Why do We Take Words for Granted When it Comes to Theatre?

Harriet Wilson

Don't get me wrong, it's not just theatre.

In day to day life, we use words as a means to an end. We communicate functionally; we go from A to B, and we give remarkably little thought to which words we should use to get there. And then there are some people who use words as a continuous, hollow barricade against silence – but let's not go into that; we could be here for days.

Be pragmatic; there really is no poetry in a shopping list, and there is little use in pretending otherwise. In day to day life, of course, we're not going to spend hours debating the best way of expressing ourselves – but it should be different when we are creating, experiencing and talking about theatre.

What's the most impressive thing about Les Misérables? The score? I mean, who could fail to be affected by the crescendo of music in, say, One Day More? Or the visual effects? The barricade, flag, lighting, the rotating stage …

Well, what about how it's actually written? The quotes that we remember from Schönberg and Boublil's writing, we only remember because they are amplified through music and staging. I would argue that we wouldn't have given a second thought to the quote “for the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies ...” if it wasn't part of a larger-than-life musical number.

I mean, how many of us come out of the theatre inspired by the poetry of Javert singing “my heart is stone and still, it trembles”?

As audiences, we are far too distracted by the more “in your face” elements of theatre (music, dance, staging, physical comedy) to give a proper amount of attention to the foundation that it all rests on: words.

When I consider that (okay, a few hundred years ago) people went to the theatre to hear a play, it makes me wonder where that appreciation of words went.

To a large extent, this is reflected in how reviews are written. Sure, critics might mention that a script is 'well-written', 'hilarious', or 'compelling' perhaps. But you rarely get more than one adjective attributed to the naked writing that forms the foundation of a production. I review shows myself, and I have to admit that I rarely comment on the nuances of script-writing.

We need to stop ignoring it.

Which brings me to review-writing in general: what makes a good review? Well, it has to be fair, informative, concise, confident … but it should also be well-written. Words are an art-form. We may be writing informative pieces, but we are still writing. Reviews should be composed with the same attention to detail as any other piece of literature would be.

All in all, we are just too comfortable with throwing away words. We do it so easily that we never really think about how, actually, sentences can be miniature fragments of art. And why not? When we are watching plays and musicals, we should take the time to appreciate the poetry of theatre, as well as everything else that goes with it. And that applied even if we're not watching Hamilton.

As for those of us who write, it really all comes down to what we want our written voices to sound

like. It's up to us; we can either choose to sound like we are reading from slides in a Powerpoint presentation, or we can be writers and embrace the artistry of the language in which we communicate.

What do you think? Do we take words for granted? Tweet me at @thespian_blog to join the debate.


Harriet has been immersed in the theatre life from a multitude of angles, from writing to working backstage to performing. She spends most of her spare time in the West End or regional theatres and fills the rest with talking about the wonderful world of theatre through regular blogs. For more of my blogs and reviews, check out my website, Thespian Therapy, and follow me on Twitter, @thespian_blog

Thespian Therapy: https://harriwords.wordpress.com/