In Direct Address

Friday, October 22, 2010 Leave a Comment

(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum. Pictured: Christina Shipp, Vince Nappo)
Charles Isherwood recently leveled criticism against the increase in use of direct address in plays, specifically singling out playwright Kristoffer Diaz, who responds smartly here. Playwright Josh Conkel issues his own rejoinder here. However, there is another essential element of direct address that Isherwood misses, an element central to my own work as playwright:

A character addresses the audience because they want something from the audience. It’s that simple.

Some examples from my own work: In Riding the Bull, GL talks to us because he wants to be forgiven. In Other Bodies, Terry tells us her story so that we will touch her. In Good Hope, Rebecca shares what happened to keep us from the unbelief that led her to lose those she loved.

And there’s the key: these characters talk to the audience because they cannot get what they want from the other characters in the play. In the above three instances, that’s because those other characters have died; and this is perhaps why I am more often drawn to use direct address in tragedy than comedy. An irrevocable loss has turned the characters away from the world of the play to face us down and try, however unsuccessfully, to get what they need most.

In practice, this can be complex, especially now when audiences seem primed to accept direct address as narration and not action. This leads them to trust direct address, when its proper use is far more subversive. We shouldn’t trust One in The Lesser Seductions of History anymore than we should trust Iago in Othello; and yet for better or worse, many looked to her for the play’s ‘message’. It was never the play’s message, it was always hers; and the action of the play often contradicts and complicates her words. She was talking to us for the same reason she spoke to the characters in the play; to make them do what she wanted.

This makes the audience essential, and every run of the play a unique living attempt for the character to succeed or fail.

(Photo: Jonathan Slaff. Pictured: Will Ditterline)

Direct address can of course do many other wonderful things: it can hold a dagger and the one half world in a single moment (Macbeth); it can reveal a mind reinventing itself (Hamlet) or at war with itself (Julius Caesar); it can make whole seasons pass in a second (Our Town); but in every case where direct address works, it does so because the character talking to us wants something from us…and we trust them at our own peril.

(Photo: Tyler G. Hicks-Wright. Pictured: Candice Holdorf)


  • Matt A said:  

    I'm with you, Gus. I just hope theatre companies that employ direct addresses in plays with modern language are ready for audience response...after all, they're being played.