Come, let us speak of things, marvellous and mundane, trifling and terrific.
Dialogue is a wonderful thing. Is it not? It brings dynamism and tension to a scene, conveys character and, let’s be frank about it, entertains and brings us closer. Speak and be heard. And I do not talk of cattle. Oh, wrong herd.
The question of dialogue in a novel is, perhaps, one of the most discussed topics among writers. What it is for, how it should be written and what it should not be are supposedly enshrined in immutable rules so that all may know and understand how to do dialogue. I like rules. Really. I do. See how my face expresses honestness and earnesty when I speak of them. For one thing, it’s hard to draw a straight line without one. And the world would fall over without them – straight lines, I mean. I’m all for staying upright. But dialogue? Let’s call her Jennifer.
So, who is Jennifer? What is she, exactly? Well, first off, she’s what you find between those curly things ‘ ’ or “ ”, quotation marks by another name, and we all know where other names led, don’t we. But let’s stick to curly things, at least while no one is looking. Anything that appears between them can be reasonably assumed to be, in general terms, Jennifer. More or less. But she likes to be free, does Jennifer, the kind of gal who runs naked along the sand, her hair dancing in the breeze, leaving footprints along the shore.
None of this means that a reader has to clear his (or her) throat, sit upright and speak forth the words between the curly things and become intimate with Jennifer, although, of course, they can if they is so moved and she allows it. But that’s not the point.
There is a case for arguing that dialogue does not have to be decorated front and back with either ‘ ’ or “ ” but the curvy – curly – things can make her easier to recognise. Nevertheless, text that is directed at the reader in a first-person narrative can be considered to be dialogue, of a sort. In my view, be it ever so ‘umble, is that first-person present is, in effect, a form of dialogue because the narrator engages directly with the reader as though both are present in the same place at the same time and one is speaking to the other. It is all an artifice, of course. It is all smoke and mirrors. When it comes down to it, if it works, then that’s all that matters.
Take Jack Coq for example. He speaks directly to you. He treats you as though you are there in front of him. He speaks in cant, criminal slang and madeuperisms of his own, none of which does he explain because, in the end, he assumes you understand him and cares not a fat fig if you don’t, just like a real person talking. And that’s how it’s written. Now, that’s dialogue. Ain’t it? We’ll come back to Jack Coq and the words he uses in a later blog. For the time being, we’ll stick with Jennifer because she’s a nice girl and good company.
So what is she, then, this dialogue stuff? What does she do? What’s she for? I mean, just what is the point of her? Eh? That’s all a tad cruel if you want my opinion and I think we should allow Jennifer to speak for herself.
Presenting Jennifer, ladies and gentlemen. Off you go, Jennifer, don’t be shy.
‘Thank you. Dialogue is not mere talking, of course.’
‘Dialogue is an excursion into another reality, reached through a side door in the text.’
‘Dialogue doesn’t mirror our conversations, arguments, instructions, discussions, rants and pleadings of the reality we inhabit.’
‘Does it not?’
‘Have you ever eavesdropped a real conversation between real people?’
‘Dull. Meaningless. Contextless.’
‘But I recommend it.’
‘Sounds pointless if you ask me.’
‘It’ll open your eyes.’
‘Your ears, I think you mean.’
‘Real-person conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a novel.’
‘Chalk and elephants, marmalade and flax.’
‘Real conversation bears no resemblance to the dialogue in a play, even.’
‘And the dialogue in a play bears no resemblance to dialogue in a novel. Yet they share a commonality.’
‘Thank you, Jennifer. That was most informative, wasn’t it ladies and gentlemen? There. You have it from the lady herself.’
The other day, I read a piece setting out the kidney of dialogue in a novel. Among its wisdoms was the pearl that dialogue in a novel could not show nuance. Can it not?
For dialogue to work well in any novel, three elements need to be brought together, not in some prescribed formula, but in a dynamic alchemy that turns lead into gold. These are context, character and intent. These should be embroidered on your sleeves, tattooed on your fingers, stencilled on your eyeballs, absorbed by your soul.
