Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric

Giles Taylor is an actor who has appeared at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and at numerous regional theatres, as well as on television. He is also a Shakespeare Consultant, working on productions across the country and running workshops for both actors and directors
Philip Wilson is a freelance director who has worked at theatres including Birmingham Rep, The Bush, Chichester Minerva, Liverpool Playhouse, Sheffield Crucible and the Traverse. He’s also the former Artistic Director of Salisbury Playhouse, and was the Performance Consultant for the film Shakespeare in Love.

Together they’ve written Oberon Books’ latest must-have handbook, Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric: a guide for actors, directors and playwrights

Last week, Áine Ryan from Oberon Books had a chat with Giles and Philip for this blog, in which they talked about the process of writing a book together, and why there’s a space on everyone’s bookshelf for it. 

Áine Ryan: So, Giles, Philip – how did the book come about?

Philip Wilson: Well, Giles and I, having known each other for around 15 years, finally got to work together when I directed a double-bill of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Birmingham Rep. In which Giles played not one but three butlers: Lane and Merriman in Earnest, and Bennett in Travesties.

Giles & Philip see their book for the first time, at the Oberon office

Giles & Philip see their book for the first time, at the Oberon office

Giles Taylor: Philip mentioned, during early table-work rehearsals, that Wilde’s play was packed with rhetorical devices, and my ears pricked up. I have long had a love of rhetoric, from my university days studying Classics, and have used it as a major tool in teaching Shakespeare. Other cast members, though, while interested, weren’t sure what warranted being rhetoric – and even Philip admitted that he could never remember the Greek and Latin names of the devices.

PW: I still often can’t! Anyway, we had a chat in a tea-break, and pondered the idea of how useful it would be to have a book in rehearsals that listed all the terms, but had a focus on drama – and contemporary drama, too, not only Shakespeare – rather than on politics or oratory.

GT: Once the topic was out there in rehearsals, my rhetorical antennae were a-quiver. To help the company, I compiled a list of about 60 rhetorical devices, with examples from both plays. In doing so, I had a eureka moment one day when we were working on Travesties, and realised that part of an apparently rambling speech by the lead character, Carr, was actually an extended paramoiosis. It’s now in the book! We are all aware that Stoppard is an extraordinary wordsmith, but even by his standards this is a superb example.

PW: Giles’s discovery really was helpful in unlocking a difficult moment in the play. And it proved the point that, if one could identify these devices, it could clarify the text and inspire ideas as how best to present and perform it.

AR: So clearly there is a need for this book; a space on the shelf for something on this topic.

‘We don’t always know why we say what we say, or write what we write – but invariably, the Greeks have a word for it. Packed with memorable and quotable examples from sources ancient and modern, this witty and well-organised handbook offers a lexicon for our efforts, terms for our art. For any teacher, actor or writer, a useful and fascinating guide.’ Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

‘We don’t always know why we say what we say, or write what we write – but invariably, the Greeks have a word for it. Packed with memorable and quotable examples from sources ancient and modern, this witty and well-organised handbook offers a lexicon for our efforts, terms for our art. For any teacher, actor or writer, a useful and fascinating guide.’ Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

GT: Exactly. No-one, as far as we are aware, has ever written about rhetoric in drama in general before: there’s lots on Shakespeare, of course, but barely anything on other playwrights. Initially we were too busy putting on the two plays to take the idea further. But after the run finished we met and talked about approaching publishers with the idea.

PW: We were both aware of Oberon, obviously, and the website had a very clear (if slightly daunting) set of guidelines, which made us really think about who the book was for, and how it should be structured.

GT: It was very early on that we decided that we didn’t want to produce a simple dictionary of terms, with devices listed alphabetically. Those already exist and frankly are a bit impenetrable. We felt that, as theatre people, we needed to group the devices thematically.

PW: We approached Oberon with this approach: they – that is, you – responded quickly, called us in for a meeting: and suddenly we found that we had been commissioned!

AR: Were there new things you learned yourselves as the project got into full swing, in terms of rhetoric?

PW: How many devices there are! And how it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if a playwright didn’t have that form in mind, when she or he was writing their play. It may simply have sounded… right, suited the character, or the moment, or the mood. But it is there, and seeing that it is there may enable an actor and director to do something more precise or different with those words. Which surely is what rehearsal is about: exploring the text.

GT: I really wanted to talk to living playwrights about their use of rhetoric, but there simply wasn’t time. I did have a brief chat with Laura Wade, though, about her play Posh. She admitted that she was unaware how rhetorically her writing of those characters had turned out, but supposed that in reaching for the words, phrases and ways of talking that such highly-educated, self-obsessed people use, she had fortuitously found the rhetoric of that class. Fascinating. Maybe for a further edition I’ll pin down a few others!

AR: What was it like, working together?

PW: Fun. We spotted different things: I remember once that we both read the same play – generally, we divvied up the list, to ensure maximum coverage – and when we compared our selected quotes, they were almost completely different. Which showed how our eyes were trained to spot different types of devices.

GT: Writing together worked really well. We knew we would each respond to the rhetorical devices differently, coming at a text – as we do – from two points of view: those of the actor and the director. In our meetings, we would describe what struck us about a particular quote, and as one talked, the other would type notes which, when we got to the final cut, we worked up into full sentences. Always believing that if we chose the right examples, these would in many ways speak for themselves, by showing the device in action – which is, after all, the point of the book.New word Cloud

AR: So which are your favourite devices?

GT: Oh, that’s really hard. I’m obsessed with too many of them. The repetition ones are so perfect, the witty ones are such fun, and the world of the tricolon is extraordinary. But I think my favourite is possibly syllepsis: literal and metaphorical at once – gorgeous!

PW: I’m fascinated by the tricolon – in fact, we ended up devoting an entire chapter to the rule of three. Why is it, I wonder, that we love trios?

AR: Finally, what hopes do you have for the book?

PW: We’d like our peers and colleagues to enjoy it and to find it useful.

GT: Exactly. To be on the desk in a rehearsal room, something to dip into and refer to.

PW: The book, in other words, that we could have done with, back in Birmingham.

GT: And not only to be useful, but to be – and this was one of our earliest thoughts – a celebration of dramatic writing over the centuries.

PW: I would be thrilled if someone, after coming across a neat phrase that we have quoted, digs out a copy of the play it’s from, or reads another by the same author.

GT: Reading our book could be like browsing in a secondhand bookshop: full of serendipitous discoveries.

AR: Well, I’m certainly glad to have discovered your book! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to me about how it all came together.

If you want to know more about Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric, visit the Oberon Books website to read reviews and order your copy.

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