The Vanishing Monologue, Part I

January 18, 2011

In a perfect world, writers of ability would pen works of merit and they would leap onto the stages of the world in the mouths of gifted actors. This ideal has not been the experience of any of the authors who I have encountered, and so we employ several tactics both to bring attention to our work and to earn money for bread.

Besides query letters, publications in catalogues such as YouthPLAYS, websites, etc. another useful tool to draw attention to our work is to have monologues performed by auditioning actors or theatre students. This often inspires directors and producers to seek out the script that contains some interesting character or turn of phrase.

Occasionally it is possible to earn direct revenue from publication of monologues in anthologies. Great Scenes and Monologues for Young Actors (Smith & Kraus) included excerpts from my authorized adaptation of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and earned for me a small stipend plus a place on library and bookstore shelves.

Often I have, however, searched through several dozen new plays without finding a single monologue worthy of note. This absence suggests that contemporary writers have either abandoned the use of monologue or lost the ability to craft them efficiently.

Frequently plays will include large tracts of lines interrupted by brief responses. Occasionally these interjections can be excised and the remainder compressed to create a coherent passage. More often the reconstructed piece lacks escalating structure and includes abrupt changes of mood.

When one thinks of great theatre often the evidence of expertise is in fact the well crafted oration of a single character the soliloquy of Hamlet has been repeated, paraphrased and parodied. (“To pee or not to pee…”) The proud rejection of artistic pandering by Cyrano de Bergerac (Act II) has been reproduced and posted on the writing tables of innumerable authors as a reminder to resist the mind numbing allure of wealth. August Wilson has lined his mantel with Pulitzer prizes by including sometimes convoluted stories of trains and cursed pianos.

There is an entire genre of first person narratives performed by monologists such as Anna Deavere Smith, Whoopi Goldberg and Spalding Gray. There also are several historic works that use narrators as monologists. (Well known examples are the stage manager in Our Town, the psychologist in Equus or Pip in Great Expectations.)

Few plays are diminished by the inclusion of a well placed, well written monologue that simultaneously reveals the psyche of a character and advances the plot. The rare play that is not improved by such an addition is probably suffering from a much longer list of weaknesses.

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