ALAN, Plus the World’s Best Stage Directions

This morning I board a plane for Orlando, and late this afternoon, I’ll be at NCTE-ALAN, receiving the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award for Fire. My parents will be there, and also secret codename: Cordelia! How nice that this event is taking place near a branch of my family!

The other day, in my post about my editor, I mentioned that good editing is invisible, like the world’s best stage directions. Giving credit where credit is due: that was my friend Becca’s analogy, not mine. And one of the reasons I liked it so much when she said it is that I’ve recently been encountering what just might be the world’s best — or, at least, the world’s most entertaining — stage directions. Where? In the plays of J.M. Barrie.

Imagine, as a set designer, being given this:

“There is a piece of carpet that has been beaten into nothingness, but is still a carpet, there is a hearth-rug of brilliant rags that is probably gratified when your toes catch in it and you are hurled against the wall.” (A Kiss for Cinderella, Act II)

Or this:

“She leaves many things lying about; one could deduce the shape of her from studying that corner of the sofa which is her favourite seat, and all her garments grow so like her that her wardrobes are full of herself hanging on nails or folded away in drawers. The pictures on her wall in time take on a resemblance to her or hers though they may be meant to represent a waterfall, every present given to her assumes some characteristic of the donor, and no doubt the necktie she is at present knitting will soon be able to pass as the person for whom it is being knit.” (Mary Rose, Act I)

Or imagine the set designer and the actor reading this together:

“We had hankered after giving MR. BODIE many rows of books, but were well aware that he would get only blocks of wood so cleverly painted to look like books that they would deceive everyone except the audience. Everything may be real on the stage except the books. So there are only a few magazines in the studio (and very likely when the curtain rings up it will be found that they are painted too). But MR. BODIE was a reader; he had books in another room, and the careworn actor who plays him must suggest this by his manner.” (A Kiss for Cinderella, Act I)

Got that, careworn actor? Your manner must suggest that there are books in the other room. !!

A couple other stage directions that crack me up:

“A bearded person wearing the overalls of a seafaring man lurches down the street and enters the emporium. Have we seen him before? Who can this hairy monster be?” (A Kiss for Cinderella, Act II. The joke is that the seafaring man is the policeman, whom we’ve already met, in disguise — and this is how Barrie tells us. Nowhere does Barrie state explicitly that the seafaring man is to be played by the policeman.)

“A woman of 35 comes forward. She is dejected, thin-lipped, and unlovable.” (A Kiss for Cinderella, Act II)

“MRS. MORLAND knows everything about her husband except that she does nearly all his work for him. She really does not know this.” (Mary Rose, Act I)

“MR. AMY is even more sociable than MR. MORLAND; he is reputed to know everyone in the county, and has several times fallen off his horse because he will salute all passers-by.” (Mary Rose, Act I)

All of these fabulous and beautifully-written stage directions are invisible to the play’s audience. The lesson to be learned here: if you’re going to a J.M. Barrie play, it will only enhance your experience to read the play as well — these plays are SO meant to be read in addition to being watched!