“Predictability is the death of suspense and therefore drama. Good dialogue is unpredictable. Lines that elicit only predictable answers, gestures that duplicate what has already been conveyed by other means, are dead and should be eliminated. The brilliance of the dialogue of the great comedy writers like Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde lies in its paradox and surprise; the greatness of giants among playwrights like Shakespeare lies in the originality of their language and images (which is another way of saying their unexpectedness and surprise).”
Martin Esslin, An Anatomy of Drama, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p47.
Esslin’s commentary taken from his chapter, ‘The structure of drama’, begins with Beckett, of course, and the incomparable lesson in making suspense – even with nothing – that is Waiting for Godot.
Esslin makes me think of another of my other favourite dialogue exchanges from the theatre. It’s from the opening scene of The Seagull, which Chekhov subtitled ‘A Comedy in Four Acts’:
MEDVIEDENKO. Why do you always wear black?
MASHA. I’m in mourning for my life.
…unpredictable and completely hilarious.