Monday 5 March 2007

On 'Living On'

A correspondent writes to ask what is the story behind my play 'Living On', and has it had a production yet?

It came out of a conversation with Greg Doran, now associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the late 1990s, Greg was in North Wales directing a play, and he gave me a call. While in the US he had read an article I had written on endangered languages for the Library of Congress magazine, Civilization, and he thought this was an excellent subject for a play. I wholeheartedly agreed, as it had long been my view that the best way to communicate the issue to a wide public would be to get the artists of the world to deal with it in their different genres. And fiction, as Disraeli once said, 'stands the best chance of influencing opinion'.

Greg came across to Holyhead, and we spent an afternoon exploring possibilities. The only professional playwright we knew who had approached the subject was Harold Pinter, in 'Mountain Language', but that was a twenty-minute piece with a particular political angle, and not an exploration of the general theme of language death. Other playwrights, it seemed, either displayed little interest or little knowledge - hardly surprising, given the fact that the extent of the world language crisis had become known, even in linguistics, only five years before. As I knew the subject and had had some playwriting experience, he suggested I take the job on. The idea was to put the play on at the new theatre in Keswick, with which Greg was associated.

I set to with enthusiasm. I created a 'last speaker' of a language, Shalema, invented a language, Tamasa, for him to speak, and gave him a cultural background which was a fusion of notions derived from several endangered-language communities around the world. The plot revolves around the interaction between him and a field linguist, Derek, who has been documenting his language, and a British Council officer, Miranda, who works in the city where Shalema lives. All has been going well, but then Shalema refuses to cooperate any further...

The play was nearly finished when Greg moved to Stratford to become associate director at the RSC. Shakespeare - I suppose, not unreasonably - then took priority. I remember complaining at the time that 'Shakespeare had already had his chance, and it was time to let a new generation have a go...'! But although Greg gave me some excellent feedback about the writing, he wasn't able to take the idea any further.

I completed the play nonetheless, and through my linguist-turned-actor son Ben made contact with Bob Wolstenholme, a London-based director who was interested in taking the project forward. Bob worked with me on the script, and the final version is the result of this revision, along with other revisions which took place after various staged readings around the world. I've been able to try it out with audiences in Australia, Brazil, India, and Mexico, as well as in several parts of Europe, often tying it in with a lecture on language death, so I'm pretty confident that it 'works'. Indeed, I was dismayed/delighted to meet someone recently who recalled a combined lecture/play reading from a few years ago. 'I can't remember what you talked about in the lecture,' she said, 'but I remember the play very well!'

The text of 'Living On' is freely available to any group, and I have often sent it out. It is therefore possible that amateur readings or productions have taken place in some parts of the world. Any profits received from a commercial production should be assigned to a local endangered languages association, if there is one, and failing that, to the Foundation for Endangered Languages in the UK. A published version of the play will be available in due course, once it has had a full staged production. There's a staged reading planned in London during the week of 23rd April 2007, as part of 'Endangered Languages Week' at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Malet Street. There may be a full production in London in 2008. It is not exactly mainstream theatre, however, so I am not holding my breath.

A couple of performance notes. The play uses a culturally diverse cast, and a strong ethnic identity is needed for the character of Shalema. I had Morgan Freeman in mind, when I was writing, but no particular racial group is assumed: the characters could be from virtually any part of the world. The rainforest setting used in the script could be altered to any other, without this affecting the plot. The two leading white characters also have a regional background: Derek is Welsh and Miranda is Irish. For parts of the world where the allusions to the 'Celtic fringe' may not be especially meaningful, the text could be adapted to incorporate alternatives, also without this affecting the plot. The same point applies to any proposed translations. The play involves music and choreography/movement, for which appropriate specialists would need to be involved.

'Living On' will readily adapt for a screenplay; indeed, the physical events which are depicted in some ways are easier to display through the medium of film. These events, though, would be difficult to portray on radio, and some rewriting and plot adaptation would be necessary for any radio performance.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the play, 'Living On'- I have just returned from a very in-depth conversation with a friend. It is very, very late!!! One of the topics was langauge survival. What a great way to round up the evening by reading about this exiting play...might there be a possibility that it might/could be performed at the Ucheldre??? Will.

Sarah said...

When trying to find out where and when you will give public speeches in my area (Dublin mainly) I found this blog instead which I find very interesting and fun to read. Thank you for publishing it!

To get back to my original question: Once last year I gave my parents a tour of Dublin and we strolled by Dublin Castle. There I saw a big sign pointing to a talk with you. Unfortunately I missed it by about 1 hour. Since then I have been trying to find our where else you appear to make earlier arrangements. So to make things short, it would be splendid if you could publish your talk locations around the world in this blog as well.

I would also like to hear your thoughts about the language of contextual advertising online. I am wondering: Why are those snappy short ads working so well in certain cases, and not at all in others? And is this influencing other parts of our language use at all? Questions over questions. Maybe you have intereting thoughts about this?

Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say hello. Really enjoyed your comment on Never Mind the Full Stops. I was a guest on the programme this week and thoroughly enjoyed Julian Fellowes attitude. I think the programme hinges on his personality. But I wished that he was as adaptable/flexible in his opinion about language as language itself. Rather than a guardian of ideas he should be a custodian. It would be more fun for him, like stephen Fry. Who knows? I expect you do.


All best

DC said...

After an absence of a few days, a round-up on these comments:

Will: It's certainly possible for a local repertory company, such as the one at the Ucheldre Centre, to take on such a play, as long as they can cast it. It's an ethnically diverse cast, with no particular racial group required, but it would be difficult to make the leading character (and his people) plausible if they were not clearly differentiatable from the other characters.

Sarah: I'll look into the idea of putting together a talks schedule. I'm out somewhere or other most weeks - which is the main reason this blog is so sporadic - but most talks are to closed audiences, such as schools, societies, or teacher in-service days. Public lectures such as the Dublin one are less frequent, but - with the litfest season now begun - there are a few arranged over the next months. Stand by.

Regarding contextual advertising, that's a big question, and it needs a separate post. I'll put something together.

Lemn: Glad you survived the 'Fullstops' experience! I think you're right. Anyone who develops a balanced approach to usage, exploiting the expressive richness which resides in a language's variation, while not forgetting the importance of maintaining standards of intelligibility, has a much better time than someone who just moans on every occasion. Stephen Fry, as you say, is an excellent example of that balance in action - and I think poets on the whole have a good sense of it too. JF's personality is the key, indeed, for a good sense of humour helps to achieve that kind of balance. His main problem, as with all who sound off about their personal dislikes and try to persuade others to share them, is inconsistency. I remember, in the series I was involved in, he was telling someone off for using a particular usage - I think it was 'you know', or some such - and he used it several times himself! No-one picked him up on it. I pointed it out to the producer, but the message never got through the headphones!

When I was doing 'English Now' on Radio 4, back in the 1980s, we did a programme on 'intrusive r', as in 'law(r) and order', which some people say they hate. But the haters all use it themselves some of the time. I remember in a question time on the subject a lady in the audience haranguing me for defending the usage. 'I would never use such a horrible construction', she said. I gave her a few sentences to say. One of them was 'The famine in Africa and Asia is awful'. She unconsciously slipped in an 'r' after the word 'Africa' - as everyone does who is speaking unselfconsciously. I pointed it out. She was horrified - and burst into tears!