Without context, dialogue almost invariably lacks tension, meaning and point. And by context, I mean scene setting, not merely in the immediate area of the dialogue itself but long before, pages, chapters earlier. Which brings us to character. Character is essential as this gives form to the words, their rhythm and cadence, makes what each character says theirs. And intent. I love intent. Intent allows subtext that colours what is said. Take the line ‘Darling, I love you’. Without context you have no way of knowing whether the speaker means it (I would die for you), in what sense they mean it (I’m never going to see you again), or if, in fact, they mean something else entirely (I hate your guts and hope you get eaten by tigers). Context and character lead to intent. Play the text. Nuance? I should think so.
Dialogue is supposed to drive the story along by tightening a tension, running a dynamic, in a particular situation which can, of course, go contrary to what the reader is expecting. It can set up a crisis point in the action. It can be the turning point in the story. But for any of that you need context as surely as we need oxygen. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe.
Dialogue is not supposed to be an exercise in newsflashing, though, commonly referred to as information dumping. The revelation of details not hitherto mentioned or the repetition of information already revealed is not generally regarded as a good thing in dialogue. But, again, context is all. There are no rules, only guidelines. Information that must be imparted to the reader via dialogue can be reinforced with tension and act as a crisis point. The mere provision of information via some character turning up and delivering a newsflash becomes an exercise in dullness.
The issue of newsflashing can be entirely circumvented by adopting a policy of minimalism so that no character says more than about four words at a time, preferably fewer, except in specific circumstances. OK, so I ignored my own advice earlier but, hey, it ain’t a rule. Minimalist dialogue allows greater tension, more nuance and a stronger subtext to be written into it, should you so wish. The dialogue section should not be too drawn out, either, otherwise the tension is dissipated.
From all this, it becomes clear that dialogue should serve a specific purpose and should not merely break up the paragraphs of prose and act as light relief. This is the issue of intent. Why are these characters speaking? Do they mean what they say? Is there a subtext?
Subtext is a term more usually associated with plays than with novels. A subtext is created when speakers do not say what they mean, concealing their true intentions and feelings from those to whom they speak. Think unreliable narrator. This can develop a growing tension or introduce a new one, especially if the reader is gradually let in on the secret. But it can work just as well if they aren’t, provided they can be led to suspect that someone is not speaking honestly. If you give your speaker a long speech you tend to lose all that.
And silence. Do not overlook the silences. They can be very effective in building tension. Context is all, of course. Sometimes not saying something is more powerful that speaking. Credibility is lost if a taciturn character catches word diarrhoea. Moreover, if a character has more than one ‘sentence’ to utter, you have to ask why the other character(s) do not interrupt. ‘Sentences’ are not necessarily grammatically correct in dialogue, of course. Indeed, sentence fragments work much better. Silence, pauses and changes of subject are very effective tension drivers.
Which brings us to ‘he said’, ‘she said’, und so weiter. I don’t use them. Hate them. You have context. Don’t you? And if you have a multi-hander, context indicates who speaks. Actions can be better than speaker indicators; the latter are rather like sticking a hand up ‘Ooh, please sir, my turn’. Similarly, modifiers (she said loudly) are best avoided because they should be redundant because of the context (her voice was overwhelmed by the roar of the engine; of course she shouted).
Jennifer suggests that we have an extract from something. She suggests The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie. So, here we are.
I am none the wiser for Pigg’s exposition. His crew now present their case, each taking his cue for his predecessor, speaking by turn with a little action there, a bob and burn here to highlight the condition. All is random, so it seems. In and out. That’s the up and down of it.
‘We are players.’
‘Of modish means.’
‘We play all the parts.’
‘Comical and tragical.’
‘Poetical and musical.’
‘In many places.’
‘According to tradition.’
‘With a little social comment.’
‘To wet the wit.’
‘We have our entrances.’
‘And our queues.’
‘We provide diversions.’
‘Plays and performances.’
Pigg presents a majestic bow.
‘I am he. Henry Arlequin Pigg, master of all.’
A man goes into a shop and approaches the young lady behind the counter.
‘Good morning, young lady behind the counter. My name is George and I have come into your emporium to purchase some items from you if you would be so kind as to sell them to me. I live only a few hundred yards away from your shop but I used to live much further away in a house that needed a lot of decorating and had to come into the town on the bus, the stop for which is about 50 yards away from your establishment on the left hand side of the road looking east, so I still had a little bit of a walk if I wanted to come in here, which in wet weather meant that I got wetter than I would like but there you are, although I am always prepared for the rain because I make a point of carrying an umbrella, one of those collapsible ones which are very handy,’ explained George to the young lady behind the counter in a chatty and friendly manner because he was a chatty and friendly sort of chap.
