Peter Dingwall, a once successful playwright, is running a weekend course on the art of writing plays. Five - the minimum number for a course - aspiring playwrights gather with varying degrees of enthusiasm and expectation for his class in this little country town. Clare, a housewife, ambitious for social as much as artistic reason; Brian, the wisecracking dentist; Margaret, whose bout with polio twenty years ago has left her in a wheelchair; David, a secondary school teacher of English and Neil - abrasive, sure of himself and a surprising choreographer! They have all been asked to come prepared with a piece written about their fathers and to read this aloud to the rest of the group. From this exercise, and others over the weekend we learn the legacy each has struggled to live with - a theme which is central to the plot.
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About the Author
A prolific and successful playwright, Roger Hall has consistently written for the stage. He has also written scripts for radio and television, and for children. Hall’s writing is known for its comedy, political and social purpose, and underlying pathos. His plays have toured widely and have been performed at international venues. His biggest success was with Middle Age Spread that ran for 18 months in London's West End and won the award for Comedy of the Year (1979). Hall has been the recipient of awards and fellowships in recognition of his work. He published an autobiography, Bums on Seats, in 1998.
Read an Excerpt
State of the Play
By Roger Hall
Victoria University PressCopyright © 1979 Roger Hall
All rights reserved.
Music: Dan Hill's Sometimes When We Touch.
The classroom of a secondary school in a small town. On the walls are posters of Jane Austen, Trollope, Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Keats and Dickens. Each poster shows a picture with a descriptive text underneath. The classroom desks are arranged roughly in rows but many are askew. Near the teacher's desk is a mat with a paper dart lying on it. Fixed to the wall is a blackboard with some set work in English on it. PLEASE LEAVE is written beside it. In one corner is a record player.
PETER DINGWALL enters, turns on the light and moves to the teacher's desk. He looks around the room with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. Finding some chalk, he begins to write up on an easel blackboard a list of topics:
DAVE enters. He is in his fifties, dressed in an old sports coat and corduroys — a man who doesn't take much care with his appearance. He looks well worn, and is now both slightly harrassed and embarrassed.
DAVE: Got everything you want?
DINGWALL: Seem to have.
DAVE starts to stack and arrange desks and chairs.
DAVE: The others won't be long. I said seven prompt.
DINGWALL: How many signed up?
DAVE doesn't answer for a moment. He then sees DINGWALL is still waiting.
DAVE: Embarrassed. Four.
DAVE: Five. Er ... look, I'm not sure I did the right thing. I ... er enrolled myself — to make up the minimum number. On reflection, you might have preferred me to wipe it altogether.
DAVE: I thought there'd be a lot more. With your name and everything.
DINGWALL: Tch, that's showbiz.
DAVE begins arranging five desks and chairs.
DAVE: I'm sorry if you'd rather have cancelled it ... I didn't know what to do.
DINGWALL: Doesn't matter. It's the last time I'll be doing this anyway.
DAVE: Is it?
By now DINGWALL has added to his list on the board:
The dramatic entrance
When he has finished, he stands back and notices a paper dart at his feet. He picks it up, unfolds it and reads what's on it.
DINGWALL: Who's "Pisspot"?
DAVE stops and stares at him, wondering where the information came from; then he sees the dart and understands. He shrugs, and carries on setting out the desks.
DINGWALL: So you're not in the budding playwright category?
DINGWALL: Well, it's never too late. Neither Shaw nor Chekhov wrote their first play till they were thirty-six.
DAVE: I know.
DINGWALL: So you never know.
DAVE: Thirty-six. Keats had been dead for ten years. I'll go and get the roll.
DAVE goes out. DINGWALL gets out a whole lot of notes from his briefcase and dumps them on the teacher's desk. He looks at them and sighs. He sits down at one of the desks, CLARE enters. She is an attractive woman in her late twenties or early thirties. She is well dressed, slightly better dressed, in fact, than the occasion demands.
CLARE: I know you're Peter Dingwall, so this must be the right place. I'm Clare Watson.
