Dragon: Telling the truth and staying silent
by Oliver Emanuel
It’s like the beginning of a joke. How long does it take to write a play with no words?
The answer? A very long time.
I remember when Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds of Vox Motus approached me to write Dragon in January 2010. They said they wanted a play about a young boy, grief, set in Glasgow with a dragon. Oh and there should be no words. Some words, I said with a smile, there have to be some words. Both of them gave me that look that directors give playwrights when they want to be kind but firm. No words, came the reply.
I never know where my plays will end up when I start them. I put the characters in a place, under as much pressure as I possibly can, and see what happens next. Tommy’s story was easy to begin as it chimed with my own life. I moved to Scotland in 2006 after the death of my mum. I wasn’t a kid but I’d felt the pain and isolation and anger of grief. The unexpected death of a parent, or anyone you love, fractures the world. Reality shifts. The things you took for certain – like gravity, even – come unstuck.
There’s sometimes a fear, especially from adults, that presenting children with terrible things like death is bad for them. Don’t take them to funerals. Stop the film before Bambi’s mum is killed. They don’t need to see that. But as the great novelist Neil Gaiman said in an interview about his horrifying version of Hansel and Gretl, ‘if you’re protected from the dark things, you’ll be left with no protection when they show up’.
I felt I wanted to show everything that happened when a family’s centre breaks. The insomnia, the awkwardness with pals, the forgotten washing up, and the silence. As a child, you are feeling all these things for the first time with no sense that it will get better. You don’t have the words to explain what is happening and others are afraid to talk to you.
Why are there no words in Dragon? It was a question I kept coming back to, as I was writing. There are obviously very valid production reasons. It’s easy to tour abroad, for one thing. It’s accessible. But why? Why? Why? For me, it’s never enough to do something for the sake of it, I need to know why.
It was while we were workshopping the ‘day-in-the-life’ sequence a year or so later that it finally clicked. The way Jamie and Candice work is to stand up and try things out. Tommy was getting up, brushing his teeth, going to school. Things were being thrown around. Bits of bike, a basketball, a backpack. What I noticed while we practiced this was that everything was centred around Tommy. He was the focus. The story was from his point of view and because he couldn’t talk neither did the world.
I met a woman recently who stopped talking for a year after she witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th 2001. Her offices were close by and as the towers fell, she discovered that no words would come. She tried everything. All kinds of medicine and therapy. There was nothing she could do. She was silent.
I didn’t know this story when I wrote Dragon but I’d heard about selective mutism in children who had suffered trauma. At school, I’d studied the effects of shellshock in the First World War, the soldiers that had nothing physically wrong with them but who could not speak of what they had suffered. For my play, the cause and consequence was very simple. Tommy is a normal boy with a normal family then his mum dies and he discovers he cannot speak…
The play is actually quite a normal play when you read it. There’s only one stage direction on the front page: The play is written to be performed without words. That is, the characters in the world are able to speak to one another but the actors on stage do not. Neither do they mime. Each spoken line should be replaced by a physical gesture that stands in the place of verbal expression.
Everything else, the characters and dialogue and action, is the same as any other play. It’s the silence that makes it unusual and also, I hope, gives it its poetry. The world that Jamie and Candice have created is extraordinary, dark and surprising. Without spoken text, we are free to interrupt a moment how we wish. We are allowed to imagine. I love words (I hate writers who say that. Words aren’t something you love. They’re just words. Some of them are awful. Like ‘crisps’) or rather I love dialogue but without it, you can fly freely.
And the dragon? Lots of people have come up to me after the show to either ask or tell me what the dragon means. I don’t have any one answer. Or rather I do but people think I’m crazy. The dragon is a dragon. It’s neither male nor female, neither good nor bad. It’s what it is. A mythical beast that arrives one stormy night in Tommy’s life and changes everything.