Do You Speak American?


Scene: A large bright room in a Manhattan apartment. Jimmy is arranging stacks of staff paper: Arnie sits at the piano, watching. 

ARNIE: (prompting) Sam wants you to do something.

JIMMY: If he’s helpless.


JIMMY: Arnie. Helpless.

ARNIE: Sam’s always been helpless. That’s why we love him.

JIMMY: (with increased emphasis) If he can’t help himself.

ARNIE: (understanding) My God, you’re serious!

JIMMY: He said I thought you loved me. 

ARNIE: What did you say?

JIMMY: Which is why I won’t promise to kill you. 

A play is never really complete, your work is never really finished until it’s produced; till you’ve had a chance to work on it with the director and actors, and you see it before an audience; the text is theoretical until it’s spoken. 

The production can be minimal—a workshop will do, scenery isn’t essential, rehearsals can be scheduled to allow for outside jobs, the actors don’t have to be off-book—don’t need to have their part memorized—though it’s good if they’ve put in the time to get familiar with the play (not always a given), and the audience can be three or four friends, ten or twenty colleagues, or a couple of hundred unknown ticket-holders. 

However you see it done, the play will be transformed. It will stop belonging solely to the playwright and take on an outside realness. If it’s a comedy, laughs might take you by surprise when they come— ‘Really? You’re laughing at that?’— or cause you to slump in your seat when they don’t, ‘Oh come on! That’s funny!’ The play has become a solid thing, ripe for praise or blame.

I’m thinking of a sales clerk in a Manhattan Williams-Sonoma who, as I was innocently waiting to pay for a package of salt, noticed the Crazy For You button I was wearing. Had I seen Nick and Nora? a new musical then in preview, based on The Thin Man; “It’s just brutal,” he sighed, rolling his eyes, one jaded connoisseur to another. As is well known, in New York City, mankind has three basic drives; food, sex, and fixing other people’s musicals. An old joke, perhaps, but one that contains an element of truth.

When others lay hands on your work—and I’m not exclusionary, I generally welcome my colleagues in—you’re no longer the sole proprietor. The imaginary people lately populating your head have taken on an outside reality, one you no longer control.

In the case of my recently completed Songbook, though the workshops were a few years ago, in my mind’s eye the character of Jimmy still looks like Patrick, the actor who embodied him; Arnie like Donald. Sam was played by two actors so he’s less defined. An actor of talent can reveal aspects of a character you hadn’t understood. 

The novel was translated from the play but is different: if the characters are more completely mine, prose was a foreign language that only seemed familiar till I began to grapple with it; if that was liberating, it was also full of traps. My work on the novel was more intense, more solitary, taking place in stages over an extended period of time. Even when I had to put it aside, when the realness of life sometimes became too much, it was there waiting. When I could finally come back to it, sit and take stock of where I was, I began to understand that I had no idea what I was doing.

Play and novel are versions of the same story with the same characters and situations. Both share the same underlying themes: how do we love each other? what do we mean by devotion? is that weakness or strength? They also share the same essential structure, stories that circle around each other, looping forward and backward through time; the same focus on a particular style of music, and the art of singing.

That snippet of dialog above comes from the first scene in the play—the workshops had a prelude I’ve cut—between two characters waiting for a third who is the center of the story. Though brief, within a couple of pages of casual, rapid-fire conversation the scene needs to set up the three main story lines of the play and introduce its style and manner, without seeming like exposition. It took me months to construct.

While much of the Songbook story is biographical—story not plot, I think of them differently—it isn’t autobiographical. I didn’t make outlines. I had an idea of where the story began and could imagine its end. I didn’t want to force the characters into situations, I wanted them to speak for themselves. This is, of course, an obvious mental trick but almost everything about the theater requires you to lie to yourself in some way or other. Or, to be more generous, requires an act of willing (willful?) self-deception to let you bring up the curtain or step out on a stage.

The same dialog crops up toward the front of the Songbook novel; there it’s not the first scene because I don’t need to shoot the story out of the gate to grab the attention of a bunch of strangers who will, all things being equal, grow into that being of magic and cruelty, the audience. So this scene happens a little later; I softened the percussive nature of the dialogue—no one likes to be yelled at when they’re trying to read—to let it transition smoothly into one element of a larger scene.

I read it aloud to myself a lot—writing and re-writing the three men at its heart, American characters alive in a particular time and place, forming a narrow slice of a much larger society, New York City, 1949-2010; kinda show-biz, post WWII but pre-Stonewall; for men who love other men it was rife with public secrets and private commitments; a world where masks are essential accessories. As they struggle to understand themselves, connect with each other, fall in love or cope with loss, I began to see how little I understood their native tongue—American—and how much that differed from mine—English.

Full disclosure; I have an accent.

After living most of my life in the States, I still sound as if I just got off the boat: that’s not a metaphor, it’s how we arrived, on a Soviet ocean liner haphazardly kitted out to snag the Transatlantic trade after the Cunard ships stopped running, sailing under the Verrazano Bridge into New York’s expansive harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, and up the Hudson to dock at the 53rd Street pier, long since gone. 

