March 19, 2010

The problem with writing a show in which somebody dies of an illness that isn’t the subject of the show (Rent, La Traviata) is that as a rule the only way to convey clearly that characters are sick, other than making them talk or sing about it explicitly, is to have them cough. And the instant somebody coughs onstage, the audience knows s/he’s going to die before the end of the show, which makes it impossible for the event to have any suspense or surprise.

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12 Responses to The problem with writing a show in which somebody dies of an

  1. Molly says:

    I agree that the cough is out. But I really don’t think it’s the only non-verbal option. Prescription bottles are a classic, and many pills come in bottles big enough to read to the back row.

    Popping several kinds of pills at once–say, opening several pill bottles and taking one from each during an unrelated sitting-and-talking scene, with the other actor(s) doing “pretend not to notice”–reads as a serious medical problem without giving away the death.

  2. campbell says:

    I really wouldn’t worry my dear.It never stopped Chekov having someone wave a gun around in Act 1.

  3. Esther says:

    Not only that, but the audience will start coughing, too.

    How about, in the middle of (walking) conversation or simply walking, the character suddenly bends sideways, touching their abdomen, for example, as if responding to a sudden stitch or pain? He/she may or may not answer, “It’s nothing,” if queried about it (too obvious?), or there may be no discussion about it at all, perhaps either a quick look from another, or “pretend not to notice” by others. It can happen again later. Maybe the first time no response, later some notice?
    Just a thought, which after I post it, may seem utterly stupid…

  4. AmberRose says:

    A possibility would be that in the beginning the character is slightly fatigued on stage. As the story progresses they become weaker and weaker. Sickness never has to be mentioned.

  5. Diz says:

    I did a show where a character died… he never coughed, but like AmberRose said, he got winded very easily – lots of heavy breathing after supposedly easy tasks.

  6. I like all of these. The problem, though, is that whether it’s a cough, pills, sudden pain, or fatigue, the instant people show that they’re ill you know they’re going to be dead by the end of the show. It’s the necessary economy of writing for the stage that forces this–the writer can’t afford the show anything that isn’t significant.

    And campbell, at least with Chekhov you never knew who the gun was going to shoot at.

  7. Dorinda says:

    I know what you mean. (Someone coughs = DYING. A woman vomits = PREGNANT.) Although…what if it were possible to have some misdirection in there? Like, another character who coughs, thus making people feel certain s/he is going to die–while another character, with some less-apparent sort of symptom(s) is actually the one who keels. Psych!

  8. campbell says:

    Not so neither, surely. The character waving the pistol in Act 1 is the character that shoots himself with it in Act 3? Or is that an urban myth?

  9. initials says:

    Misdirection might be a good plan, like Dorinda suggested. For instance, say somebody else (one of your 1 scene walk-ons,) is sick, and the Doomed party kvetches a little too hard when asked to care for the (unseen,) deus-ex-machina. This would either make the doomed party look like a headcase, or inject some Jung into the audiences’ collective dramatic sub-basement.

  10. Holly Maples says:

    Also brings about the ridiculous problem of someone dying from a supposedly severe respiratory illness but still being able to sing an aria.

  11. Jonathan says:

    If you think it’s hard on the playwright, imagine the stress for the actors. You may have a tickle in your throat, but you daren’t cough, lest the audience get the wrong idea.

  12. JD says:

    The thing about Rent is that most of the cast has HIV, so everyone is sick. And if you know it’s based on La Boheme, you’re expecting Mimi to bite it, not Angel (although that character’s name pretty much marks him for death the moment he introduces himself).


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