Analyzing Speech Rhythms As A Comic Device English Literature Essay

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There is thus an ambiguous relationship between the naturalistic effect of Pinter's dialogue and other effects of stylization. This stylization, or the juxtaposition of stylization and an impression of natural speech, may not only have "a symbolic charge", in Bernhard's words, it may also create comic effects. In my view, the "consistent rhythmic construction", which breaks the convention of realism, has comic potential.

1.2 Rhythmic Duologue

Pinter often structures his dialogue in a rapid exchange of lines between two characters. It is therefore natural to locate this type of verbal structure to a separate category. The second category thus deals with sequences of dialogue where lines of relatively equal length are distributed between two characters. Such sequences represent what is here meant by the term duologue.

The main and larger sequences of this subcategory of rhythmic duologue are found in the play Old Times. There is also a short sequence in Ashes to Ashes.

Rapid exchanges of speech between two characters may create comic effect because they form extensive breaks with the convention of natural speech. The flowing rhythm within the context of a fast duologue may also be broken with a comic result. For rapid duologue to have a rhythm that can thus be broken or released with a comic result, the lines of the sequence must be uttered with attention to tempo. The speed should be relatively high in order to build up the tension of the sequence towards its conclusion, and the delivery of the actors must therefore be connected to each other's speed. Hall stresses importance of timing and rhythmic precision on the part of the actors in a play, if the intention is to preserve the speech rhythms that the text demands .

1.3 Strategies of Comic Speech

In Old Times a conflict arises between Anna and Deeley as they in their different ways try to gain control over Kate, Deeley's wife. This control is at first sought through knowledge

about the other. Anna and Deeley also both try to get the others to agree upon or believe their own version of the past, particularly their experiences with Kate. Deeley mostly wants to find the commonly agreed version of the past memories, whereas Anna treats memory as a means more for personal expression than as historical fact. The definition and establishment of memory within the dramatic triangle thus become an important conflict in the play.

Thomas Postlewait argues that the characters in Pinter's plays are "locked into the past, unable to adapt to the present except in terms of the past" (148). Anna concedes that there are episodes she remembers that may in fact never have happened, but as she recalls them, "so they take place" (P3: 270). As Anna and Deeley engage in a struggle to possess Kate, they try to convince Kate and the other that their own relationship with her was, and is, important and close. In order to defeat the other combatant they must prevent him or her from controlling Kate. This act of convincing takes a range of different linguistic strategies. With regard to Pinter's plays in general Esslin notably stresses the aggressive and invading potential of the playwright's dialogue, and the role of comic speech inherent in this aggression:

The one who gets hold of the more elaborate or more accurate expression establishes dominance over his partner; the victim of aggression can be swamped by language which comes too thick and fast, or is too nonsensical to be comprehended: [...]

(Esslin 40)

1.4 Rhyme and Ritual Repetition

The category of rhymes and repetition covers quite general instances of such devices, and the significance of its comic effects may therefore pertain to other categories as well. It is still useful to separate overt rhyming and marked repetitions of words, phrases and sentences, in order to concentrate on such basic forms of comic technique. The general effect is ritualistic, and it is interesting to see how this works in Old Times, both within one character's utterances and through interaction. Since the conflict centers on which character's utterances take authority, the characters create ritualistic moods to support their need for authority and control. The contingent comic rhythms in their speech focus the audience's attention on their strategies for control. However, although the comic rhythms are results of the repetitions and the linguistic rituals, the rhythm may still function to break the feeling of authority the character tries to create.

Deeley's repetitions often come through interaction with the other characters. He goes on to suggest that he and Anna help Kate dry herself. The unconventional proposal is discussed in a detailed manner that increases the absurd nature of the concept:

DEELEY: I've got a brilliant idea. Why don't we do it with powder?

ANNA: Is that a brilliant idea?

DEELEY: Isn't it?

ANNA: It's quite common to powder yourself after a bath.