DINGWALL: Getting to his feet. How do you do?
CLARE: Looking round the room. Still killing kids' interest in literature for life, I see.
DINGWALL: Somebody has to do it.
CLARE gets out a cigarette, then offers DINGWALL one.
DINGWALL: Thanks. She lights his cigarette. Thanks.
CLARE: I've enjoyed your plays. Over the years.
DINGWALL: Thank you.
CLARE: It's a long time since the last one — it's time you wrote another.
DINGWALL: So I'm told.
CLARE: Is there another on the way?
DINGWALL: Oh there's always another one on the way.
CLARE: You sound like a Catholic housewife. It must be a marvellous life, writing. Doing what you want. Meeting people. Travel.
DINGWALL: Utter loneliness while you work. Weekends in places like this, CLARE is a bit hurt by the last comment.
She moves off to walk around.
DINGWALL: And what brings you to this course?
CLARE: With a shrug. Interest. She peers at the desk and reads the graffiti. "Only 365 days till this time next year." I'd like to write a play of course.
DINGWALL: Every housewife's dream. Once they've realised the dwindling market for short stories and had half a dozen poems rejected. Reads from the desk. "Help stamp out quicksands." Mm, makes a change from the usual rampant peni.
CLARE: There's some here if you're particularly interested. It must be marvellous seeing your work performed.
DINGWALL: Myself, I prefer watching the audience.
CLARE: You must enjoy it all, surely. Being well-known.
DINGWALL: Yes, I notice I've been relegated recently from Division One "Famous" to Division Two "Well-known".
The door bursts open and MARGARET, in a wheel-chair, is pushed in at high speed by BRIAN. He brings it to a halt skilfully near DINGWALL. MARGARET is in her mid-thirties. She has a portable typewriter on her lap. BRIAN is in his late thirties or early forties. He wears a blazer and well-pressed trousers. Like CLARE, he is a bit over-dressed.
BRIAN: Looking at his watch. Made the deadline. Peter Dingwall I presume. Brian Marshall. They shake hands. And this is Margaret Jenner.
DINGWALL: How do you do?
BRIAN: Margaret's our local librarian by day and producer by night. Produced quite a few for the rep, haven't you Mags? Real terror, she is, keeps me in order, don't you?
MARGARET: Just as well somebody does.
BRIAN: True, true. Liked your plays. Been in one of them. Hawkins. I was extremely good. As our local scourge of the Thespians said "he had good lines to say and said them well". You don't do any acting yourself these days?
BRIAN: Pity. Well, when's the next play coming along?
DINGWALL: It's doing as well as can be expected. Do you know Clare ...?
CLARE: Watson. Hallo.
BRIAN: Brian Marshall. Dentist. Just filling in time. Joke. Margaret Jenner.
CLARE: Yes, I've seen you at the library.
MARGARET: I've noticed you in the newspaper section quite a bit.
CLARE: That's right.
BRIAN: Looking forward to this. Itching to churn out a masterpiece.
DAVE enters with the roll.
DAVE: Sorry — hope I haven't kept you waiting.
BRIAN: Only just arrived Dave.
DAVE: Hallo Margaret. He looks at the roll Mrs Watson?
DAVE: I'm Dave Hedges. On the adult education committee. I rang you, remember?
DAVE gives DINGWALL the roll.
BRIAN: What are you doing here Dave? I didn't think this was your line of country.
DAVE: Er ... well I thought I'd just sort of ... sit in.
There's one more to come. I did say seven.
DINGWALL: Give it another couple of minutes.
BRIAN: Is this all there is? I thought Polly and Ken ... DAVE: They changed their minds.
There is a silence, CLARE stands alone, slightly awkward, not knowing any of the others, DAVE quietly removes one chair from beside one of the desks, realising MARGARET won't need it.
DINGWALL: Well look, I think we will get started. He doesn't wait until they get seated. To give me some idea at what level to pitch it, it would be a great help if you'd all tell me what writing you've done — published and unpublished. Dave — none I take it?