‘Good morning to you George,’ remarked the young lady behind the counter whose name George did not yet know otherwise he would have used it as it is only polite to use someone’s name when you know what it is. ‘My name is Cynthia and I live about half an hour away and come into work on the bus every morning at about eight thirty unless the bus is late in which case I don’t arrive on time but the boss, Mister Plinth, is always very good about it and never chastises me, much. I work here, in this shop, called “The Shop” by the way, George. I’ve worked here for several years now and am very happy with my job because it gives me satisfaction to know I am helping people all day long with their purchases although when I was girl I wanted to be an astronaut but there you are. Did you know that?’ continued the young lady who worked in the shop called The Shop, behind the counter and was known by those who knew her as Cynthia.
‘Since you mention it, Cynthia, I didn’t know any of that. Thank you for trusting me with that information about yourself as it is very interesting. I appreciate your candour and I shall endeavour to cause you as little trouble as I possibly can in my attempts to buy what I came into here to buy,’ commented George in response to the young lady called Cynthia who was behind the counter in The Shop and always willing to help.
‘How may I help you George? What sort of items would you like to purchase from me in this shop called The Shop? I want to be as helpful as I can to you George as that is my job,’ responded Cynthia happily with a smile.
George entered the shop. He was desperate.
First-person narratives are traditionally viewed as being more restrictive for the author than third-person stories. And some writers get all sweaty under the armpits about the so-called rules that apply to first-person narratives, especially when they are disregarded or the author is so uneducated that they are quite ignorant of them: there are certain things you simply can’t do when you do first person. Ha! This presupposes, of course, that the narrative is of conventional form, whatever that means. In the traditional or conventional form, so it goes, the narrative can only go where the narrator goes so that no scene in the story can take place without the narrator being present. That’s fine. Up to a point. If that’s what you want. But first-person narratives can have a potency like no other, an intimacy that third-person cannot achieve. It depends on the narrator, of course (as opposed to the author although that is, perhaps, a moot point as he or she exists in the author, although that is also contentious but we won’t go there for the moment).
Jack Coq is a first-person narrative, largely because the story did not work as a third-person one. It had not started as a first-person narrative. As a third-person narrative, it lacked bite, although I was unaware of that when I was writing it. Nevertheless, whenever, I looked back at what I was doing, it seemed awkward, uncomfortable like a hair suit. First person, present tense – all the ingredients for anguish among agents and publishers – did not suggest itself. But I came to realise that for me – for me, it was me. It was – is – my authorly voice. In first-person I can slip into the skin of a character like an actor being subsumed by a role. This, for me, is the key. It means, if you like, that I’m no longer writing as me. I’m pretending to be someone else. And I defy anyone to find me, the author, in there. When you read my next first-person novel, you’ll see what I mean. Because, let’s be frank – nice fella – about this: first-person, present-tense are what you’ll always going to get from me (although that is perhaps a rash statement and I have no intention of being held hostage to it). I have gained an insight into first-person narratives through Jack Coq so that I can get inside the reader’s head. That is why some readers find Jack Coq so unsettling. I make you, the reader, become Jack so that you experience what he does. Of course, you could just dismiss all this as bare-faced bravado and artful arrogance regarding my perception of my own skills as a writer. I shrug. See?
The story that was to become The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie started out in conventional form, that is to say, third-person, past tense. It didn’t work that way. As I pressed ahead with it, the whole process of writing become more laboured and I felt the narrative slipping away from me. I became bogged down in swamps of telling. The forward movement of the story was clogged and obstacled and snared. By the time I had written 40,000 words, I knew I was in trouble and in danger of drowning in a lake of poor writing. Was I waving or drowning? The calamity of my circumstance struck like a lash across my cheek when I went on an Arvon course. That saved me because it made me think again about what I was doing.
