When you choose what you want, which is always expressed as a verb (“I want to . . .”), you’ll find there are Big Verbs and Little Verbs. The Big Verbs govern what your character wants in the entire play, or in an act, or in a scene. The Little Verbs govern what your character wants in a single Beat.
Let’s go back to Dora’s monologue in Equus. I’m going to choose “To justify my actions with regard to Alan to the doctor and to myself” as the Big Verb for the monologue (and the scene from which it comes). As for the Little Verbs for each of the beats I identified in a previous post, they are in boldface below and precede the dialogue in the beat:
(To establish why you don’t understand my situation) Look, Doctor: you don’t have to live with this. Alan is one patient to you: one out of many. He’s my son. / (To explain what this is doing to us) I lie awake every night thinking about it. Frank lies there beside me. I can hear him. Neither of us sleeps all night. / (To complain about your unfair attack) You come to us and say, who forbids television? Who does what behind whose back? – as if we’re criminals. / (To defend myself) Let me tell you something. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. / (To concede we aren’t perfect) All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. / (To defend my husband) My husband is a good man. He’s an upright man, religion or no religion. He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy. Alan had love and care and treats, and as much fun as any boy in the world. / (To demonstrate that I am not a stupid woman) I know about loveless homes: I was a teacher. Our home wasn’t loveless. I know about privacy too – not invading a child’s privacy. / (To concede that my husband may have contributed in some small way) All right, Frank may be at fault there – he digs into him too much – but nothing in excess. He’s not a bully. . . / (To blame Alan) No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all of our things added up. / (To make you understand) Do you understand what I’m saying? I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! / (To blame the real culprit – the Devil – and thereby back off of blaming my son) You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine. You call it a complex, I suppose. But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil. You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says. The Devil’s there. It’s an old-fashioned word, but a true thing . . . / (To apologize) I’ll go. What I did in there was inexcusable. I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came.
Why is this more helpful than playing emotions? Certainly there is some anger in this piece, but if you choose to play the anger, you’ll be inclined to be angry throughout the monologue. Once you look at the individual beats and their verbs, however, you can see why anger doesn’t work well throughout. Just think of these beats in terms of aggressive/defensive, and you’ll find they seesaw between these two positions. The aggressive verbs? Establish, complain, demonstrate, blame. The defensive verbs? Explain, concede, make you understand, apologize.
The verb “defend” can be either aggressive or defensive, depending on how you choose to play it.
Once you understand that Dora uses a variety of aggressive and defensive tactics to justify slapping her son, it is easier to see how the emotions she feels throughout the speech are in constant motion, conflicting with and contradicting each other. This inner torment can be fascinating to watch. We never know what to expect from Dora. We like her one moment, pity her the next, hate her in the third, sympathize in the fourth. The whirlwind of emotions that pass through her keep our attention, keep us thinking about this extraordinary story Shaffer has presented us with, trying to sort out the moral and ethical questions it raises, to figure out who’s the “bad” guy.
The seesawing happens so quickly and often that even if we could accurately identify an emotion per beat (and “anger” doesn’t work for all of the aggressive verbs), it isn’t a practical approach. To make a conscious switch from one emotion to another takes too long and is unbelievable to watch. It’s your conscious brain making the switch, not your subconscious; in real life, it is always the subconscious which is in charge of your emotions, and your subconscious makes all such switches in an instant.
Try to make the switch with your conscious brain, and the audience will see the wheels turning in your head. That’s all it takes for them to stop believing in you.
If you stop worrying about whether you are using the right emotion (should I be angry? Irritated? Defensive?) and simply try to accomplish your verb, the right emotion will come along all by itself. (Assuming, that is, that you’ve left the door to your emotions open.)
Let’s take the first beat to see how this works: “To establish why you don’t understand my situation.” Or maybe I decide to rephrase that, to replace “establish” with “explain”. Or to use “To put you in your place.” Feel free to try on different phrases, like you’re trying on different shoes, until you find a phrase that really resonates for you and feels “right”.
Whichever phrase you end up with, I can imagine any number of emotions that might come up as a result, and they are the adjectives and adverbs we are inclined to act. Angry. Resentful. Frustrated. Hurt. Exasperated. Sarcastic. Superior. I can also imagine two or more of these co-existing during the beat, depending on exactly what verb I choose. But the magical thing about playing the verb is that I don’t have to pay much attention to the emotions or figure out which is the “right” one. “Explain” and “establish” are going to bring up slightly different emotions without me having to pre-plan anything. “Putting you in your place” will naturally bring up a very different set.
Playing verbs is infinitely easier to do than playing emotions and adjectives. I don’t have to choose the “right” sort of anger (and anger, as with all emotions, comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.) All I have to do is try to explain something. Or defend my position. Or concede a point. Or blame someone else. Which is very simple and straightforward.
See Playing the Verbs Part II here. See Playing the Verbs Part III here. See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here. See Choosing Verbs here. See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here. See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.