Studying Two Alan Bennett Monologues

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A monologue is a play with a single performer. The word monologue is of Greek origin and comes from mono-logos. Mono means ‘word of one person’ and logos means ‘voice’ hence monologue, ‘one voice’. Alan Bennett’s work is impressive and his understanding of characterization is second to none. He has an ability to capture the life- styles and backgrounds of the characters he creates. The language of each character brings forward clichi?? s that can be humorous although in my view this might not have been always intentional.

In carrying out my research I found an article in The Times Newspaper where Alan Bennett recognized that although he calls this work a series of monologues they could be plays. In fact, two of his monologues have been lengthened to enable them to be performed in the theatre. The article also stated that they could, equally well, be called short stories, for although none has a conventional short story construction, each has a plot, of sorts.

It is a measure of Bennett’s skill with language, that all of the scripts establish detail, plot and development of character. A Lady of Letters

Patricia Routledge was cast in the BBC production to play Irene Ruddock, a middle aged woman who writes letters. We soon discover that what she regards as her public responsibility has in the past turned into libel. As a result legal action has been taken against her and she has been bound over to keep the peace by a court for writing invasive and offensive letters to her neighbours.

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Irene Ruddock is a lonely and sad woman. The death of her mother had a deep effect on her life and writing letters is in a way her escape route for loneliness and a lack of friends/family.

Her letters include writing replies to circulars and even a letter to the Queen about dog droppings! It starts to become really serious when she writes to her neighbours believing that they were abusing and neglecting their child. This is based on her prejudice towards the parents, for example she is disgusted by the fact that “he has a tattoo” and the “kiddy looks filthy”. Although Irene realizes that she may need help and visits the doctor she neglects to take the medication. Her local vicar also has little influence on her. Eventually Irene is cautioned by the police and informed that the child has died of leukemia.

She is prosecuted and given a suspended sentence and assigned two social workers, who try to encourage her to “join the community”. Her response is to write another series of letters about the local community policeman and the lady at No. 56, which land her in prison. Prison life dramatically changes Irene because she has now found the friends and companionship she had longed for in the outside world. Irene making friends in prison is surprising because she is now mixing with people who were the victims of the letters she used to write.

The strength of the monologue comes from a malicious trouble maker who finally becomes a liberated woman. It is ironic that for Irene prison is for her freedom. A Cream Cracker under the Sofa Thora Hird in the original BBC production plays Doris, a fiercely independent woman. While carrying out housework she severely injures herself. She tries to attract attention and when a policeman knocks on the door she decides to turn him away. Doris refuses to consider moving to an old people’s home where everyone “smells of pee”. Although one should feel sorry for Doris it is difficult to do so given her obsessions with hygiene.

This monologue and the revelations about Doris and Wilfred – the baby which “wasn’t fit to be called anything” and which was wrapped up in newspaper “as if it was dirty” is much more shocking than ‘A Lady of Letters’. Doris has a very old fashioned outlook on life, she remembers the world when “people were clean and the streets were clean”. Doris is a very strong-willed woman. It is ironic therefore that to be saved she must admit that she is unable to look after herself, because she does not realise this she would rather die on the floor of her home than go to aold folks home. Talking Heads

My research established that Alan Bennett believes “forms…. dictate themselves” and that material demands to be “written in a particular way and no other”. Each of his characters, according to the author has a “single point of view” and none is “telling the whole story”. He says that his characters are “artless” and “don’t quite know what they are saying”. This is in my view very much about the conventions he establishes. It seems to me that Alan Bennett writes very realistically. The actors speak directly to camera and alone. It is as if the audience is not watching as far as the speaker is concerned.

In some ways this is like a catholic confession. The characters reveal themselves to be what they are. The writer assumes that you understand the character’s emotions and you can relate to them in some way or another. The writer also assumes that you care about what happens to the characters. The BBC’s approach to televising Alan Bennett’s plays for television was in many ways to keep their theatrical presence although they were recorded in a television studio. The BBC broadcast them in the late 1980s; they received great public and critical acclaim because of their portrayal of human endeavour.

Thora Hird won a BAFTA in 1988 for her performance as Doris in ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Sofa’ and won three more awards for performances in Alan Bennett monologues, Two BAFTAs and one EMMY. These monologues were among Alan Bennett’s first to be produced and broadcast. One of the challenges in televising a monologue is keeping the audience’s attention as monologues are not always visually entertaining. In the programmes the directors use a close-up camera shot when the character is talking about something important.

For example, in ‘The Lady of Letters’ when she talks about the visit from the police when Irene states the line: No. Leukaemia” The technique of mid-shot and close-up is used throughout. The music in the monologues is very fitting and allows the audience to appreciate the different moods of the play. The music is in the minor key throughout most of the monologues, demonstrating how depressed and miserable the characters sometimes are. The music is introduced to create atmosphere when something particularly emotionally stirring or dramatic is occurring. The music is also used to link the end of scenes and the fades to black. However, silence also is used to highlight different parts of the play.

When the actors say important lines there is a silence for a few seconds before music is brought back. This allows the audience time to assess the dramatic effect of the play. There are several set changes in both monologues. ‘The Lady of Letters’ starts off in Irene’s house, in a dull plain room with just a desk and a window. The walls are plain and white with no form of decoration. The lack of decoration might suggest her lack of interest in the inside of her house; she is more interested in what is outside. After a short period of time she moves to an armchair to read the paper, yet she is still in view of the window.