A solution did not come to me for several months afterwards, however. And that was only because I wanted to enter a competition and I was forced into having to reappraise what I had written of Jack Coq with a different eye, not because I was going to enter it in the competition but because I was going to enter a sort of rewritten version of it which I intended to be significantly different from the original. I had to do this because I did not have the time to come up with something completely new. How was I going to accomplish any of this? I had no idea. So the conversation in my head went something like this.
‘What am I familiar with?’
‘In terms of a story?’
‘Yes, what am I familiar with in terms of a story?’
‘Well, you’ve got me there.’
‘Come on, think.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘Not hard enough.’
‘What do you want? Blood?’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘Well, think again.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘So what do you think?’
‘I give up. What do I think?
‘No. I’ve had enough.’
‘Go on, stay.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
‘Darling, I love you.’
‘Now, don’t start that.’
Eventually, the obvious kicked me in the shins and, while I hopped about in pain, a plan formed in the sensible part of my brain, a small dark place kept well hidden in case the bailiffs come calling. And it was this: the story I knew best was Jack Coq so why not rewrite that as a first-person narrative. That would be different from the original and would not look like it at all. I liked the sound of that and I said so.
‘I like the sound of that.’
But what about the scenes where Jack wasn’t present? What about them? They were important to the story.
‘What am I supposed to do with them, eh?’
‘Rewrite so Jack is present.’
I didn’t much like that idea. I said – well you get the idea.
‘I don’t like that idea.’
Yes. Thank you. We weren’t going there.
‘Just stick to the point.’
‘What is the point?’
A better idea. And it was this: do those scenes where Jack isn’t present in the second person so that it creates a sort of split personality. And menace and tension. So that’s what I did. And those people who read the second-person part, generally liked it.
Why the present and not the past, I hear you ask. A good and cogent enquiry. The more I reworked the story, the more I developed the notion of it all being a play, rather than the play happening somewhere along the way. And for that to work, I needed to create a sense of suspended disbelief (in a theatre, the audience is complicit with the actors by suspending disbelief about the action taking place in front of them as though what they see is reality). The present tense created a sense of immediacy as though it were a performance of a play which takes place in a sort of real time. I say ‘sort of’ because relativity applies here. Linear time in which each second and, hence, each minute and each hour, lasts the same period time does not happen in the theatre. And it does not happen in Jack Coq. It only appears to happen. Time has an elasticity and pliability in Jack Coq. It suits. It fits. Like another skin, one that is slightly too tight in the wrong places.
So, present tense, first-person becomes real time (of a sort) and adds a sense of uncertainty to what is going to happen as well an element of tension because physics might move the narrative in a quite unexpected direction at an unexpected velocity should someone interact with the actors. There is a sense this might happen. Now, then and might-be futures become one at times within the story because we have the duality of wave mechanics.
The second-person parts acquired menace merely because of being in the second person. It made Jack speak directly to the reader and he wasn’t always sweet. I liked that. However, the feedback I had from readers suggested that the second-person parts were getting in the way of the story. They were like speed bumps. Not that the story moves like a thriller. It doesn’t rush. It lingers with uncomfortable intimacy, moves on, then draws you back to an uncomfortable place. Readers usually imagine the story is funny. That it is meant to be funny. Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedie.
So, I rethought the second-person parts and came to the conclusion that I could handle those parts in an equally effective way if I discarded the notion that the narrator always had to be present. Did he? Did he really? Why? Yet, I retained some elements of the second person in that Jack still spoke directly to you, addressed you directly and still chided you when he caught you eavesdropping on his arguments with his self. Since this was a play and plays take place on a stage and stages have wings – of one sort or another – everyone is present all the time even when they aren’t actually on the stage to be seen. Which, of course, raised the issue of what actually constituted the stage in all this. All the world? That in itself was a justification.
So, I offer all this as an intellectual justification for my waywardness. But, actually, truth be told – and I like this bit – I don’t have to justify any part of it. It, this thing, this fiction I have created, needs no justification. It exists. It is. For all its faults and its weaknesses, its strengths are greater than its shortcomings. And nothing is perfect. Is it? No one can take that away. I confess, I always used to feel I had to justify myself whenever I stepped off piste (a fencing term, not the skiing thing at all). Not now. I shrug.
I write. I am.
