Rhythm In Penelope


Following today’s From The Library, I decided to apply some of Kathleen George’s analytical methods in a brief consideration of PenelopeThis post covers large portions of the script, Penelope.  If you are seeing either of tomorrow’s performances, I suggest waiting to read this after the show.

First: what can we tell about the play from a rough, quantitative look at it on the page?  Let’s say we’ve read it once and are familiar with the basic elements of the story.  And now we’ve got the whole thing spread out in front of us on the table.

The play can be divided into two forms.  There are the dialogue sections and the long monologues.  The dialogue sections may be further subdivided, of course, but it is enough for now to note that much of the dialogue is composed of short lines.  This suggests a good portion of the play will be spent in banter between the men.  Further, we may be aware that short lines mean increased alternation of who is speaking, which suggests both lively conflict and the fact that the conflict is borne out through words.

Within the dialogue sections, we notice occasional longer lines (three or more sentences at a time).  Most of these belong to either Quinn or Dunne.  On this quick survey it will be difficult to deduce much from that fact, but closer readings will show that Quinn is – for much of the play – the most powerful character.  Therefore he is at liberty to speak most or he may wield his power through speech (both may be true).  Dunne’s verbosity on the other hand is less indicative of his place in the competition (though it may be read as his ignorance of his place) than it is of his general character: he’s a romantic, theatrical buffoon.

Burns is conspicuous for his silence.  It tells us firstly that he is the low man on the totem pole.  It also suggests, indirectly, that part of what he is competing against is the never-ending competitive chatter.  It suggests that Burns is in some way different than the other men, and that in order for him to win, he must play a different game.

Turning to the long speeches, we see that there are approximately seven.  In those seven speeches there is pattern and variation.  Three of the speeches are pitched at Penelope herself.  Dunne’s and Fitz’s are failed courtships.  Burns speech is explicitly a rejection of the courtships and the competition underlying them.  Dunne fails because of his bile.  Fitz nearly succeeds but for his ego (placing his book/identity over her and his dissolution into love and care).  Burns succeeds in the terms that are left him at the end of the play – prescribed, to a degree, by those previous failures.

Quinn’s courtship, when we finally see it, is entirely non-verbal.  While we could see this as a disruption of the other courtship pattern (all the other suitors get speeches), it is more telling to view it as the end of Quinn’s own personal speech trajectory.  He has more lines than any other character.  Other than Dunne, he is the only character with long, non-courtship speeches.  First he recites the dream of the barbecue.  Then, after Dunne’s failure, he describes how he tormented Murray.  After sabotaging Fitz’s effort, he makes a long defense of hatred and their combative lifestyle.  What we see, in the end, is that Quinn is surprisingly eloquent and effective in persuading his fellow competitors (of their imminent demise, of their need to form a company), but strangely impotent as a suitor of Penelope.  He literally cannot speak the language of love.

The final, unaccounted speech is Dunne’s gravity monologue.  It forms the second half of two different pairs.  First, it is the long-awaited, honest response to his own failure.  Dunne imagines letting go of the anger that has consumed him for nearly all his life.  It is also the immediate response to Quinn’s hatred speech just moments before.  And as an opposition, it finally allows the three men to turn on Quinn.

A similar kind of pairing exists, too, between Quinn’s first speech and Burns’ last. The first long speech is about death.  The last long speech is about life.  From that motion we see the overall comic trajectory of the play (that Burns’s speech is followed by the characters’ implied deaths is an ironic twist but does not negate the point).

Within each of these speeches are myriad other connections (Dunne’s zero-gravity world resembles in some ways Fitz’ nothing house), but these broad story-points can be drawn from a very cursory – almost geometric – study of the shape of the words on the page.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager