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That a soliloquy is possible on stage is based on an unspoken agreement between playwright and audience, which allows the dramatic figure to think aloud and talk to itself. In the normal world thinking aloud is normally restricted to short exclamations. Soliloquy stylizes a pathological extreme into a form of normal communicative behavior.

The convention of soliloquy cannot be justified by any mimetic relationship to reality, or the whole gallery of dramatic heroes would have to be presented as a collection of pathologically disturbed individuals. Rather by the functions it is able to fulfill, which are about the same as that of the mediating communication system in narrative texts. Soliloquy can therefore be regarded as a convention employed to compensate for the absence of mediating communication systems in drama. Often used as a vehicle for transmitting information on previous or future events in concentrated form, soliloquy is also used for revealing the figure's consciousness (and awareness).

Three different function are attributed to soliloquy:

  1. As a bridge between two separate scenes preventing a break in the action on, perhaps an empty, stage. An example of this is the third Ballad of Sweeney Todd:
    Sweeney pondered and Sweeney planned
    Like a perfect machine 'e planned
    Barbing the hook, baiting the trap
    Setting it out for the Beadle to snap
    Slyly courted 'im, Sweeney did
    Set a sort of scene 'e did
    Laying the trail, showing the traces,
    Letting it lead to higher places...
    This soliloquy forms a bridge between the contest and the moment Todd has installed himself in the barbershop; a transition which needs a change of sets.
  2. as an entrance or exit; it can look forward to or summarise future events; The differing renderings of the Ballad except for the first one, could be said to have this function with the difference that they are not expressed by a single person, but by members of the choir.
  3. in all positions it can be used to slow down the action and create an element of reflection and psychological distance. This form is not used frequently in Sweeney Todd; perhaps in There's No Place Like London we can observe a short moment of this kind of soliloquy:
    There's a hole in the world like a great black pit,
    And it's filled with people who are filled with shit...
    Soliloquy is not action because it does not change the dramatic configuration.

Because soliloquy is such an artificial means of communication, solutions for this artificiality had to be found. French classical drama tended to eliminate all narrative soliloquies and replaced them by dialogue between confidants. This method is also used in Sweeney Todd: There's No Place Like London and Poor thing. Lessing went even further by excluding all purely narrative soliloquies to construct soliloquies that reveal the figure's awareness more naturally either by imitating the style of spontaneous speech or by establishing interior dialogue. Realist and naturalist writers rejected the soliloquy altogether. This does not mean that the soliloquy entirely was rejected. August Strindberg wrote in his preface to Miss Julie(1888):

Our realists have excommunicated the monologue as improbable, but if I can lay a proper basis for it, I can also make it seem probable, and then I can use it to good advantage. It is probable, for instance, that a speaker may walk back and forth in his room practicing his speech aloud; it is probable that an actor may read through his part aloud, that a servant girl may talk to her cat, that a mother may prattle to her child, that an old spinster may chatter to her parrot, that a person may talk in his sleep.5.24

I must also state that there is sharp distinction the semiotic systems used by `realist' soliloquies and the semiotic systems used by `conventional' soliloquies. Conventional soliloquy forms part of the secondary code- the code which regulates the communication between author and receiver in the external communication system. The `realist' soliloquy works through the communicative conditions of the internal communication system. This kind of soliloquy is often interpreted by the audience as the inability or unwillingness to communicate dialogically. By The Sea is a soliloquy in that sense, although who is speaking the soliloquy: Todd or Mrs. Lovett, is debatable.

There is another difference between the `conventional' and the `realist' soliloquies. A `conventional' or `conventionalized' soliloquy often follows established rhetorical patterns. These are most common in classical plays. The `realist' soliloquy is more like a spontaneous, associative flow of verbal utterances. The Worst Pies in London is an example of this kind of soliloquy (if it is a soliloquy at all). I believe it to be a soliloquy or at least a song with many soliloquial aspects, because there is not a great change in the dramatic situation.

Conventionalized soliloquies often give the impression of a dispassionate reality and premeditated closure of content and form. Unnatural as they may be, they can be used to characterize a figure. In Sweeney Todd they are non-existent.

The realist soliloquies are made to convey the simultaneity and movement of feeling, thought and speech. I have already discussed an example of this: the Epiphany. An equivalent form of speech we find in Büchners play Woyzeck:

WOYZECK: On and on! For ever! On, on, on!
Stop the music.-Shh. (Throws himself down.) What's that?- What's that you say? What you're
saying?...Stab...Stab the she-wolf is dead.
Shall I? Must I? Is it there, too? In the wind even.
(Stands up) It's all round me. Everywhere.
Round, round, on and on and on...
Stab her. Dead, dead-dead!! (Runs out)5.25

As we refer to the distinctions between monologue and dialogue, therefore are either `conventionalist' or `realist'.

next up previous contents
Next: Soliloquies of action and Up: Verbal communication Previous: Dialogical tendencies in soliloquies   Contents
Iede Snoek 2002-02-25