As someone once wrote, ‘what’s in a name?’ Indeed. Finding the right name for a character is crucial to any novel. The right name goes to the heart of the character who claims it because, unlike in real life, the name is indicative of that character. In real life, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Mass murderers tend to have ordinary names like Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe, Ted Bundy, Fred West and Denis Nilsen, for example. Such names become notorious only after their owners have been identified as killers. Real mass murderers tend not to be named Pontic Badd or Grendock Bloode or Yenmo Dedd. Some real-life killers acquire sobriquets coined by the press or by someone pretending to be the killer. The name Jack the Ripper, for example, was invented by someone claiming to be the killer in a letter he sent to The Central News Agency in 1888. The name Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most notorious and infamous of any killer, real or imagined. Despite the fact that the murders occurred nearly 130 years ago, it is a name that is remembered because it resonates even in the modern era. Peter Sutcliffe became known as the Yorkshire Ripper precisely because of Jack the Ripper. ‘Ripper’ was the crucial part in all this but Jack was equally important. Jack is a strong name. It is one syllable long with a hard sound at the end.
Jack is a popular name for heroic protagonists, of course, in thrillers, crime dramas and adventure tales, such as Jack Reacher, Jack Frost, Jack Bauer, Jack Sparrow. And Jack is a name redolent of fairy tales – Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, Spring-heeled Jack, Jack and Jill. The name has a certain quality to it, a certain strength of – er – character. Perhaps, George or Mildred are equally popular names in fiction but they conjure different images from Jack. Quite different. So I called my protagonist Jack.
Originally, he was going to be just Jack but I realised that he needed a surname of a sort. So he became Jack Cock, then Jack Coq.
Coq is the French for chicken, of course, so combining it with Jack was counterintuitive according to The Philosophie and Understanding of True Names, a book yet to be published, and, indeed, written. But Coq is also a reference to the false charge levelled by Horace and Hobble, the two Constables, that Jack is a French agitator. And as with Jack, Coq is a one syllable name with a hard sound at the end. And, of course, Coq is a play on words because my protagonist Jack has a large cock. Which has its own name, Mister Pizzle, so called after the word for a bull’s penis. There are more slang words for penis than for any other part of the body, and these include plonker and pillock. But pizzle was the only appropriate one in the circumstances.
As for Horace and Hobble, these two resemble the Broker’s Men in pantomimes such as Aladdin and Cinderella but, in fact, their names are mere alliterative fancy. Ignatius Qwenk is also mere fancy, plucked from the ether, then made Dutch. He speaks Dutch in the story. Here, indeed, his name gave him more substance than a mere Johan Kepp (although that’s not a bad name) might have done. I tend to make up names although some real ones can be extraordinary such William Sweetbones (from a seventeenth criminal indictment ), Francis Younghusband (a British soldier and explorer) and Christmas Humphries (a British judge). The names of the Commedia characters in the story are all proper Commedia names, tending towards the Italian rather than the French or the Anglicised versions. He who the English call Harlequin, the Italians originally called Arlequino. Here, he is Arlequin. And Pigg is a real name.
Where the names in The Spectacle become a little more intriguing is where they allude to real people. Bill Shoe I have already mentioned in an earlier blog (a reference to Tom Stoppard who used the pseudonym William Boot). The connections of Barclay and Mercer, the two brutal orderlies in the madhouse, and of Fish, one of the inmates, to real people are less obvious. This is because, especially in the case of Fish, the connection is potentially slanderous. And deliberately so. The name and character of Fish is my thrust between the ribs to someone who did me a particular unkindness many years ago. He is, indeed, an artist and well known in his field, although when I knew him he hadn’t yet become one. It is unlikely that the person concerned would connect himself with the character Fish, however, who can only paint in blue and has Tourette’s. And the Commedia character Pasquariello, who attempts to paint Arlequin’s portrait, also alludes to the same person. While the portrait scene comes from a transcription of an actual Commedia piece, nevertheless, Pasquariello’s ineptitude and decrepitude are directed to that same real artist. He is none of these, of course. I’m just being mean to him, knowing full well there is nothing he can do about it. It’s like sticking up two fingers to someone who can’t see what’s happening but everyone else can although they don’t and can’t ever get the joke. Oh, there are in-jokes in there, too. Mean ones.
