It Takes One: How the Monologue Speaks Loudest in Lockdown

Self-aware, self-conscious or self-deluding, it’s a form as old as theater itself. And it’s flourishing in a time of social isolation.


By Ben Brantley

You’ve been talking to yourself again, haven’t you? It seems fair to assume that such behavior has become, well, pandemic during the past six months. That’s a natural thing to do in quarantine, when the mind is seething with internal conversations and possibilities for real dialogue are frustratingly limited.

But have you really listened to yourself talking to yourself? Because if you were allowed an instant playback of such moments you’d probably be shocked by the things you said that you hadn’t even known you were saying. Being the only speaker by no means guarantees that you control the conversation.

Eliciting and refining the surprises and self-betrayals of thinking out loud are inherent to the art of the monologue — a theatrical form that, for understandable reasons, has been flourishing in the age of lockdown. Artists from around the world — the New York producers of the 24 Hour Plays (with their Viral Monologues series), Ireland’s Abbey Theater and the National Theater of Scotland, for starters — leapt early and eagerly into the vacuum left by the shuttering of theaters, enlisting some of the finest playwrights and actors in their countries to create new plays with a cast of one.

These brief, short-order, streaming performances are often soliloquies (usually captured by smartphone cameras) that speak directly to and of the woes of social isolation. At their best, they take their characters from familiar starting points to uncharted places that often seem to startle even them.

You witness a complete psychological striptease in a matter of minutes, with actors locating the feelings that contradict the words, and the revelatory noise in the silences between lines. The current Old Vic: In Camera series of live-streamed performances has offered two glorious examples of such artistry by names to reckon with: Andrew Scott as a man evoking the glamorous and destructive ghost of his dead father in Stephen Beresford’s “Three Kings”; and Michael Sheen as a disturbingly unreliable narrator in the title role of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.”

Single-actor pieces are part of a tradition as old as, if not older than, theater itself. Homer — and the ancient bards throughout the world — were presumably monologists. And many an English student has been obliged to spend time with the self-defining soliloquies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth.

But it’s with the advent of modernism in literature, and its emphasis on the fluidity and variety of human consciousness, that the monologue really begins to take off as a self-contained work of theater. Think of the life-spanning, existential cris de coeurs of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I” and “Krapp’s Last Tape,” or the confessional emotional roller coaster that is Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice” (lately reimagined as a film by the director Pedro Almodóvar, with Tilda Swinton as its star).

Sometimes the subjects are less than cosmic. There’s the enduring vogue for dead celebrity theater, in which famous actors (Hal Holbrook, Robert Morse, Bette Midler) impersonate famous others (Mark Twain, Truman Capote, the agent Sue Mengers).

On another, more harrowing level, the South African actor Antony Sher gave deeply affecting life to Primo Levi’s first-person account of surviving Auschwitz in “Primo.” The incomparable Anna Deavere Smith has established her own, gimlet-eyed genre of topical monologues, in which she embodies a host of people whom she herself interviewed. In plays like “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” (about the aftermath of the Rodney King arrest) and “Fires in the Mirror” (about the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn), she transcends artful mimicry of her subjects to embrace the extra dimension of Smith actively listening to these people, and making her audiences hear with new ears. (“Fires” was successfully reincarnated last year by the young actor Michael Benjamin Washington, confirming that Smith’s work can accommodate, and expand with, new interpreters.)

For the past four decades, there has been a steady trickle of memoir plays, in which performers paint self-portraits, palimpsests of the people they were lurking beneath the people they have become. The incomparable Spalding Gray, who gave ontological scope to navel-gazing, was the grand master of detached self-dissection in works like “Swimming to Cambodia” (1985) and “Gray’s Anatomy” (1993) before he died in 2004. Prime examples include Charlayne Woodard’s tetralogy of plays (starting with “Pretty Fire”) about finding her identity as a Black theater artist; Martin Moran’s “The Tricky Part,” about being sexually molested as a boy; and Lisa Kron’s expert excursions into her own past (“101 Humiliating Stories”) and that of her family (“2.5 Minute Ride”), plays in which the dramatic art of self-discovery bends to unexpected ends.

Then there are the carefully crafted character studies in which self-sabotaging thought becomes visible by incremental degrees. These can take the form of zinger-flinging satires (Paul Rudnick), lyrical voyages into darkness (Conor McPherson, the best of a wide, contemporary contingent of excellent Irish yarn-spinners), full-on visceral meltdowns (Eric Bogosian) and scalding exercises in evasion in which comedy and tragedy meld into each other (Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s coruscating “Fleabag,” a one-woman show before it became an Emmy-winning television series).

Perhaps the most accomplished living master of the dramatic monologue is the English dramatist Alan Bennett, whose “Talking Heads” anthology of deceptively cozy soliloquies was first seen on the BBC in the late 1980s and remade and supplemented this year, both for television and live performance (at London’s Bridge Theater).

These are, on the surface, old-fashioned portraits of ostensibly ordinary people who feel a compulsion to chat. They’re descended from such sturdy exemplars of dramatic irony as Robert Browning’s narrative poems and Ring Lardner’s first-person short stories, in which incriminating confessions seem to emerge by accident.

Bennett, a sometime performer (and all-around man of letters), specializes in the sort of cunning indirection that is catnip to the accomplished actor, as imps of the perverse gradually worm their way through stoic British facades. That’s why these plays have drawn stars like Maggie Smith and Julie Walters (for the first series) and Jodie Comer and Lesley Manville (for the current incarnation). They’re reminders of the singular satisfactions of a form in which people explain, expose and sometimes hang themselves, all on their own.

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