DEELEY: It's quite common to powder yourself after a bath but it's quite uncommon to be powdered. Or is it? It's not common where I come from, I can tell you. My mother would have a fit.

1.5 Rhythmic Duologue

Old Times contains two sequences of singing, and these are the most clearly stylized instances of rhythmic duologue in the play. I will therefore here concentrate on discussing these sequences. As there is one sequence of singing in each act, these extracts may also illustrate the development of the interaction and the dramatic situation that the play presents. The singing in Old Times may create laughter because it breaks with the flow of the colloquial speech in the play. This is not to say that the singing alienates the audience, or that it is not naturalistic; the musical reminiscing during a reunion of old friends can well be. The comic potential rather defamiliaris the language of the songs. What is significant for the comic effects is not only the semantic meaning of the words, but rather the singing as interaction through sound. The comic effects of the sounds illustrate the struggle for control between the characters and the role of memory in this struggle. However, the semantic content of the song lyrics is important for analyzing the character's need for defining and patronizing Kate.

The style of the collage gives an impression of interruption as the two singers try to defeat each other in remembering different songs for each line:

DEELEY: (Singing.) Blue moon, I see you standing alone...

ANNA: (Singing.) The way you comb your hair...

As they sing with reference to Kate, the sequence becomes a mutual challenge. By way of romantic serenades Anna and Deeley woo Kate's for her attention and interest.

The sequences of singing in Old Times have the effect of enforcing the feeling of combat or competition. The song collage especially emphasizes the two characters' need to describe and define in their own terms and words. However, Kate's self-containment and mysterious silence may present her as someone it is not easy to define, let alone control. In this respect the singing shows that Anna and Deeley have something in common in that they both try to control Kate, and both seem to fail at the end. The shared experience may be mirrored in the shared singing. The comic effect of singing as artifice is stronger in the first sequence of the song collage, since it constantly breaks the rhythm of the context.

It is significant that the song collage comes in the Act I, as Anna and Deeley here try each other out, whereas the singing exchange in the second act consists of only one song. Anna and Deeley are here less eager to fight and more eager to be comforted. However, Kate is the one they both want to approach, but as Kate does not participate this need remains unfulfilled. The strategy for control through condescension becomes tragicomic. The content and the even rhythm of the second sequence give the audience the feeling of pleasure that may be a favorable condition for laughter, but the singing rhythm is broken by prose when the singing ends. Through the musical exchanges the comic potential of the rhythm thus presents the urge to possess in a ludicrous, but also sad, way.

1.6 Phatic Speech

In Pinter's plays the phatic language is related to the character's employment of specific phatic phrases like 'you know' or 'do you see?' The phatic function of language that is relevant for the presentation of Old Times is just as much expressed in the characters' general habit of qualifying the utterances of themselves and the others. Phatic clarifications often serve to illustrate the characters' need for describing and defining the other characters, particularly Kate, in their own language.

It is therefore natural that Kate, who tries to resist the two other characters' attempts at defining her, should try to be vague, hence causing the others to question her language. Anna commends Deeley on his wife's cooking and the two start to discuss food. After a little while Kate joins the conversation:


KATE: Yes, I quite like those kinds of things, doing it.

ANNA: What kind of things?

KATE: Oh, you know, that sort of thing.


DEELEY: Do you mean cooking?

KATE: All that thing

Kate's deliberate attempt at mystifying the other characters can sound comic for the audience, since the phrases using "thing" have no obvious referent, and since the phatic phrases of Anna and Deeley are repeated. The short sentences and clauses suggest a high speed of utterance for each line in isolation, even though the sequence contains a pause. The repeated phrases including "thing" create an atmosphere of nonsense and superficiality, although they may also provide Kate with a sense of dignity and self-containment. Kate is sure of herself and of her strength to define who she is, and does therefore not need to explain herself to either of the two others. As Kate detects the others' need to understand and control her, she is able to evade their prying.