In the middle of the monologue there is an end of scene in which Irene is leaving her house and putting her coat on. The only other set change in ‘A lady of Letters’ is when she is sent to prison. The prison walls have a plain industrial pattern and a reinforced window to prevent the inmates escaping. The sets in ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ do not change very often. At the beginning of the monologue Doris is sitting in an armchair in her main room. In the room is a fireplace. When Doris tries to go and make a cup of tea she is unable to do so and ends up on the floor by the fireplace sitting next to the wedding photo she cracked.

Doris attempts to make it to the door to get help. This is when the next scene change occurs. Doris ends up seated on the floor in front of the door. Later on as the monologue draws to a close Doris manages to drag herself back into the living room in which she started the monologue. The main setting of a ‘Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ is Doris’s main room. This room is full of furniture and is very out of date. I think this is linked with the fact that she is trapped in the past by her views of people and her obsession with hygiene.

In a monologue, normally you do not see the plot happening directly. It happens, then the character tells you about it. The only exception of this in the two monologues is at the end of ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’. When the police officer approaches the window you actually see Doris turn down the officer’s help. Fading to black is used to differentiate between two different time periods and to change the set, for example in ‘A Lady of Letters’ after Irene says the line: “He needs reporting” (when referring to the police officer who is having an affair with the woman down the street)

It fades to black and comes back with Irene in prison, this shows it is used as both a change of time and place. In the monologues the character is always talking to the camera and almost always looking straight into the camera. This makes it seem as if the character is talking directly to the viewer and I think this helps the viewer to understand their choices and opinions better than if they were not talking to the camera. One becomes almost like the characters diary. I think this because they tell you everything, yet you play no part in the plot or their life. The two monologues vary in the use of humour.

A Lady of Letters’ subject matter uses humour effectively whilst ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ has little humour. The situation of an old woman alone and in pain, condemning herself to death leaves little to laugh about. However a few moments for example are when Doris is lying distressed on the floor and a young boy enters her garden and she sees him ‘spending a penny’ she says: “The cheeky monkey. He’s spending a penny. Hey. Hey. Get out. Go on. You little Demon.

Would you credit it? Inside our gate. Broad day light. The place’ll stink. ” Also Doris states: They ought to get their priorities right. They want learning that on their instruction course. Shouting about Jesus and leaving gates open. It’s hypocrisy is that. It is in my book anyway. ‘Love God and close all gates’. ” Most of the comedy in the two monologues is ironic humour. Irony is when the character says something then something happens that completely contradicts what they said for example, when Irene says: “Prison, they have it easy, television, table tennis, art. It’s just a holiday camp, do you wonder there’s crime? ” Then when she is sent to prison she enjoys it, this is ironic.

The settings in both monologues are similar yet subtly different. For example they both start off in rooms that are old fashioned, but they are old fashioned in different ways because they are from different generations. Both the rooms have a focal point that is involved in the plot and the character concentrates on it. In ‘A Lady of Letters’ it is the window. Irene is near a window for almost the whole of the monologue this is because she is observing the social life of her community rather than taking part in it. In ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ the focal point is the fireplace.

Doris injures herself while trying to dust it, she ends up next to it when she tries to go and make a cup of tea. Windows are also key in ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’. Through the windows Doris sees the little boy ‘spending a penny’ and the police officer coming to help her. There is a wide variety of connection between the two monologues. They both are about women who are trapped in some way. Irene is trapped by her anti-social letter writing and her lack of friends. You know that Irene has a lack of friends because she calls her pen “a real friend”.

Doris is trapped by her obsession with hygiene and her old fashioned views. You can tell that Doris is obsessed with hygiene because she talks about how she had an argument with her deceased husband Wilfred about having a tree in the garden she says: “‘Given the choice Wilfred I’d rather have concrete. ‘ He said concrete has no character. ‘ I said, ‘Never mind character, Wilfred, ‘Where does hygiene come on the agenda? ‘ With concrete you can feel easy in your mind” This extract shows just how obsessed with hygiene Doris is and how it rules her decisions and her life.

Another extract that demonstrates how obsessed with hygiene she is, is when she and Wilfred have a discussion about getting a dog: “Hairs all up and down, then having to take it outside every five minutes. Wilfred said he would be prepared to undertake that responsibility. The dog would be his department. I said, ‘Yes, and whose province would all the little hairs be? ‘ What they both need is friends and family, to distract Irene from the goings on of her neighbours and to stop her from sending letters and to give Doris companionship.

Both monologues are about two women who are living by themselves and they both have lost a loved one, Doris her husband and Irene her mother. Each monologue makes you feel sympathetic towards the characters involved because of the ordeal they have been through. At the end of ‘A Lady of Letters’ you feel happy for Irene because of her new found friends. At the end of ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ you are not sure if you should be happy for Doris because she avoids being sent to the old people’s home (Stafford House), or if you should feel sad for her because she dies.

The monologues have quite similar structures. Both the monologues start off in mid conversation leaving the audience confused as to what is happening and what the character is talking about. They also both finish with a summing up line. For ‘A Lady of Letters’ the finishing line is: “… and I’m so happy” The last line in ‘A Cream Cracker under the Sofa’ is: “Never mind. It’s done with now, anyway. ” Both these lines give the audience a look at how the character views her decisions and their outcome.

The language used by the characters and written by Alan Bennett is quite varied and it is like a real conversation. It is not like someone is reading from a script. It is as though they are really making it up as they go along, because Alan Bennett has written in ‘thinking time’ and pauses for contemplation. The language that is used is the kind of language that women of those ages would be using. I noticed that the two characters speak quite similarly and have a similar vocabulary of words; for example, they both refer to children as “Kiddies”.

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Studying Two Alan Bennett Monologues. (2017, Oct 07). Retrieved from

Studying Two Alan Bennett Monologues
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