Phil Gyford


Monday 7 November 2005

PreviousIndexNext Notating conversations

Last week I caught the end of Front Row on Radio 4, which was about different ways of notating speech in plays: how different playwrights have attempted to specify (or not) how lines should be delivered. (You can listen again for a couple more days — jump through to 20:27 for the item in question.) The bit I found most interesting was how best to notate overlapping conversation.

One rarely hears actors overlapping their conversation, the closest being an interruption, which is generally indicated by an ellipsis or dash, as in this bit of Alan Ayckbourn’s FlatSpin:

Tracy Listen, you just do as you’re —

Maurice Tracy! Go and sit over there, that’s a good girl.

That makes sense, but if you’re playing Tracy then you’ll probably work out what else you’re going to say just in case Maurice doesn’t come in on cue, or so you know exactly how best to deliver the line. I’ve found it strange that playwrights don’t indicate what the rest of the line should be, but apparently a few do, something that began with Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls in 1982. She uses a slash to indicate where the interruption should happen, like in this complicated exchange from her 2002 play Serious Money:

Joanne I’ll never learn what to do. / I’ll never learn hand signals.

Scilla I couldn’t walk across the floor / my first day.

Kathy This morning’s really a bore, / there’s nothing happening.

Joanne I answered a telephone / for the first time.

Kathy You really feel on your own.

Scilla Never say hold on / because they don’t hold on.

I’d love to hear that performed. Churchill also uses a system of numbers to indicate overlapping conversations, as in this example from the explanation at the front of Serious Money:

Dave I’ve got a certain winner for the 3.30 if anyone’s interested.4

Brian You haven’t paid us yesterday’s winnings yet.

Dave Leave it out Brian, I always pay you.

Kathy 4 Come on gilts. 2 at 4 the gilts.

where Kathy starts speaking as Dave finishes his first speech, but Brian and Dave continue their dialogue at the same time.

I can understand writers not wanting to go this far, preferring to keep conversation clear, with only one speaker at a time, but I’m surprised the slash hasn’t become more popular.


Librettists have to deal with overlapping voices all the time. Different medium, but I'm surprised that 'scoring' techniques haven't been more widely incorporated into drama. Beckett tried it to some extent ('Play' is the best example) but it's in the directors' notebooks and interactions rather than the play-texts that you see these things worked out. And contrapuntal drama tends to be associated with hands-on writer/directors.

Oh, and I'm reminded of Glenn Gould's work in contrapuntal radio:

Posted by nick on 7 November 2005, 9:51 pm | Link

To save you having to jump through to the relevant part of the Front Row show, I've created a clip to point to just that segment at

It's just a pointer to the section of the BBC audio, so it won't be available any longer than the full show, but hopefully makes it easier for people to listen to.

And if you ever want to do something similar, you can create your own at

Posted by Adrian McEwen on 8 November 2005, 12:39 am | Link

What a coincidence--I attended the opening for my friend's new theater company on Saturday. He opened with two Churchill Plays--Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle. In the latter the two words of the title slowly invade the text, taking over noun and adjective. My friend, the director, told me that Churchill *did not* specify in the script what words were being replaced, so he did all that work himself in rehearsals.

Posted by ted on 8 November 2005, 2:15 am | Link

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