DAVE: Not since adolescence anyway.
DINGWALL: OK. Margaret? Oh — and tell me what you hope to get from the course.
MARGARET: I've had a few articles in the paper — about the library mostly — I'm here because, well, the more I know about the construction of plays the more it'll help my producing.
DINGWALL: Fair enough. Brian?
BRIAN: I want to write a smash-hit so I can give up looking at rotten teeth all day. Then I can stop worrying about my nostrils.
DINGWALL: Your nostrils?
BRIAN: People always look up dentists' nostrils — there's nowhere else to look. I'm bogey-obsessed. I act mainly, but I did once write a play that came second in a one-act play festival.
DINGWALL: Only two entered, I presume.
BRIAN: Slightly hurt. Yes. As I was just about to confess.
MARGARET: It wasn't bad actually. I hate to admit it, because he's conceited enough as it is.
BRIAN: Only about my modesty.
MARGARET: He should have kept at it.
BRIAN: Modestly. Oh well.
CLARE: Short stories, until I realised the dwindling market, and poems until I'd had half a dozen rejected.
DINGWALL: Anything published?
CLARE: One household hint. Fee $2.
DINGWALL: I see. And what do you hope to get from the course?
CLARE: A weekend away from the kids. He realises that she has managed to hit back a bit.
DINGWALL: Looking at the roll. And it's Neil Peterson still to come.
DAVE: I told him seven.
DINGWALL: OK. Well, first of all let me make it quite clear that in the space of a Friday evening, a Saturday and a Sunday, you won't learn how to write a play. It's a bit like ante-natal classes, it'll give you some idea of what to do, but can give you no indication of the actual pain. Nor is there someone there to hold your hand while you're in labour.
CLARE: Are second and third births easier than the first?
BRIAN: Mind you, holding someone's hand is a waste of time. When Audrey had Adrian she took not a blind bit of notice of me, and I was telling her to breathe and she —
DINGWALL: What I'll do is talk briefly about each topic and then get you to do some work. He turns to the board. OK. Exposition.
They get ready to take notes, DAVE realises he has no paper and borrows a couple of sheets from MARGARET only to find he has no pen. He hasn't the nerve to go and get one from his desk while DINGWALL is speaking.
DINGWALL: Exposition is the amount of information that the audience needs to know for the play to proceed. They need to know the time, where it's taking place, and quite a bit about the characters. Certainly you can put the time and place in the programme but you can't count on your audience reading it. You must have noticed how when the curtain goes up most of the audience tilts the programme forward so that they can read it from the stage lights. He demonstrates. So, try to include time and place in your dialogue. Now with exposition the playwright's greatest problem is this: he has to go backwards at the same time as he is going forwards. He has to start his story in motion, but at the same time go backwards so he can reveal details of each of the characters' lives. And he has to find a situation where all this can be done plausibly and entertainingly — and at the same time make it significant for the play as a whole. It's a major hurdle.
He hands out some pages.
DINGWALL: Brian — you're the actor round here. You be the butler. Margery —
DINGWALL: Margaret, sorry. You be Burns the maid, and Clare, would you be the beautiful Ruth? This is the sort of device used many years ago when all plays seemed to be set in large country houses. The butler is polishing the silver and the maid is dusting. Oh — I made it up by the way, it's not genuine.
BRIAN and MARGARET manage to ham it up appropriately.
MARGARET (as Burns): "Oh I do love weddings, don't you Mr Hardcastle?"
BRIAN (as Hardcastle): "Weddings to me, young Burns, mean two things: a lot of hard work, and the end of happiness for two innocent victims."
MARGARET (as Burns): "Oh Mr Hardcastle, surely you don't think Miss Ruth is going to be unhappy! Lord Burgoyne is the catch of the season — he's everything a young girl could wish for! Young, handsome, rich!"
BRIAN (as Hardcastle): "Then answer me this. Why is the master dead set against the marriage? Remember, Burgoyne was a young officer in his regiment. And would you say Miss Ruth seems particularly happy?"
