2020 Archive

A Playwright Crosses the Border into Fiction

Reflections, Rants, and Raves
Lydia Stryk

April 30, 2021

Lydia Stryk

Lydia Stryk is a playwright and occasional essayist. Her plays have been performed across the US and outside its borders. Her first novel, The Teachers’ Room, delves into the passions of school teachers in a small town in Illinois, very much like the one in which she was born and raised. It will be published by Bywater Books in 2022. More at www.lydiastryk.com

By age four, I felt destined for the stage. I was in running dialogue with myself by then, and was, though outwardly shy, a full-blown drama queen. At seventeen, I found myself in a drama school and the rest (it seemed to me) would be history. When I looked in the mirror, I saw Bette Davis, who, in my eyes, was a perfect vessel of monstrous passions, quite like my own. It followed from there, in my warped idea of the acting life which I drew from biographical details put forth in the tabloids, that having chosen to be an actress, I was doomed to tragedy in my personal life. I would be unhappy in love and other relations, very much alone, hopeless in affairs of the world, perhaps end in a gutter. But I would be a great actress and theater was all that mattered. Marriage, domesticity, children, these held no interest for me, whatsoever.

Along the way, I was voraciously reading novels plucked from the shelves of my small-town library’s children’s section, moving on to more adult fare, starting with Agatha Christie, finding my way to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Flaubert, the Brontes. I particularly loved Dickens and Balzac with their larger-than-life characters whose motivations were never pure, but always human. I graduated to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Graham Greene. The erotic in D.H. Lawrence, the esoteric in Herman Hesse.

I eventually read plays, too, but differently. In high school English, there was Hamlet, of course, followed by acting editions of school plays in which I had a part. Neil Simon, comes to mind. In drama school, these were joined by a varied repertoire of plays, with soaring emotions and moral predicaments, as well as hilarity, both classics and contemporary. But plays were scripts for acting, not things to be read in and of themselves. The experience of reading plays had nothing to do with my experience of fiction, which I continued to read for pleasure and escape. You could get lost in the world of a novel, and it was a solitary act.

I was set on being an actress and briefly became one, and then, after a series of detours, I became a playwright. I stayed a playwright for a very long time and the thought of writing a novel never crossed my mind, until it did. I spent several days writing a novel, failed to get beyond the first three pages, and put my ambitions aside. It was just too different, too far from the art of the stage for me to get anywhere with my rather clever idea, really. It was not my form of expression. Besides, which, there was always some reason to write another play.

Still, over time, the desire to sit down to a longer project, perhaps alone on a desert island somewhere, a project that would consume my life for years, in other words, to finally write a novel as I understood it, was gaining on me.

That chance came with a four-month residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, where I began what would eventually become my first novel. But what I began writing in that special place with its big skies and magic mountain, was very different from the expectations of fiction, and it has taken me from then until now to understand something about the subject.

As my sister-in-law, an early reader, gently pointed out to me, the first draft of my first novel consisted of summary of place and action followed by long passages of dialogue. Does that sound familiar, friends of the stage? I was writing an over-long, plot-crammed play, in the guise of a novel. It took a patient and very generous friend, a teacher of writing, to help me understand that I would have to show my readers what I had previously left to actors, directors and designers. Now, this may sound self-evident, and does in hindsight, but the concept was entirely foreign to me and not exactly a piece of cake. I set about the work again, this time as if I were shooting a movie, and the book got better. After fits and starts, I began to enjoy describing the way my characters moved across a room or used their hands. I even got a certain kick out of describing their clothes and the sound of their voices.

I cut back on irrelevant plots and honed in on the strands of the story I was really interested in telling and took the plunge of sending out queries to dozens of agents. Two asked to see more. One even offered praise while suggesting that my book was dialogue-heavy (the result of my being a playwright, she assumed) and seriously in need of expansion with reflection.

Now here was something new! The idea of having my protagonist reflect on things was radical. In all honesty, I hadn’t the faintest idea what the agent meant or what reflection entailed. But with the help of my patient writing-teacher friend, who scribbled in the margins where reflection was due, How does your character feel about that? What does she think about what she is doing? (questions left to actors in the rehearsal of a play), slowly and painstakingly, I began to describe and comment at the same time, transforming the manuscript into something even I could see was, well, more reflective, than it had been.

(Recently, I’ve read a most insightful lecture on the art of fiction by the novelist, Orphan Pamuk, which confirms my hard-won understanding of the novelist’s art. What matters in novels, Pamuk writes, is how a character “reacts to the manifold forms of the world—each color, each event, each fruit and blossom, everything our senses bring to us. The novel shows the world the way the protagonist perceives it, with all their senses.”)

I opened myself to this new form of seeing and reflecting with exuberant abandon. What I didn’t do, however, was cut back on the dialogue. Something stubborn in me insisted on holding on to it, despite the agent’s comment about my dialogue-heavy book.

