Dramatic exits

A Leigh Rubin cartoon from the 22nd, illustrating an exit and a dramatic exit:


First, this is a play on the ambiguity of exit, as a N referring to a concrete object (a door, used for exiting) or an act (of exiting). Then there’s another ambiguity, in the  sense of dramatic in the nominal dramatic exit: it could be taken literally, as ‘pertaining to a play’, but here it’s used with a figurative sense ‘melodramatic, stagey, flamboyant’ (note the man’s gesture). In its second use, dramatic incorporates a figurative sense of the N drama seen also in the (originally US gay) slang compound drama queen.

(Hat tip to Dennis Lewis, who ventured a French translation of Exit or dramatic exit that would ft the cartoon. Improving some on Dennis’s suggestion, perhaps Sortie ou sortie spectaculaire (with spectaculaire ‘spectacular’) or Sortie ou sortie théâtrale (with théâtral ‘theatrical, histrionic, dramatic, stagey’). Why French? Because dramatic exits are better in opera French (Finis! Je meurs!) or opera Italian (Finito! Muoio!).)

On the man’s gesture: the back of the hand on the forehead can convey relief (symbolically wiping sweat from the brow) or pain or distress (symbolically tending to a terrible headache).


In the latter use at least, it’s become an exaggerated stage gesture — presumably because it can telegraph emotional content over a considerable visual distance, conventionally conveying something like ‘Oh the tragedy!’ or  ‘I am sick / devastated!

From NOAD on the crucial vocabulary:

noun exit: 1 a way out, especially of a public building, room, or passenger vehicle: she slipped out by the rear exit | an emergency exit. … 2 an act of going out of or leaving a place: he made a hasty exit from the room.

noun drama: 1 [a] a play for theater, radio, or television: a gritty urban drama about growing up in Harlem. [b] drama as a genre or style of literature: Renaissance drama. 2 an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances: a hostage drama | an afternoon of high drama at Fenway Park.

Sense 2 should be expanded to take in extravagant or flamboyant expressions of emotion (attributed to some person, rather than to the situation), as in I can’t stand her drama and bitchiness — or, better, this should be added as sense 3, which is how I’ll treat it here.)

[derived lexical item with drama as base, plus suffix –ic] adj. dramatic: 1 [attributive] relating to drama or the performance or study of drama: the dramatic arts | a dramatic society. 2 [a](of an event or circumstance) sudden and striking: a dramatic increase in recorded crime. [b] exciting or impressive: he recalled his dramatic escape from the building | dramatic mountain peaks. [c] (of a person or their behavior) intending or intended to create an effect; theatrical: with a dramatic gesture, she put a hand to her brow [as in #2].

Sense [c], the sense in dramatic exit, is built on sense 3 of drama. And we also see sense 3 in the drama of drama queen:

[compound with drama as first element] noun drama queeninformal a person who habitually responds to situations in a melodramatic way.

(The queen is from the snowclonelet composite. See my 12 /19/15 posting “X queen”.)

GDoS has drama queen as orig. gay, with 1st cite:

1991 Joe was very intense, a real drama queen. (Donna Gaines, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids)

From the publisher’s copy:

Teenage Wasteland provides memorable portraits of “rock and roll kids” and shrewd analyses of their interests in heavy metal music and Satanism. A powerful indictment of the often manipulative media coverage of youth crises and so-called alternative programs designed to help “troubled” teens, Teenage Wasteland draws new conclusions and presents solid reasons to admire the resilience of suburbia’s dead end kids.

Dramatic exits are one arrow in the behavioral quiver of a classic drama queen, so the two concepts are connected in the real world.

Dramatic exits range from simply storming out a door or speeding off in a car (perhaps with a dismissive flick of a scarf) to extraordinary leave-takings, like jumping off the side of a building or flying into the air. They have a special place in popular culture because they figure in the comic trope of the Failed Dramatic Exit (see the TV Tropes page on it), : a character’s exit is foiled or undercut in some way (the door sticks, they stumble and fall, the door opens onto a pit they fall into, the car won’t start, whatever) or the character, embarrassed, is obliged to return (often to retrieve something crucial that they forgot, sometimes more than once).

One Response to “Dramatic exits”

  1. Graceful? Simple? Dramatic? Crafting an Effective Ending – Piano Addict Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky wrote an interesting article on dramatic exits this week and brought up so many great dramatic words and phrases that I just had to share a few of them with you.  […]

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