’t just apply to jokes, however.  When a writer wants to emphasize a point, he often builds to it by using a list of three.  Such lists can be used in a number of ways, but typically they escalate upwards emotionally, as in big, bigger, biggest.  (Choose to use them differently if you like, but be sure that you recognize that there are three related items which need to be delivered with some sort of variety in order to be effective.)

This monologue has a number of lists:

  • How dare you/how dare you/who the hell – forget that the third element doesn’t begin with “how dare you”, it is nevertheless the climax to this list of three.
  • Badgered/bullied/whatever you’re trying to do
  • People who/people who/people who
  • You/your order/your Church (and notice how each element is tied to the Mother Superior)
  • Ignorant/ignorance/ignorance
  • Poverty/chastity/ignorance (notice that “ignorance” is part of two separate lists)

FRAMING.  Framing is when the repetition begins and ends a thought.  “She has a right to know” is used to frame a list.  Just in case you forget where she started, why she made the list, Peilmeier reminds you by hammering it home with the closing frame.

A less obvious frame is in the last two sentences.  It is an implied frame, because it begins with “you, your order, and your Church” and ends with “that’s what you live by”, which is another way of saying the list that begins this section.  Just in case you forget that Dr. Livingstone is directly accusing the Mother Superior, the phrase “that’s what you live by” brings you back to where she started.

Peilmeier uses these devices to make sure you get his major points.  Words in a play can fly by, and you don’t know which words are the most important ones unless the actor and/or playwright help to underline them for you.  Peilmeier presents the actress with some great tools in this monologue; your job is to use them to their best advantage.  Don’t swallow any of the repeated words, and make sure your audience knows you are giving them a list.  The need to give them some variety in delivery will also help you explore the emotional underpinnings to your character at this moment.

With regard to choosing the beats when you find literary devices like this, make sure you include them in one beat.  Lists, frames, and repeated words typically belong in the same beat.


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