Monologue and Soliloquy Analysis

Modern and Contemporary Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Art, including theater, of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries put an increasing emphasis on psychological explorations of individuals. It was, therefore, natural that monologue and soliloquy would be used in new ways to express psychological turmoil and growth in dramatic characters. In his early career especially, Henrik Ibsen rejected monologue as he sought a more naturalistic mode of discourse. On the other hand, August Strindberg and other playwrights who favored a more expressionistic mode were more likely to call upon the poetic power of monologue and soliloquy. For a number of American playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, monologue acted to modulate the tension between naturalistic and nonnaturalistic performance strategies and provided a vehicle for characters to express their isolation and alienation from society and even those closest to them.

As the twentieth century progressed and more varieties of experimental theater emerged, playwrights found yet more ways to adapt the age-old techniques of monologue and soliloquy to their purposes. Bertolt Brecht, always seeking ways to disrupt the illusionary possibilities of theater, stressed the unreal nature of solo speech, directing his actors to step out of character and deliver critical lines directly to the audience, thus breaking the illusion and encouraging alienation. As antinaturalistic Brechtian techniques found their way into mainstream theater, similar...

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From Monologue to Performance Art

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Even though it became possible in the late twentieth century for monologue to be the entire basis of a theatrical work, plays for solo voices have never been more than a small minority of the total theatrical offerings. Still, these cutting-edge dramas offer particularly rich ground for examining that which makes a play a play. One-voice works such as Harold Pinter’s Monologue (pr. 1973) and David Drake’s The Night That Larry Kramer Kissed Me (pr. 1972), to give just two examples, have generally been referred to as plays, for they follow the basic structure and conventions of much theater, even though they lack the dialogue that is traditionally the primary communicative vehicle of a play. However, it is questionable whether the same can be said of Peter Handke’s plotless stream of invective, Publikumsbeschimpfung und andere Sprechstücke (pr. 1966; Offending the Audience, 1969) or Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem,” for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (pr. 1975). Should these be considered untraditional theater pieces, plays, or something else?

Performance art is the name most often given to work encompassing primarily monologue that seems to slip out of the loosely defined category of “play,” though performance art also encompasses very different types of entertainment, which may be based on music, spectacle, or simple shock value. Indeed, even standup comedy is a variety of performance art and may be considered a type of monologue as well. The term “performance artist” has been applied productively to a wide range of late twentieth and twenty-first century artists who do indeed create some form of theatrical monologue, frequently on subjects of political or social importance.

For these monologuists, as they are sometimes called, an entire performance may be spoken from a single perspective, often though not always that of the performer, as with Spalding Gray’s politically charged hit Swimming to Cambodia (pr. 1985), in which the author/performer recounts, with artistic flourishes, his time spent in Southeast Asia working on a movie project. In other cases, monologues may be polyvocal, as when Anna Deveare Smith re-creates a range of voices in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (pr. 1993), a solo performance piece about racially motivated street riots in that city. It is with monologue performances such as these that the form comes full circle to return to its roots in storytelling, a performative art even more ancient than theater itself.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Frieden, Ken. Genius and Monologue. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Likely the most comprehensive study of the monologue—narrative, poetic, and theatrical—from its roots in classical antiquity to the modern era. Frieden’s language, however, is intended for fellow scholars, so the book is not particularly inviting for a general reader.

Geis, Deborah R. Post-Modern Theatrick(s): Monologue in Contemporary American Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Though she focuses her discussion on post World War II America, Geis grounds her study in a wider look at the roles of monologue, particularly in its narrative function.

Maher, Mary Zenet. Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. Unlike most academic studies of soliloquy, which tend to focus on the authors, this book gives voice to the actors’ side of the story. Actors who played Hamlet in well-received twentieth century stage and screen performances discuss how they prepared and performed the melancholy Dane’s most memorable moments.

Skiffington, Lloyd A. A History of English Soliloquy: Aeschylus to Shakespeare. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985. Skiffington traces the soliloquy’s development in form and purpose through Western, and particularly English, drama, seeing Shakespeare’s work as the crowning achievement of the technique.