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Do actions speak louder than words?

A case study of how certain classic plays prioritise physicality over speech.

As the curtains draw in a theatre and a play commences, we, the audience, unconsciously focus on the words being said. It is true that a key aspect of theatrical works is the dialogue, since directors and writers are known to dwell upon scripts for months and sometimes years. However, due to this mindset, the physical aspect of theatre is often side-lined and becomes of secondary importance to us. Given this, what can actions accomplish, where words are limited?

To begin with, one can better understand the relationship and dynamics between characters, through their body language around one another. It is important to note that in the 20th century, there was a shift in focus towards stagecraft and gestures, therefore many examples given in this article will be of modern plays (from the 1940s onwards). An example of a playwright who deliberated on each and every aspect of the stage is Arthur Miller. One of his most famous plays, All My Sons, centres on the gradual degradation of the Keller family and the ‘deposition’ of the family’s patriarch, Joe Keller. In this play, Miller goes as far as to dedicate a whole page to describe the front yard of the Kellers’ house, therefore it must come as no surprise to know that Miller also detailed how characters must behave with one another. From the outset, it is evident that Joe and his son, Chris, are not completely comfortable around one another, though this is not completely obvious from the dialogue. While Joe is offering to hand over his entire company to Chris, he actively [moves away]from his father and Chris’ speech is littered with [slight pauses]Through physically distancing himself from Joe, the audience can visually perceive Chris’ discomfort, which is also evident through his hesitation around his father, evidenced by his constant pauses. Throughout the play, there are instances where the characters border physical violence, reflecting the underlying tension in the family and their friends. However, no act of physical violence takes place until the final act when Kate, Joe’s wife, [smashes him across his (Joe’s) face]The spontaneous and surprising nature of the act naturally takes the audience by surprise and we know that whatever will unfold is important. Unsurprisingly, Joe’s secret is subsequently revealed and the climax is reached, leading to Chris storming off. As Chris exits, [he pounds down upon his father’s shoulder]demonstrating the conflict between his anger and love for his father. Chris is devastated to learn of his father’s crime but cannot bring himself to unleash his anger upon Joe because he still loves and respects him as his father, therefore he only strikes his father’s shoulder. 

Another way actions contribute to our understanding of plays is how they demonstrate the development of characters as people. However this is not an exclusively 20thCentury phenomenon, Shakespeare’s King Lear has various instances where the physical was more expressive than the verbal. Stage directions are not a major part of Shakespeare’s works therefore the selective times the bard explicitly directs actions is significant. As a tragedy, King Lear the tragic hero develops through experiencing his tragic fall from grace. In the exposition, he demands his three daughters to profess their love for him and he would then accordingly divide his kingdom between them. The two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, shower him with exaggerated and false praise, saying that he is ‘dearer than eyesight’ for them. The king delights in their praise and gives them each a generous share of his kingdom. However, when it comes to his third daughter, Cordelia, she refuses to showcase her affection because she knows her love to be true and believes that to be enough for her and her father. This angers the king and prompts him to exile Cordelia, the one daughter who truly loves him, showing his lack of perceptiveness and superficiality. As the play progresses, both Goneril and Regan alienate Lear and he finds himself shut out in a storm, with nothing to his name. He realises how he should not take things at face value, like his daughters’ exaggerated praise or Cordelia’s refusal to profess her love, when he rips off his robes, to remove any superficiality. The act of ripping off his clothes is especially powerful, given the fact that he is removing his kingly clothes in the midst of a storm and is equating himself to a peasant, in tattered clothing. 

Finally, actions can also help stress upon the central theme and ideas of a play, an example of which is Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Since Waiting for Godot is a play from the Theatre of the Absurd, which centres on the philosophy of absurdism, it naturally has a nonsensical script, pushing the audience to make sense of the plot through the characters’ actions. To put it simply, absurdism is the acceptance that life is meaningless and therefore the struggle of living with that realisation is life. Contradiction lies at the heart of this philosophy and throughout the play, the characters’ dialogue contradicts with the characters’ actions. Estragon, one of the characters, declares, ‘I’m going’ but does not move, showing how we as individuals think we have agency but in reality, we do not. This contradiction in speech and actions is common in Godot.

As shown in the examples above, actions can express and emphasise certain aspects which words often fail to do. When looking at character relationships, for example, words can often be misunderstood or can be used to hide a character’s true feelings. However, body language always reveals how a character feels about the other and thus the truth. Keeping this in mind, it is important to note that words play a vital role in complementing actions; often words mirror actions or deliberately contradict the action, grabbing the attention of the viewer.

To conclude, yes, actions do speak louder than words but both elements are of equal importance in plot development and a viewer’s understanding of a play.

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