Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Colorful Language

“I am a person whose entire life with a child to support depends on her tits and this balloon and the capabilities of her physical grace and imaginary inventiveness with which I can appear to express something of interest in the air by the movement and places in the air I put the balloon along with my body, which some other dumb bitch would be unable to imagine or would fall down in the process of attempting.”


This sentence, typical of the verbal acrobatics of David Rabe’s 1984 play Hurlyburly, exemplifies perfectly both the linguistic sophistication of the characters (in this case Bonnie, played in New City Stage Company’s production by the lovely Mary Lee Bednarek) and the communicative shortcomings the language presents to the characters.

Indulge, if you will, an exercise. Grammar—along with her ugly-duckling cousin, Syntax—for all the arcane rules and befuddlements, can help us understand meaning in a profound way, a way few people fully appreciate. Context and Usage articulate Meaning as clearly as Diction.

And so, what are we to make of this apparently overstuffed sentence? And what can it tell us about Bonnie, her relationship with Eddie (NCS Co-Artistic Director Russ Widdall), and Rabe’s play at large?

This complex sentence (yep, it’s just one sentence) features five subordinate clauses (identified here by their verbs):

depends / can appear to express / put / be unable to imagine / would fall down

Reading the sentence, it veers and swerves, is loaded with parentheticals and half-asides; it seems coarse and crass, simultaneously egotistical and self-deprecating, and ultimately pleading for respect and acknowledgement.

But in all the ado, the circuitous clausal complexity, it may be easy to forget the main clause, the only part of the sentence which depends on nothing and stands alone, the only part that is true in and of itself:

BONNIE: “I am a person.”

Kevin Rodden is an Artistic Associate at New City Stage Company. He blogs occasionally (more regularly starting now) for New City Stage. He is currently serving as Assistant Director and Dramaturg for Hurlyburly

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