Six years ago, playwright Dan O’Brien’s wife, actress Jessica St. Clair, discovered a cancerous lump on her breast. Shortly after, O’Brien was diagnosed with colon cancer. Did they both get sick, they wondered, because they had lived so close to the World Trade Center on and after 9/11? In the tumultuous years that followed, O’Brien turned to what he knew best: writing. His new essay collection, A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas, is based on a series of craft lectures—this excerpt comes from the essay “Unspeakable: Speech Onstage,” on writing dialogue for theater.
In the middle of writing this I underwent a procedure. It had been a year and a half since I finished cancer treatment, and two years since my wife finished hers. In my paper gown and turquoise hospital socks, with the curtain rolled tight around me, I laid there listening to the other patients in the prep room behind their curtains conversing with their nurses. So many things said struck my ears vividly: “I’m from White Plains. No, above the Bronx. I used to take the BQE to White Castle. I liked jogging across the Washington Bridge.” “My wife’s Nadine. I told her, ‘You go to a eatery [note: ‘a eatery’; dialogue is deliciously ungrammatical]. Don’t wait here.’” “Hello, I’m Mr. Meeks. Gloria’s just a friend. I don’t have much family left here in Los Angeles.” All I needed were the voices, really just the words, to imagine these people—not what they looked like but who they truly were or may have been. Perhaps these specks of speech dazzled me so brightly, just moments before receiving the blessed lethe of the Propofol syringe, because I was afraid and hopeful. As my characters are when they speak. As I am when I write.
And what I am afraid of is silence. The best plays I’ve written, or the plays I’ve most enjoyed writing, have needed little or no cajoling. Their voices came unbidden, in whispers that grew insistently into a companionship of months or years.
Admittedly my reception is irregular. I transcribe in fits and spurts. I speak for my characters as a place- holder; I grow confused. How do I know I’m hearing their voices and not my own? This is a delicate question. But do I like this talk, or bit of it, a lot? Does it impress me? Is it, as they say, “well-written”? Well then I must delete it. If a character says and keeps saying what I mean for him to say then I should disappear him from the play altogether. For some reason people still like to counsel young writers to “find their voice”; for me the practice of playwriting has always involved doing everything I can to lose my voice.
My characters still sound like me, I know. I don’t think it can be helped. If not in the way I speak, then in the way I think and feel. We contain multitudes, but they are kindred.
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