On punctuation

Encountered recently in an interview, by writer I, of actor X, about X’s approach to their craft. The exchanges below are about punctuation, specifically in scripts; X reads other things, of course, but scripts are the central reading material of an actor’s life, the stuff they use to transform, through a collaboration with a director and other actors, into performances.

If you’ve read the interview, you’ll know who X is, but I’ll conceal their identity for the moment, to let their remarks on punctuation wash over you. It would be an interesting exercise to hear the views of the writers of those scripts and the directors of their performances.

The interview extracts:

I: Do you ever consider writing a memoir?

X: I do. I have yellow pads, stacks of them. One of these days I need somebody to help me get it organized. I was thinking of getting a court stenographer and just talking and having them write it down without any punctuation and seeing what would happen. I’ve always resented punctuation.

I: Why’s that?

X: Because if you’re performing, the writer will put a question mark after something or an exclamation point or even a period. It means that it’s the end of a thought and the beginning of another, whereas in life, conversation gets more schmeary. Sentences overlap. Thoughts overlap. … Sometimes when I see a question mark in a script, I’ll deliberately make it a statement. Or if something has an exclamation point, I’ll make it a question just to see what will happen. Punctuation can be a stumbling block, so I take it out.

Yes: punctuation can be a stumbling block, so they take it out. I’s note at this point:

This seems to be the master key to understanding X’s highly idiosyncratic line readings.

Somewhere, writers for the stage, movies, and tv are weeping in pain.

You are welcome to comment ON THIS BLOG (I cannot manage copying, re-formatting, and transferring comments from Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail on to this WordPress blog; I’m only able to get in a few hours of useful work a day.)

Follow-up to come in a separate posting.




3 Responses to “On punctuation”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I did not recognize the actor. However, this is not a novel thought. Another famous actor (Montgomery Clift, if I recall correctly) was of the view that the writer devises the words, but it is the actor’s job to come up with the interpretation, and that includes what the writer is trying to control with punctuation. (My wording, not his – it’s been a long time since I read this.) He argued that scripts therefore should not have any punctuation at all.

    For a contrary view, I have seen the argument that Shakespeare wrote primarily in iambic pentameter in order (at least in part) to exert greater control over actors’ delivery.

  2. Geoffrey Nathan Says:

    In an acting class I took several years ago the instructor, a long-time actor and acting teacher in her seventies, told us that Shakespeare had specific meanings associated with each punctuation mark (and we were using, or at least consulting, a First Folio version of the script). This was based on the results of some Shakespearean scholar whose name I have forgotten. Also, apparently, there were breathing instructions connected with a comma vs. a semicolon. I kept quiet–I’m a professional linguist, but only an amateur actor.

  3. J B Levin Says:

    This is after the fact of your revealing the identity of I and X, but X’s name was the first (and only) name to come to mind, if only because I’m not familiar with that many actors; but he stands out.

Leave a Reply