David Edgar: The Poetry of Plays @ Birmingham Book Festival

Birmingham Book Festival, in association with The Writer’s Guild, were glad to welcome David Edgar to the University of Birmingham last Wednesday. Drawing upon his immensely successful book How Plays Work, and his extensive career as both award-winning playwright and teacher of dramatic writing, David Edgar’s discussion of ‘The Poetry of Plays’promised to be an interesting evening.

Aptly situated in Muirhead Tower, where Edgar laid the foundations for Britain’s first full time university playwriting course over twenty years ago, the session attracted a diverse audience of fans, students and aspiring writers. In contrast to most of the festival’s other events, the atmosphere was academic – with several members of the audience eagerly toting notepads to catch Edgar’s advice as he spoke.

Edgar began by defining the poetry of plays; not as the iambic verse of Shakespeare’s plays but as a poetic similarity of form. He vividly compared this to the human skeleton; a common factor in all manner of scripts and screenplays, from Shakespeare to Hollywood films. The vibrant discussion which followed was brought to life by a small cast of actors, including Benedict Hastings and Elinor Middleton, who were also involved in the touring poetry performance Being Human. As Edgar spoke, his arguments were peppered with extracts from a diverse variety of plays including Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and Howard Brenton’s Epsom Downs, which served not only to entertain, but also to demonstrate the effects he described.

A farcical scene from Richard Sheridan’s School of Scandal was used to illustrate the way a writer is able, through the introduction of new characters and repetition, to build tension within a scene. Similarly, this and Caryl Churchill’s Ice Cream were performed alongside modern movie scripts to illustrate the effects of stichomythia in creating compelling, naturalistic but also delicately controlled dialogue.

Through introducing us to the texts in performance, Edgar allowed the audience to witness first-hand the effects of brilliantly written scenes, before focusing on the techniques used to evoke their reactions. For example, he showed what he considered to be the most effective ‘drop lines’ of popular theatre. He contrasted the rejection of Falstaff by Prince Hal in Henry IV, with the tense and devastating put down of Cecily by Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest:

‘Cecily: […] When I see a spade I call it a spade.                                                                                                  Gwendolen: [Satirically] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.’ (II.295-29)

He went on to discuss how dialogue can be manipulated to create dramatic irony; namely, through the process of translation and consequent misunderstandings. This was accompanied by humorous and touching scenes from Brian Friel’s Translations, in which Irish and English characters experience both the opportunities and restrictions of a language barrier. The way in which Edgar explored the plays was both fascinating and enlightening, for either those seeking a better understanding of performance, or those with an interest in playwriting itself.

Despite overrunning slightly, there were plenty of questions from the audience aimed not only at David Edgar himself but also encouraging the actors to express their experience of performing on the stage. This led to an interesting, albeit truncated, look at characterisation from the views of the audience, actors and playwrights which rounded off an extremely fun and informative evening.

Birmingham Book Festival is now over for this year, more information about the annual festival can be found on their website:  http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/ For further information about events associated with The Writers Guild, visit : http://www.writersguild.org.uk/

Rachel Eames


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