As for Barclay and Mercer, these names derive from Barclay’s of bank and credit card infamy, and from Mercers, their debt collection division. A few years ago, I ran into financial difficulties and ended up in debt to Barclaycard. Not only were they unwilling to reach a sensible agreement with me over repayment of that debt but Mercers harassed me on the phone, sometimes ringing me several times in one day and in the evening and threatening me. In the end, I discovered what my rights were and I got them to cease harassing me. I decided to write them into the book. Unlike individuals, you can’t slander organisations.
In The Spectacle, the Constables have a dog named Yur. Yur is a lurcher and is named after what, as a child, I believed to be what a Cornish farmer had called his dog. What he was actually saying wasn’t the dog’s name at all, of course, but a command for the dog to come to him, ‘come here’ which was reduced to ‘yur’ by his Cornish accent. In The Spectacle, the description of Yur is a short portrait of my then lurcher called Lucy (sadly she died from cancer a few years ago aged only seven). After her death, I decided to write my dogs into all my fiction, even if they have only walk-on parts.
Several years ago, I was an active participant in an online forum run by the Telegraph in conjunction with a series of articles written by the novelist Louise Doughty. Louise suggested we, the participants in the forum, might contribute to a speculative and risky venture, namely, a collaborative novel. Needless to say, that proved to be too difficult to make real and nothing came of it. She set a sort of competition for us to come up with a title, without, of course, having the first idea of what the novel would be about. And as a prize, whoever she felt came up with the best title would be rewarded by having a major character in the novel she was writing named after them. As luck would have it, I won with Custard Shoes. So, in Whatever You Love, there is a female police sergeant called Antonia Saunders. She is named after me. Oh, the fame of it.
Excuse me while I bask a little.
The theatricality of Jack Coq is apparent from the language Jack uses to tell his tale. Jack Coq is a manifestation of playing a text, rather than emerging from a literary tradition. The plays of Shakespeare rise as shipwrecks from the ocean, often in the form of distorted and fragmented soliloquies (Hamlet is particularly useful here). And as set piece scenes. The death of Hobble, for example, is the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Jack’s first encounter with Arlequin is Hamlet’s meeting with the Player, also recreated by Stoppard when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Indeed, Arlequin is derived from the Player. In the novel, the scenes played between Pasquariello, Arlequin and Pierrot are from an eighteenth-century transcription of a Commedia play, as is the scene between Lady Hortensia and the Duke of Morelands and Gratewelth. Arlequin’s haunting by Columbine’s face in the painting is again derived from a real Commedia piece transcribed in the eighteenth century. Originally, Commedia pieces were not written down. The players had no texts from which to work. The players learned their trade and their ‘business’ from those who went before them. Here, the term ‘business’ has a specific meaning in the theatre: action, often with a comic intention, which is not scripted but devised by the actors. And the scene in which the hanging of Bill Shoe on stage features is derived from Stoppard’s play in which the Player recounts a similar event to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There are elements of Beckett, Dario Fo and Brecht. The whole novel is constructed from theatrical wreckage. And it is visual. Yet, the language should be savoured, spoken aloud as lines from a text as though said for the very first time. Played. Performed. Ha! Not merely read.
None of it is realism, of course. Jack Coq is the heightened language of Elizabethan theatre – no one actually spoke as Shakespeare’s characters speak (and much of it is verse) but the audience fully understood the allusions, the metaphors and got the point. It is also the absurdity of Ionesco, Beckett and Buster Keaton. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Marat/Sade are Theatre of the Absurd. The Spectacle is a novel of the absurd, perceived as a play presented as a novel, a story which might actually occur in a reality outside Jack’s head. Theatre of the Absurd focuses on people being caught in illogical worlds populated by those who behave as though their worlds are logical in which religion and sense and purpose are absent. And there are no neat beginnings, middles and ends, but open-ended uncertainties that examine human behaviour and existence. In The Spectacle, God does not exist, only Almighty Jenkins, an evocation of a remote Higher Power (the Devil is Mister Jefferies or Old Jeff). Jack is swept along by ridiculous events out of his control and which he does not question, although he does question who he is and why he is. ‘All the world’s a stage’ according to Jacques in As You Like It ‘And one man in his time plays many parts’. Think on that. Think on sole. O for a muse of fish.