1.7 Extended Soliloquy

Although the condescension of Kate evident in the dialogue of Anna and Deeley may reveal that they underestimate Kate, the category of extended soliloquy uses techniques that demand great force of exertion. With the aim of overwhelming the other characters with mere speech, the speaker has to concentrate to deliver long sequences of associations with an absurd effect. Through blocking the others from speaking, the speaker can more easily exercise control. The comic speech rhythms here illustrate the way the characters go about to exercise domination through such exertion of speech. The very excretion of language becomes and image of characters in tense combat and with a strong, almost desperate interest for control and self-expression.

Anna typically speaks more about Kate than about herself. A typical extended soliloquy on her part takes place within one of the re-enactments of a past conversation between Anna and Kate. When Kate says she wants to walk across the park , Anna advises against it:

The park is dirty at night, all sorts of horrible people, men hiding behind trees and women with terrible voices, they scream at you as you go past, and people come out suddenly from behind trees and bushes and there are shadows everywhere and there are policemen, and you'll have a horrible walk, and you'll see all the traffic and the noise of the traffic and you'll see all the hotels, and you know you hate looking through all those swing doors, you hate it, to see all that, all those people in the lights in the lobbies all talking and moving ... and all the chandeliers ...


You'll only want to come home if you go out. You'll want to run home ... and into your room...


Like all extended soliloquies, the ones in Old Times are directed at keeping other characters silent. Since Kate in general speaks less than the other two, Anna and Deeley's speeches in this category are mainly used to silence each other in order to lay claim to Kate. Their different ways of speaking, exemplified by their use of speech rhythm, receive different responses from Kate. Along with the general impression of the play, Anna's speech rhythms more successfully relate to Kate and gain her interest. Thus Anna's employment of extended soliloquy is more likely than Deeley's to control Kate.

1.8 Conclusion

The humor in Old Times has the general function of illustrating the power games between the characters. In particular Deeley shows signs of uncertainty towards the others. In his pursuit to dominate the conversation, defeat Anna, control Kate and prevent both of them from speaking, he uses strategies that are more aggressive and seem more obviously connected to his aims. His comic speech rhythms reveal his fervor and insistence, and contrast him from the more sympathetic verbal interaction of the two women.

Nevertheless, the women's strategies are also presented through speech rhythm, as its comic potential focuses the attention of the audience. When Deeley tries to participate in the re-enactments of the past, he breaks the sense of the past and draws the women back into the present. The women engage more readily in conversation with each other, while Deeley is occupied with understanding them, defining them through words and thereby controlling them. When Deeley speaks to either of the women, their responses to him do not seem as important to him as his own words. It is for instance he who utters the most strikingly absurd and comic lines, evidently in order to draw attention to himself

Although the women, and especially Anna, also draw attention to their words by the use of rhythm, the women's lines are more balanced than Deeley's, and they are not so clever in terms of raising laughter. It is certainly true that Anna in her search for control utters lines that sound funny and may result in laughter from the audience, but the nature of the comic techniques are not as strikingly clear. This ambiguity is Anna's strength. Anna's language creates a more solemn feeling that may vex Deeley and at the same time sympathies with Kate. Deeley's comic speech marks him as unable to connect to Kate's past in the way Anna can. In the end, though, Kate clearly denies the claims of both Anna and Deeley. Their need for connection and control both of the past and the present is dissatisfied and hence sad. Audience sympathy is however mingled with mirth because they have witnessed the innervations with which Anna and Deeley have pursued their aims.

The study of comic speech rhythm is thus an interesting approach for revealing the differences and similarities between the characters' interests. Their strategies for success as well as the way they try to defeat the others have comic relevance that informs the reading of the themes of the play. The categories of speech rhythm point to different aspects of the strategies. The stylization of linguistic structures and speech rhythms does not only have comic effects, it also expresses how the characters relate to the concepts of control, domination and relationships, as well as to the role of memory in these concepts. The comic potential of the stylization is intertwined with these other concepts, as it illustrates and embodies them.