It may sound a stupid thing to say – cinema and television are visual mediums. They have viewers, spectators, watchers. Theatre is a listening medium. It has an audience and auditoriums - places for hearing. Simply put - show us things on screens and tell us stuff in the theatre.
This is, of course, a massive simplification. Some of the best bits in screen history are spoken – few people remember the car that Brando sits in when he says he could have been a contender, but we remember him saying it – and some of the great moments in the theatre are purely visual – anyone who saw the stairs scene in One Man Two Guvnors I’m sure would agree.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that on the screen we can say less than we need to on stage, and some of the best moments can be done with no words at all or at least very few of them.
Two examples of this can be found in dramas of the last year – The Salisbury Poisonings and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The Salisbury Poisonings is a great piece of television to watch for any writer wanting to create sensitive, historical based fiction or even just well written drama. All moments are simply drawn and sensitively handled.
The scene that I want to look at is from episode three when Claire Sturgess is sitting beside her sister Dawn Sturgess, who is lying in a hospital bed. Claire clasps her hand and says:
“Dawnie? Dawnie? You are a good person. You are a good person. You always were.”
She strokes her hair and breaks down. That is the whole scene. In its entirety it takes a minute. What makes this scene good, besides the excellent performance from Melanie Gutteridge, is its simplicity. Up to this point we have seen that Dawn has not been the best of daughters or mothers, struggling to reclaim her life and a position of responsibility for it. The relationship with her family is a complex one. We could easily have had a very moving, but very long, bedside speech from her sister on that relationship, the ups and downs, the emotional depths. But we don’t need it. All we need is a woman’s kind words to her dying sister. It is all in those fifteen words. The history, the pain, the struggle of Dawn to be good amongst all her difficulties, the love her sister has for her.
And it is the simplicity of what is spoken that makes it moving. There is no flowery language, which can get in the way on screen, just a simple statement repeated. You don’t need to give your character that massive monologue. You can just give her a few words. They can be all you need.
Sometimes, you don’t even need words. The opening minute of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has no speech at all. It begins with the quiet woods of southern America at night, then two black men in old fashioned clothes are running, hard. Suddenly, the sounds of dogs barking come over the panting breath of the running men.
We’re about 40-50 seconds in and we think we know where we are – two slaves are escaping and the slavers are after them with the plantation dogs. Suddenly, the sound of music kicks in as the two men approach some torches. One turns to smile at the other as they reach a queue of people waiting to enter a tent. They weren’t running away but rather towards a blues performance.
In this one moment we have some of the major ideas of the film given to us – the history of black suffering in America and the escape from it that the blues provides. But we are also shown that the blues and the suffering are intertwined; the idea of both – the fleeing and the need to get to the concert – are present in the same moment. Nothing is said but through what we are shown we are given a sudden and clear illustration of the ideas of the film. Every event after this scene is affected by the audience’s having seeing two ‘slaves’ running for their lives. Every event for the characters is, of course, affected by that history too. Every struggle, every confrontation in the film has the history and mistreatment of black people in America hanging over it and we have it captured in the opening gesture of the film. Again, this is a scene about a minute long.
If we contrast this with some of the speeches later in the film. These are fantastically delivered by Chadwick Boseman as Levee but they are clearly from a play (Ma Rainey being and adaptation of August Wilson’s play). No one talks that much in film. It is hard to make things visually interesting when one person is talking, no matter how good the performance is, and speeches can often hold up the action. In the theatre they generally are the action, as we can only ‘see’ what the characters tell us. In film we can see anything. In the cinema we are there to be spectators not an audience; we are there primarily to watch, not to listen.
Moments of great emotion are conveyed in the theatre through an outpouring of words. Often on film they are conveyed through a few or even none.
Sometimes you can say it best when you say nothing at all.