Newly arrived and full of plans, I made a concerted effort to rid myself of my British/London sound to make myself more castable; as maybe a cowboy or astronaut? But the way we speak is of course more than accent, it’s how we sound to ourself on the inside, what words we use and how we use them, how we curse, what terms of endearment we favor, phrases, syntax and vocabulary. Failing to get booked by Days of Our Lives, and being cast instead in a regional production of The Mousetrap followed by the inevitable Twelfth Night, I settled into my niche.

To write plays you don’t need to be a native speaker. Dialog is always stylized, even at its most gruntingly naturalistic it’s never really real, never really how we talk to each other. Punctuation imposes a phony order on conversational chaos. Some of the best dialog is what’s most unreal: Clifford Odets inventing Noir, ‘Don’t give me ice when your heart’s on fire’, ‘Show me a dime, I’ll tango on a dime’, ‘Second fiddle? By me he doesn’t play in the orchestra’, from his beautiful Awake and Sing! Mamet’s Buffalo; Tennessee Williams going too far. Plus actors are saying it, out loud, right there in front of you. The audience forgets it’s words written down—unless it’s Eugene O’Neill when all bets are off. 

When you write prose, on the other hand, who are you? Who is the writer writing the story and why? Who is the reader reading it and when? For a playwright it’s obvious, the audience is the reader, out there in the dark fast asleep. For the writer of prose it’s not so clear. 

My own workaround was to imagine that one of the characters was in fact writing the story for a definite reason, to inform another character who, in a dramatic reveal (since cut), would make an entrance late in the day. And he was, this narrator, most definitely American; the story was told by him. In his voice and language.

Not exactly new, it’s related to the mysterious diary left behind by Humbert Humbert that is unconvincingly read by a psychiatrist, Nabokov’s joke, in Lolita; or Conrad’s Marlow boring to death whole verandas full of murky after-dinner companions in Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness; or to any number of fictional narrators meant to obfuscate the writer, saving them from having to take off the dark glasses, shamble forward and say ‘Yes, actually it’s me. What was I thinking? I am responsible for taking up your valuable time. My bad.’

If my plan solved one problem, however, it exposed another: I also had an accent when I wrote. I’d long since set my spell check to English (US), so I wasn’t just reacting to the rationalized spelling begun by Benjamin Franklin before the Revolutionary War—a new way to write a new way of thinking—carried forward by others, the Deseret alphabet devised by Brigham Young, taken up by Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, derailed by a consortium of newspapers led by the Chicago Tribune. 

However, these are the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure you can think of your own examples (cheque/check). There are the many subtler differences like ‘around/round’, ‘backwards/backward’, ‘lie down/lay down’, never forgetting the heinous ‘gotten’, a usage guaranteed to upset the English. And while all of this might be fun in a twitter grammarando kind of way, as I worked new details kept popping up like a whack-a-mole.

Language lives in how we talk, the written word records what we say, grammar getting dragged in at the end like a cop to break up a barfight. At least, that’s how I see it. And like popular music, language changes all the time. Songbook celebrates a particular kind of American language and a particular style of song: what was being written from say the Thirties through the end of WWII. Songs that lingered after the glory days till microphones and amplification changed how we listened and how we sang. But not what we sang about, that stayed pretty much the same: Why don’t you love me?

‘All his working life Sam believed the songs had purpose. That they represented the coming-together of many men and women of talent in one city at one time: not fifteenth century Florence but twentieth century New York. As he’d once explained spontaneously during an interview and repeated many times since, the songs express what we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t say to each other in words. The songs we danced to, made out to, made up with, broke the ice with, played on the jukes, sang along with in the car, in the shower, on the can, in sickness and health, joy and despair. Songs that let us believe we were more eloquent, more loving, more worthy of respect than perhaps we were—songs made of nothing that hadn’t been said a million times—how many times can you rhyme June with Moon? Taken one-by-one they might not seem like much—It’s a lonely old town… I took a trip on a plane… P.S. I love you—but put them all together they might tell the story of who we were, who we are, and how we love each other.’

If you haven’t been to school in a country I’m not sure you can ever feel really at home. You remain an outsider. If it seems to be pushing things a bit to describe AmEng as a separate language, it’s fairly common to see that claim made for Scottish. And of course there’s more than one way for Americans to talk; all the various regionalisms; the vast presence and history of Black American; corporate jargon; online talk that floods daily vocab irl. What I mean is New York and surroundings, where I’ve always lived. And if I can’t see the language from inside I can remind myself that writing is always to a degree performative, whether it’s a letter or yelp review, play or novel. Authenticity can be aspirational. Perhaps better to admit that even if I’ll never be a native speaker, never be a cowboy, I can do my best to respect and admire my adopted tongue and hope I don’t get too much wrong. And I suppose that’ll have to do.

Best written dialog? Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho.

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