Conversational Ping Pong

Before Midnight Wikimedia commons
            Before Midnight/Wikimedia commons

Every theater is a museum of conversation.  In its many forms and formats drama invites us to admire the diligence that goes into a transformative exchange.

In these pages we have frequently worried about how the primary model for human communication—the face to face conversation—seems to be weakening as a default form, taking on more mutations that diminish its essence of human contact in real space and time.  We’ve cited the alarming research of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015), with its surveys of younger Americans that reveal a distinct discomfort with direct interpersonal connection.  And we’ve noted a decline in emotional affect: emotions seemingly flattened by no-obligations digital devices that absorb so much of our time.

For most of us the challenge of engaging others has never been that easy.  In the presence of another we must also listen, a process we often fake more than fulfill. The means getting out of our own heads long enough to hear what another is saying.  And then there’s the unpredictability of direct contact.  Potential partners in conversation can surprise or even diminish us, as when a listener shows complete indifference to what we are saying. A bored interlocutor who has been entrusted with a precious and personal story can inflict real injury.

It’s a good thing we have theater and all of its variations:  plays, films and television.  Theater perfects conversation.  In important ways it functions as a museum of the form, inviting us to admire the craft that goes into a transformative dialogue.  Characters that aren’t rhetorical–aren’t very fluent or engaging–are seldom the magnets in a story.  In popular theater, at least, we want snappy one-liners.  We want responsiveness.  We welcome a clash of wills between two equally formidable and loquacious people.  Even a dystopian story offers useful lessons.  We wonder why those in a dysfunctional world can’t find the resources of hope and empathy that should be their inheritance.

Anyone’s short list for inclusion in their own cinematic  museum of interpersonal fluency will vary.  The top of my list would include films such as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of love and loss that concluded with Before Midnight (2013), and the old film and stage chestnut that has just reopened on Broadway, The Front Page (1931, 1974, 2016).  In both serious and funny ways, all give us characters who are alive to the words and ideas of others.

Amplifying feelings and ideas requires reservoirs of energy, curiosity, and the will to draw others out.

Television is just as fertile in providing good examples. Old chestnuts like The West Wing (1999-2006) and Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) were mostly centered on interpersonal relationships that needed to be negotiated through compelling talk and argument.  The actors in those series were quick to remind admirers that their scripts tended to run twice the length of other shows with the same time frame.  Conversation takes effort and a degree of generosity.  Amplifying feelings and ideas requires the will to connect and draw others out.

Listen to Celine and Jesse, Before Midnight’s couple with a young family and a boat load of unfilled aspirations: he, as a writer, and she as a mother who wants to escape back into the unpredictability of her adventurous youth.  Their love is no longer new.  Yet both are trying to find the safest tracks to a shared future.

Céline: So if we're going to spend another fifty-six more years together...

Jesse: Yeah?

Céline: What about me would you like to change?

Jesse: [Smirks] That's another one of your can't-win questions. I'm not answering that.

Céline: What do you mean? There's not one thing you'd like to change about me? I'm perfect?

Jesse: Okay.

Céline: Okay.

Jesse: Actually...

Céline: One thing.

Jesse: If I could change one thing about you...

Céline: Uh-huh.

Jesse: It would be for you to stop trying to change me.

Céline: You're a very skilled manipulator, you know that?

Jesse: Well, I'm onto you. I know how you work.

Céline: You think?

Jesse: Yeah. I know everything about you.

It’s clear they have a long way to go.  But somehow we believe they have the conversational chops to navigate through the accommodations the will have to make for dreams that have been put on hold.

Of course conversation should not be relegated to a spectator form.  If it is representative of our dramatic arts, it’s one that we need to cultivate in ourselves.  Twitter, and two-word responses in Facebook won’t cut it as forms that will push the potentials of communication forward.  As a teacher it can be painful to be on the frontlines with too many able students who seem to have been rendered mute by shifting too much time and energy to stunted forms of connectivity.  The impulse to interact seems to have become dormant.  What is lost is the expressive power that is our birthright as symbol-using creatures.