My love of theatre, and absurdist theatre in particular, started when I was sixteen. I joined a youth theatre group, one of the older members of which was keen on absurdist theatre. Through him, I discovered Ionesco, Stoppard, Beckett. And as it happens, the unrequited love of my life, Susan, but that’s another story. Around that time (the early 1970s), Peter Brook at the RSC produced a circus-like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he had actors spinning plates on poles and actors on trapeze) and the absurdist enthusiast was inspired to attempt his own different approach to the play although not quite as ambitious in concept as that presented by Brook. I played Puck, my first big role. Least said about that the better (although it might have been my second, come to think of it, as I had been in Tom Thumb by Henry Fielding. I played King Arthur). The Dream features in Jack Coq (although Tom Thumb doesn’t) Also at that time, I went to the Young Vic in London to see a wide variety of plays from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (which I have seen several times over the years, including a version produced by a company that also did Hamlet with the same cast), to Oedipus Rex (Sophocles), The Cheats of Scapin (Molière) and The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare). The Young Vic is an intimate theatre and you are very close to the action. The actors ran across the tops of the seating in Shrew. They were happy to mingle with the audience in the bar afterwards. I remember having a drink with Nicky Henson and Jim Dale after the Shrew.
In the mid 1970s, I had the chance to attend an acting summer school run by professionals for amateurs. Between 1976 and 1997, I became a regular. I went to most of them. I learned about plays, text, acting and performance. I learned dancing and singing, historical and musical. They were hard when I was neither a singer nor a dancer. But I was better at stage combat than anyone else because I was a fencer (an épéeist) and knew about swords. I later did some fight choreography for a semi-pro production of Verdi’s Otello. As a writer, I learned about the subtext, the subtleties of language, and the unreliability of characters (take Iago in Othello, the archetypal subtle liar and manipulator of truth). The theatre courses played to my senses of unreality and the absurd. They challenged and expanded my imagination, made me do things I would never have done otherwise. After all, a play performance is an artifice which takes place in a pretend environment. And the audience is complicit in the deceit. In this respect, theatre is quite unlike film and television which often pretend to present reality, especially in dramas and soaps. But they are remote in comparison to theatre. They don’t engage and draw you in as co-conspirators, nor present reality. It’s all lies (to be spoken with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile).
It is not surprising, then, that my written interpretations of some acting techniques also feature in The Spectacle, as perceived by Jack. And so you have to ask of Jack: was he soldier, actor or thief before he ended up in the madhouse? He has the attributes of all. In some respects, he owes these skills to two real but unrelated people, neither of whom ended up in a madhouse, one from the early eighteenth century, the other from the second half of the century. The first was a Scots soldier and fencing master called Donald McBane, the other a footman in the service of the Duchess of Queensbury, herself an eccentric. McBane featured in my previous blogs about swordsmanship: everything I write is connected.
And you have to ask of the novel: how much of what happens is real and how much of it is performance? It is all a conceit, of course, much like life itself. The novel has a subtext. Its plot is circular in that Jack appears to face imminent death at the end, which is how we first meet him – although that circumstance is not where the novel begins (if that is not itself a contradiction) – and fatalistic because his death seems inevitable and quite beyond his prevention. Yet he defies fate and the story ends on a note of uncertainty, in a quantum mechanics fashion. What happens to Jack?
When I started posting the chapters of The Spectacle here on Booktrap, I knew I had the answer to that question. But it is an answer I have to conceal because is goes to the heart of what will form a sequel. Of a sort. Told from someone else’s perspective. It’s not the same story retold; it goes beyond where The Spectacle ends. For the moment, it’s my secret. And Jack’s.
I write what I am moved to write. It comes from my heart. It is rooted in my skirmishes with life, from theatre and from those in the world of theatre whom I have met through my desire to learn its arcane practices. As the late Rudi Shelly might have said (he was a tutor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a European émigré with a German accent accentuated by years of chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises): ‘Darling, don’t act. Just play the fucking text.’
Find me here:
Historian and Author of six books.
Anthony Saunders writes books. Some of them have been published. His fiction is absurdist, theatrical (from a performance perspective). He writes about mortality and the ridiculous. At the age of twelve, he was faced with the choice of living or not living. He chose the latter. He doesn't do ordinary.