Because as I was writing my first novel, I was reading novels, too, contemporary novels by the bushel-full, and I was observing something very surprising. As brilliant as many of these novels were, the dialogue in them often fell flat, as if the writer felt a certain pressure to place a bit of dialogue in the text, without really being interested or even proficient in writing it. I noted very few examples of an ear for the spoken word nor much dialogue that was revealing of character. I was shocked to find the dialogue in one otherwise monumental work, reading like a bad movie. In a work rich with profound historical sweep, philosophical insights and poetic imagery, a true page-turner to boot, the dialogue, when it appeared, was hackneyed, cliched. No wonder then, that some prize-winning novels were achieved with hardly a line of dialogue!

Had these novelists concluded that allowing their characters a voice outside of their own heads risked plunging them down to the mundane, a plane one assumes they are uninterested in exploring?

I began to understand that fiction writers had different, limited expectations of dialogue, employing it to punctuate moments in a story, like the production of evidence in a court of law.  Dialogue brought the real world into an imagined space, a kind of grounding technique, a pilot’s nosedive. And it occurred to me that novelists might be uninterested to the point of avoiding dialogue not only because they were busy doing so many other things, but also because they had not understood its capacities, its beauty, even, and that any playwright worth their salt is using dialogue in a completely different way from the fiction writer and that this was a topic worth thinking about.

So, what is dialogue, anyway? It is the playwright’s primary tool and weapon, utilized to create and develop characters, to provide background information, and very importantly, along with the settings of scenes, to move plot and tell a story. Characters are often to be found “painting with words”, Orhan Pamuk’s term for the novelist’s art, as they describe what they see and feel to others or in monologue form. Dialogue is also famous for placing value on what is unsaid, expressing yearnings and regrets in pause and silence. In short, it is a listening-in on human connection. Aesthetically, dialogue in a good play lifts off the page, transcending the written word because it is written to be spoken. It is also a form of music and might be sung.

It stands to reason that readers of fiction, including agents and editors, may be less likely to recognize the potential of dialogue in fiction, having rarely experienced it. I was discussing this with a widely read theater friend who drew my attention to several novelists who use quite a lot of dialogue and beautifully. And there was a time when novelists went out to Hollywood in droves. But the art of film is more akin to fiction than the stage, narrative drives the film, the camera follows. Today, it is playwrights who are transforming the art of television into something akin to theater, not novelists.

But television aside, dialogue is playing less of a role in every aspect of our lives as we pass our days glued to the screens on our phones and other devices. The very need for spoken language is under assault. Let’s be honest, who talks anymore? We’re all inside our heads. A bit like characters in contemporary fiction, come to think of it.

A telling aside. Somerset Maugham is most remembered for his novels, including Of Human Bondage, which won him a place in literary history (his work spans the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century). Less well known, is that he was one of the most successful playwrights of his day. His crowd-pleasing comedies graced several West End stages at the same time. As he writes in his magnificently honest literary memoir, The Summing Up, his plays made him extremely rich, and he gave up on his early attempts at fiction to focus on the theater. Here, he describes his relief at leaving fiction behind:

“Passing the Comedy Theatre, I happened to look up and saw the clouds lit by the setting sun. I paused to look at the lovely sight and I thought to myself: Thank God, I can look at a sunset now without having to think how to describe it.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Despite the enormity of his material success, he tired of the theater, grew bored with its limitations. (“A play is a piece of writing in dialogue devised to be spoken by actors and heard by an indefinite number of persons,” he writes, and you can almost hear him yawning.) He left the theater for good and returned to fiction writing. His plays may be forgotten but his late fiction lives on. Which is only to say that in his lifetime, Somerset Maugham grappled with both fiction and drama and the strengths of each. The richness of his late novels no doubt derives in part from the playwright’s art.

Since writing this piece, the unthinkable has happened. We are living through a plague. We’ve been forced on to our devices for the most intimate of connections and to sustain any semblance of a life in the theater. Zoom performances abound, manifesting as hyper self-consciousness, not unlike the work of an earlier avant-garde. For the avant-garde, alienating techniques of performance were deployed to comment on our isolated condition. This was an aesthetic deliberately devoid of spontaneity. In much the same way, zoom is a running commentary on our isolation, our lack of presence and connection. But its alienating effects are put in service of connection, resulting in a strange yearning and tension. A disconnect. A paradox. It is interesting, but a little goes a long way.

That first novel of mine will be published. I’ve been toying with adapting it for the stage. But despite a number of ready-made scenes and out-sized portions of dialogue in the book, I’m having some trouble. Because as much as I love dialogue, I’ve been enjoying this new art of reflection just as much. I’ve begun to crave the inward thought, the camera’s eye. And I’m left wondering how I might go about writing a play these days. I no longer feel bound to the strictures of the stage. And maybe that’s as it should be (and always has been for writers braver and more far-seeing than I have been).

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