I recently saw international theatre hit Black Watch, at Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. For those unfamiliar, it’s a play about the famed Scottish infantry battalion with centuries of history. It’s presented non-realistically, jumping around from scenes of a sextet of Black Watch soldiers in a pool hall in Scotland being interviewed by an avatar of the playwright, scenes of their experiences in the Iraq War, and various interpolations such as a history of the company with historically accurate costume changes – and musical interludes.
These interludes were unexpected — for such a macho topic, having breaks in the action to hear two of the actors give the audience a poignant rendition of Twa Recruitin’ Sergeants seems a stagey choice. (That’s a link to the play’s version of the song, not the original, apparently from a filmed version.) After the play, I found myself wondering whether the actual soldiers would appreciate the use of music and dance and theatre to present their story; I supposed that 1) this was just my prejudice of soldiers as hyper-macho, and 2) the respect the script shows for the soldiers would suggest that they made sure the soldiers approved before performing it.
It struck me how much the music conveyed. There was underscoring for plenty of the dramatic moments, which is, I suppose, more standard, and while powerful was also invisible. But moments like that particular song I linked to were front-and-center. That one seemed to say a lot to me: it spoke to the soldiers’ pride in their history, their resignation at being duped to join the army, and, combined, their sense of national identity and their place in a long line of duped young lads who joined up. The two soldiers singing it, as I watched it, seemed to be nonspecific representatives of the Black Watch at the same time that they were their individualized characters.
It probably suggests different things to you, but that’s what I got.
What’s inarguable is that music conveys so much more than words on their own. It works on parts of the mind different than anything else in existence – words, images, ideas. It gets under the brain folds into abstract, subconscious places that nothing else can, (almost) completely bypassing our ability to rationalize and filter it. Yes, I know that is not a revelation to anyone; we’ve all experienced the power of music. That’s something that happens to all of us. But what doesn’t happen is- Or, rather, I should say, I had the thought, while watching the play: Oh wow, why doesn’t every single play, ever, have music in it?
Not that every stage drama has to be a musical in the standard sense, but unless a play is trying to be strictly naturalistic, it’s only doing itself a disservice by leaving music out. I wonder if, alongside “character motivations” and “climax and resolution” on the list of items every play needs to consider and include, “music” might be included. “Non-underscoring music.” “Musical interlude.” If a playwright has to ask about every play they write, “What do the characters want?” they should also ask “What kind of musical interlude would open a window into this play?”
I started wondering how the heck can I get musical interludes into my music-free plays in progress?
(Sidenote: What is it about musical performance in a dramatic setting that works so much better on stage than on film? Can you imagine if The Hurt Locker had a sudden musical interlude? But it makes the soldiers of Black Watch simultaneously tougher and denser and more fragile.)
So, in conclusion: music in theatre! Hurrah!
::the blogger runs off to listen to some bagpipes::