Friday, February 17, 2006

Text, Context and Blatant Theft

Text, Context and Blatant Theft

I've come to accept - albeit with some sadness - that in a redraft it is necessary to kill bits of writing which you love. These are usually lines - sometimes whole speeches - which are essentially good bits of writing but which are just not right for the play they appear in or the character they belong to. And it breaks your heart a little when you have to bash them over the head with a candlestick holder. But you have to.

In SSoB's first draft Will had a lovely little speech concerned with his experience of teaching students Russian history and in particular about Trotsky and Stalin. It was nicely written, made some good thematic patterns and felt true to Will. But it slowed down the action at the point when the play should have been hurtling towards its climax. And in a play which is still top heavy with writerly symbolism (oh the chess, and the water, and the Byron and Shelley, and the Gatsby etc etc) it was - even for me - a step too far. So it had to go. But I still mourn it. There was another line - this time belonging to Harry - that I equally knew should go but I didn't have the heart to press the delete key. It was stolen and twisted from a line in The Waves *as Harry talked to Jay about his inspiration for painting. It was probably the closest to poetry that I'm ever going to get. But - even for Harry at his most pretentiously artistic - it didn't ring true as speech. It was too conscious. Because I loved the line I tried to keep it in, embedding it in others, hoping that it would slip through. When I went to see my first rehearsal of Act Two the line had gone. The director and actors had been able to do what I couldn't - but what needed doing - and throw the line into the bin.

In Four Chords I knew the section which was going to be problematic from the beginning. And such is the power that these sections present I still put it in knowing that further down the process I was going to have to potentially remove it. I wrote the outline of the passage over a year before I started Four Chords and I loved it. I loved what it was saying - I loved what it wasn't saying - and I loved how it said it. Again I had some Woolf in my head**, this time a vague memory from Jacob's Room, and again it tended to the poetic. But the 'constantly beating refrain of war' speech, which had worked in a prose context felt too ordered and decorative in the speech of one of my characters. And as the play had no real time context its reference to Saddam Hussain's capture stuck out like a Mcfly fan at a Slipknot gig. Why was this man a figure in the play? Four Chords doesn't have politics. It has music. And if Hussain went, then the refrain of war would have to go too.

But this brought the question of the play's timing. I'd plotted the action so that it was possible that Hannah saw Ben and Jude gig for the first time on the day of Hussain's capture, a good three or four months before the actual start of the play. Whilst my notes reveal that the events of the play go from March 2004 to January 2005 within the play itself there is very little which solidly pins down the time. Seasons pass in clothing, a date of release is uttered, but no more. Could the story in Four Chords happen during any year? Was there something within it that meant that it had to happen in 2004? And why had Hussain popped up?

If I've discovered that Four Chords is asking questions about faith in our society then surely the context of that society has to be established. In that respect 2004 is important. How loaded are the terms ' religion', 'faith' and 'belief' in Britain in this timescale? If SSoB was attempting to assert what it might be like to live in Britain post 1997, is Four Chords attempting something similiar for a different group of people in the middle of the noughties?

So I began to look at what was going on whilst Ben and Jude were releasing their album, performing at their gigs and playing 'marry, shag, kill'. And I built up a little timeline of the year and suddenly there was a context. The refrain of war speech had a purpose. It still needed dealing with but its essence could stay. It became clear that I could now plot specific dates for each scene and the play seemed to widen out again.

I won't know until I've slotted all of the pieces in whether this context will ultimately feed the ideas within the play or squash them. But it has yeiled one of my new favourite sections:

Ben: What does it say about us as a society that - in whatever way - some guy thought that it was ok - that it was the thing to do - to go and shoot someone standing on stage playing a guitar?

Ella: Ben, it's a society where footage of music videos can be on the same programme as footage from hostage videos.

Ben: That's different - that's terrorism.

Ella: I don't think it's that different. You can't spin yourself somewhere cosy and warm away from the world by playing a guitar or banging some drums. There isn't that divide.If the reality of this world is children being blown up on their first day of school or of people being beheaded because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time then it follows through that this is a world in which someone can be shot whilst standing on a stage.

Ben: But this was in America.

Ella: And that makes it more real? Like the trains in Madrid made that more real? This is how it is. We're not safe from life. We never have been.

So I feel, at the least, it's been a worthwhile exploration.

*As one of my favourite poets said 'immature poets imitate, mature poets steal'.

**Don't think that I only steal from Ginny. No writer is safe.

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