Features Essays Published 2 March 2011

Act Three: A Defence of the Word

In the third and final part of our serialisation of Arnold Wesker's three-act essay "Interpretation - To Impose or Explain", which was written in 1988 and updated in 2010, the playwright argues for theatre as the home of language and thought.
Arnold Wesker

I’ve read my plays around the world at theatre festivals to which many wordless productions have travelled from festival to festival, put together with the intention of appealing across the language barrier of audiences anywhere. They were ‘devised’ sometimes by the entire group or assembled from the imagination of the director. Their quality has varied from the imaginative to the banal, the witty to the cliché, the lyrical to the pretentious – image straining after image to say something without words. One question hangs over the mall: what or how much can be said without words?

At a certain level the question is redundant, even foolish, since three out of the four great art forms are wordless: music, dance, painting and sculpture. We can ask this question however: what exactly is it that music– to take the most popular of the wordless arts – can say without words? Or rephrased: what can’t it say?

Music cannot utter the words ‘I love you’. But that does not matter because notes can form a moving equivalent. Music cannot utter the words ‘I am depressed by human behaviour’. That, too, does not matter since music can create a disturbing equivalent for that sentiment. Can music recreate the tension between good and evil which literature deals with in great detail? The answer must be yes to that, too, though not in as great a detail nor, obviously, in detail of the same kind. So what exactly is it that music cannot do?

Human beings seem to progress through life helped by the exercise of thought and emotion. Music can handle emotion, it cannot handle thought. Let me clarify that statement. Music may not be able to handle thought but the composition of music engages thought. The composer must be thoughtful about music. Also music can excite emotions to such depths that the emotion prompts profound thoughts, but no composer would employ notes to argue a philosophical concept. I know of no passage of orchestral music that confronts me with the question ‘To be or not to be’. Nor can musical notes go on to present the specific arguments Hamlet works out for himself before deciding whether to be or not to be. We do not turn to music for the exploration of such distressing dilemmas.

I am identifying differences not establishing orders of merit – my life is inconceivable without music which I listen to more than I watch theatre, and personally I would prefer to have been a composer working in the abstract forms of music rather than in the contentious and murky waters of drama where thought can be argued with. Few think they can compose a better symphony than the composer, but many more think they can write a better play than the playwright. The point I am making is that if we want to experience art without words we turn to music, ballet, painting and sculpture. Theatre is the home of language and thought, and in these days when TV screams bullets, terror and one-liner comedies at us, and the boards of most theatres bounce with musicals then language and thought are at a premium.


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