MARGARET (as Burns): "Why, come to think of it, no. You don't mean ... she loves another?"
BRIAN (as Hardcastle): "My lips are sealed. Hush — here she comes."
DINGWALL: "Enter Ruth, distracted."
CLARE (as Ruth): "Oh Burns, while you were tidying up you didn't find a letter of mine, did you? It's very important."
MARGARET (as Burns): "I'm sorry, I haven't, Miss. Oh Miss Ruth, I do hope the weather remains fine for your wedding tomorrow."
CLARE (as Ruth): "I can assure you Burns, hell can freeze over for all that I care."
DINGWALL: "She exits, still looking for the letter." OK. Pretty crude, and totally unacceptable these days, but it does set things in motion and it does get the audience asking questions. A common device these days is to have a newcomer to the situation to whom everything has to be explained.
During this, NEIL has arrived and is standing near the doorway. He is dressed in rather striking clothes, including a long scarf. He has a shoulder bag. He stares at the blackboard in horror.
NEIL: Oh Christ!
They all turn to look at him.
NEIL: It's not our old friend, the well-made play, is it?
DINGWALL: Enter newcomer, to whom everything has to be explained.
DAVE: I said seven.
NEIL: You said seven-thirty. Pointing to the board. All this stuff went out in the thirties. Only no one ever bothered to tell Terence Rattigan.
DINGWALL: Who went on to make a fortune.
NEIL: This is a joke, isn't it? I mean you are having us all on. Even though you have left out "obligatory scene".
DINGWALL: I think people should know the rules before they break them.
BRIAN: Tell us what you've done that makes you think you know it all. Some of us have written plays, you know. How many plays have you written?
An impressed silence.
NEIL: Produced in our living-room with my sisters one particularly wet summer. Do I detect a certain release of tension at that confession? It would have been unbearable, wouldn't it, if the little shit had actually had something produced.
DINGWALL: Perhaps you'd like to tell us what is relevant from your curriculum vitae.
NEIL: Pleasure. Two summer drama schools. Then I became interested in movement, modern dance. Now totally committed to choreography ... to creating new ballets. Which for the most part lack drama. Which is why I'm here, to learn from one of my former heroes.
NEIL: It's a little hard to maintain the hero-worship after so many years of silence.
DAVE: Look ... you don't have to stay you know.
DINGWALL: I thought he did.
DINGWALL: Minimum numbers.
DAVE: Oh yes.
NEIL: It'll be fun.
He sits back insolently to listen and makes a point of not taking notes.
DINGWALL: Just a few more words on exposition ... the rest you can find out for yourself in all the books. Try to convey the necessary information dramatically — in a situation that in itself is interesting. Such as a row for example. OK. Characterisation. Now when you enrolled, you should've had a piece of paper asking you to do some work.
DAVE: They all got them.
They get out the notes that they've written, except for NEIL who doesn't move.
DINGWALL: OK, well let's hear them. Stabs at the roll. Margaret.
MARGARET: Reads. "Dad was a dairy farmer. Age now early sixties. Tall, lean, very strong in a wiry sort of way. Rarely talks, not even to the family. For years he nursed a great bitterness which I never used to fathom. Retired from the farm a couple of years ago when Jimmy took over. Everyone thought Dad wouldn't be able to keep away from the place, but in fact he never goes near it. He's now taking UE through Correspondence. Which Mum can't understand at all. He was in the war but never goes to RSA or ANZAC Day or anything like that." That's all.
DINGWALL: Flatly. Good. Good. Dave. Oh — you probably didn't do it.
DAVE: Yes I did. Dave goes to get the notes that he has prepared from his own desk drawer, and grabs a pen while he is there. He is rather nervous about reading it to the class.
Excerpted from State of the Play by Roger Hall. Copyright © 1979 Roger Hall. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
State of the Play,
The Transvestite Sequence in Scene Three; by Roger Hall, Anthony Taylor and David Carnegie,
Hallmarked — Roger Hall's Three Comedies, by Ian Fraser,
By the Same Author,