Saturday, January 3, 2009


The first season of The West Wing created symphonies of dialogue that stirred television and led to multiple Emmy awards--and it all began with a kid who watched plays just to hear the people talk.

We've been watching The West Wing on DVD, beginning from the beginning. What a treat to re-watch this truly great series--one of the three or four best ever--without commercials, and with subtitles (they talk so fast that I often had to tape episodes just so I could watch them later and catch what I missed.)

For the uninitiated, The West Wing aired for 7 seasons beginning in 2000, and centered on the West Wing of the White House. I'll leave the political commentary it inspires for another blog. Here I want to mention something about the series that was said on one of the "special feature" featurettes on the final DVD of season 1. (The special features are terrific, the episode commentaries not so much. Producer/director Tommy Schlame and writer Aaron Sorkin do the commentaries but don't actually say much, except how neat it is to see an episode they hadn't seen in awhile. Sorkin especially wants people to shut up and listen to the dialogue.)

The series had fine acting by Martin Sheen as President Bartlet and an ensemble cast, but it got its spark and notoriety from the writing of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote all but one of the show's first 88 episodes, to the end of its fourth season. As cast members in one of the featurettes note, they soon learned to speak Sorkin's scripts word for word, because everything was in the language. The words were not only precise for comedic and dramatic moments, but in weaving the episodes together.

Now here's the comment that jumped out at me. Sorkin said that his parents started taking him to the theatre at an early age, and even before he understood the stories, he loved the dialogue, and how they created symphonies of words. It was the dialogue he heard in plays that inspired him to write.

If you know The West Wing, you know it is dialogue-driven. It's people in rooms--and famously, walking between rooms--talking. Talk became the music that made a multiple Emmy-award winning television series.

A couple of days after I first saw this featurette, I happened to read a review of a volume of Gore Vidal's essays in the New York Review of Books. The review writer, Jonathan Raban, noted that Vidal began as a playwright, and that his experience writing dramatic (and comedic) dialogue became the distinctive voice of his essays. "His best essays are aural performances," Raban writes. "...I can think of no other modern writer, with the possible exception of the playwright Alan Bennett, in his published diaries, who has succeeded as well as Vidal in transforming lines of cold print into an instantly audible speaking voice."

So having been hit over the head with this point twice, I got it: dialogue--words, talk--on stage can become the essence of an individual and successful voice in other media, like television and print.

But this point tends to reinforce another that I also read this week, which gently suggests that talk is as important--possibly more important--in theatre than the visual and conceptual elements that tend to dominate these days. Shakespeare was the specific case in point, and the matter of assigning some priority in staging and direction to making it easier for audiences to hear those words.

Now where did I read that bit...? Oh yes, in my column in the Journal. So here's the relevant passage, with a few more words...

Northcoast Prep doing King Lear got me thinking about Ronald Harwood’s play, The Dresser (also a movie with Albert Finney), which was about a small Shakespeare company playing the English provinces during World War II, based loosely on Donald Wolfit, reputedly one of the great Lears of the century. He was a last exemplar of the “actor/manager” school, and the theatrical style emphasizing the star, declaiming the great Shakespeare parts.

That rejected style had its excesses, but as a general comment, today’s emphasis on concepts and creating “stage pictures” may have gone too far in other directions. Those old-style actors knew how to make sure they were seen and heard clearly. They created the stage equivalent of close-ups. It’s really not that Shakespeare’s language is so difficult; just that there’s a lot of it. Instead of devising distractions, I’m in favor of making it easier to see and hear the words spoken.

That's partly a matter of projection and diction, but it is also a matter of making sure the speaker is seen. That's something those old actors of the classics knew in their very experienced bones: in order to be heard, the words must be seen. Not in phony hand gestures, but in the faces of the speaker.

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