Or else they will all sound like me
25 February 2008, 8:31 AM
So. Your Humble Blogger has begun writing a play. Actually, another play; I wrote one full-length play back in college, and another that I finished this year after ten years or so of kicking it around. This play I’ve just begun kicking around may take another ten years before I settle on how it’ll work. I’m in no rush. I don’t expect anyone will ever stage it, so I’m mostly just amusing myself.
Now, having said that I don’t expect anyone will ever stage it, I will add contrariwise that I am writing it under the influence of an off-hand comment that I read this year, I don’t remember where, that a play is most likely to become a classic, revived every generation, if it has one big juicy irresistible role. If a star wants to put it on, it’ll find a director and a producer. Or a producer will convince the star. Oh, there are ensemble shows that are in the repertory, but if you can write Hamlet or Hickey or Harvey (well, not Harvey, but Elwood P. Dowd, not to get back into the whole loony-bin issue again), and everyone will know your name, just like Shakespeare and O’Neill and whoever the hell wrote Harvey.
Since it’s a comedy I’m writing, I naturally am writing the lead part for Nathan Lane. Again, not that he’ll ever play it, but that if I’m thinking about a fellow who can (a) carry a comic play, and (2) cause a comic play to be revived to see how he’ll do in it, that’s my boy. In fact, I’m not really writing the part for Nathan Lane, but I’m writing it for whoever will be the Nathan Lane of the next generation, due to the whole idea mentioned above. That Nathan Lane will of course be nothing like this Nathan Lane, just as Nathan Lane is nothing like Alfred Lunt or Zero Mostel or Richard Mansfield. So it’s silly to write for him. But hard not to.
What Nathan Lane is particularly marvelous at (as far as I can tell, and among the other marvelousnesses, because really I am only concerned at the moment with the thing I am mulling over) is a sort of sympathetic bitchiness, a combination of viciousness and good humor that makes the nastiest insults come off as laugh lines. Or, rather, sells the insults that are written as laugh lines so that they are actually funny. Really, when you think about it, this whole idea of him making David Mamet likeable is obvious.
So, as I start to type out a handful of lines of dialogue, to see what the character sounds like, see what his rhythms are, that sort of thing, I find him abusing the other characters on stage. When I think what would be funny here, I’m writing a zinger. And it isn’t wrong, as such, but I don’t think it’s right, either.
Two questions, then, for my Gentle Readers: who else would be a good idea to have in mind as a replacement for Nathan Lane? I still want zaniness, a sort of sharper-than-life comic force, and the power to dominate a stage (and to dominate my imagination), but perhaps with a touch less bitchiness. And then, for those of my Gentle Readers who write fiction, do you find yourself writing with an actor in mind at all? Elvis Costello used to, as a songwriting tool, write for particular singers and then record the songs himself. Jo Rowling claims to have had Robbie Coltrane in mind when she wrote Hagrid, but that’s easy enough to claim after he has been cast. Shannon Hale writes about her fantasy cast for Austenland, but not whether she heard their voices as she wrote the dialogue. And, of course, writers are different, one to another, which is what makes reading interesting and fun. I suspect some people do and others don’t, some would be horrified by the idea and others can’t imagine working without it. Ah, well.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,