Reading the Signature

It was the final exam for a graduate level philosophy course.  My friend Robert had read and studied the work of major philosophers all semester.  He had a solid A going into the final.  The paper slid in front of him, and he started to read.  It was a list of statements, and he was supposed to determine which philosopher had written each one.  Sounds easy enough.  Except he had never read any of these statements before.  As he hyperventilated, he reviewed the instructions again.

“The following statements were written by members of the Philosophy department.  Your job is to determine which philosopher could have written each statement based on what you know about their ideas and their style of presentation.”

In other words, if you have read and studied the stuff these guys said and wrote, you should be able identify their writer’s signature.

Mamet is Mamet.  You’re not going to confuse him with Edward Albee or David Auburn.  I’m not suggesting you should be able to see a play or read a script blind and know who the playwright is.  But there are certain themes, certain word choices you come to associate with certain playwrights.  No swearing?  It’s definitely not Durang.

That’s not to say that once you establish a tone you can never change it.  We all grow as we experience life.  Hopefully so does our writing.  Take a look at Neil Simon.  There’s a huge difference between the absolutely dreadful Star Spangled Girl (1966) and Lost in Yonkers, which not only won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize – it was the only play nominated by all five jury members.  But you can still recognize Simonesque dialogue in both plays.

In Jennie’s post on Branding she pointed out that screenwriters get pigeon holed in a genre.  The same is not true of the theatre.  (I say with a big sigh since I’ve had equal success with comedies and dramas.)  You don’t have to look any farther than Shakespeare to realize that jumping genres is perfectly acceptable.

For me, the writer’s signature is more about quality.   I don’t expect every Sarah Ruhl play to be Dead Man’s Cell Phone, but I do expect an evening with some laughter, some “oh wow” quiet moments and dialogue that makes me think.  (Not to mention several moments where I go – “Man I wish I’d written that.”)  There are other playwrights – I won’t mention names – whose shows I don’t want to see because I have found their previous work incomprehensible or unimaginative or mediocre.  Could this new play be a break-through?  Something wonderful that would instantly become my new favorite?  Sure.  But I am much less likely to check it out if I’ve already decided that their signature is illegible to me.

And that resonates far beyond the stage.  These days many playwrights jump between the stage, the small screen and the large screen.  If you loved David Rambo’s play God’s Man in Texas, you might be more apt to watch the TV show Revolution – despite the fact the two are in completely different genres.

And, for me,  no discussion of the writer’s signature would be complete without talking about Aaron Sorkin, whose incredible dialogue has coined the term Sorkinism.

Check out this clip and you’ll start to wonder if over his desk is list of his favorite snippets of dialogue.  I first noticed this trend when watching The West Wing and found myself wondering if I had accidentally popped in a video (yes, folks it was on TV that long ago!) of The American President.  Since the former supposedly came from ideas that were cut from the latter, it made sense.  But when those lines get recycled in a real-life commencement speech by Sorkin . . . well, let’s just say my friend Robert would have had no problem identifying that writer.

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  1. #1 by Mark McKellar on June 12, 2013 - 5:43 am

    Someone’s got a lot of time on his/her hands. My wife and I are huge Sorkin fans and we, too, have noticed how often he recycles himself. As a family, we have gone through both seasons of Sports Night about five times. With Sorkin, I feel like I know what I’m getting and it’s going to be good. Now, when does The Newsroom come back?

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