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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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2 Dialogue

Here is a longer passage from the scene in Top Girls:

JOYCE's backyard. The house with backdoor is upstage. Downstage a shelter made of junk, made by children. Two girls, ANGIE and KIT, are in it, squashed together. ANGIE is 16, KIT is 12. They cannot be seen from the house. JOYCE calls from the house.
JOYCEAngie. Angie are you out there?
Silence. They keep still and wait. When nothing else happens they relax.
ANGIEWish she was dead.
KITWanna watch The Exterminator?
ANGIEYou're sitting on my leg.
KITThere's nothing on telly. We can have an ice cream. Angie?
ANGIEShall I tell you something?
KITDo you wanna watch The Exterminator?
ANGIEIt's X, innit.
KITI can get into Xs.
ANGIEShall I tell you something?
KITWe'll go to something else. We'll go to Ipswich. What's on the Odeon?
ANGIEShe won't let me, will she?
KITDon't tell her.
ANGIEI've no money.
KITI'll pay.
ANGIEShe'll moan though, won't she?
KITI'll ask her for you if you like.
ANGIEI've no money, I don't want you to pay.
KITI'll ask her.
ANGIEShe don't like you.
KITI still got three pounds birthday money. Did she say she don't like me? I'll go by myself then.
ANGIEYour mum don't let you. I got to take you.
KITShe won't know.
ANGIEYou'd be scared who'd sit next to you.
KITNo I wouldn't.
She does like me anyway.
Tell me then.
ANGIETell you what?
KITIt's you she doesn't like.
ANGIEWell I don't like her so tough shit.
JOYCE (off)Angie. Angie. Angie. I know you're out there. I'm not coming out after you. You come in here.
Silence. Nothing happens.

In contrast to the dense blank verse of Henry's speech, most of the dialogue in Extract 1 is in alternating one-line speeches. The technical term for this is stichomythia, from the Greek ‘line talk’. It was frequently used in classical drama, to convey a kind of verbal parrying, accompanied by antithesis (opposites, contrasting ideas) and repetitive patterns, and is an effective way of creating tension and conflict. Although it has been used less since the classical period, Shakespeare and other dramatists have employed stichomythia, and it is not uncommon in plays of the twentieth century.

Activity 2

Does the stichomythia here work to create tension and conflict?


I think it does. We are told that the girls are aged 16 and 12, but there is no clear sense of the older girl taking charge of the younger one. Questions are asked and not answered immediately, actions are proposed and are met by objections. The prevailing tone is set by Angie's first speech: ‘Wish she was dead’. Thereafter, the debate about going to the cinema is refracted through a lens of negativity: of the individual speeches, thirteen contain clear negatives. Even the concluding stage direction is negative (‘Nothing happens’).

The language is not poetical in the usual sense and it employs the idioms of colloquial speech (‘Wanna’, ‘innit’, ‘tough shit’), but although we might say that this is naturalistic dialogue, it is still constructed; it does not resemble a transcript of real speech.

Activity 3

I have already drawn attention to the frequency of negative statements. What else do you notice about the patterning of the language? How does it help our understanding of the scene?


There are repeated references to money, to telling and to not liking. Kit's three-line speech stands out from the prevailing one-liners. Notice that it is written as three separate lines. I think this suggests that the actor should allow space between them, so that each receives individual focus, and we can hear that each line relates to a different component of the scene. The first line (‘No I wouldn't’) is a direct response to Angie (‘You'd be scared who'd sit next to you’). The second line contributes to the wrangle about who Angie's mother does or does not like. The third line (‘Tell me then’) seems to come out of the blue, and Angie's question that follows (‘Tell you what?’) emphasizes this. A reader of the play can look back through the text, though, and see that Angie has twice said, ‘Shall I tell you something?’ earlier in the scene. In performance, the scene is likely to play fast enough for the audience to retain an aural memory of these speeches. It is only after the punctuating 'Silence’ that Angie tells her story about being able to make things move. This, presumably, is what she offered to ‘tell’ earlier on.

Drama has been defined as a process of conflict and resolution. In this scene we have concentrated so far on the tension that builds up between the two girls, and that tension, which is a matter of rivalry and of closeness, is reflected in the use of space. The girls are placed in close physical contact in the makeshift hut, and the indication in the stage directions that they are ‘squashed together’ is emphasized in a speech: ‘You're sitting on my leg’. Later in the scene Kit says: ‘You're sitting on me’. So, despite the sparse stage directions a director would know how the girls should be placed onstage. Even within the confined space of the hut, the reversal of positions shows that movement is taking place and it is through movement that the audience can be made aware of the fluctuations in the relationship between the two girls. A further dimension of tension is created by the part that Joyce plays in the scene. The girls’ refusal to answer her call unites them against her, the adult; she represents the outside world within which their hut is a juvenile retreat, and a place of secrets. The rest of the scene is punctuated not only by the silences but by Joyce's calls to the two girls, and later we will see that the tension manifests itself in outright antagonism on the part of Angie.