Musings on... Omission / by Ben Frost

Look for what’s missing. Many advisors can tell a President how to improve what’s proposed or what’s gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn’t there.
— Donald Rumsfeld
’Darling, I missed you!’ she said as she fired again.
— Me

This sentence has been left intentionally blank. As has this one. Furthermore (and I use the word “furthermore” quite inaccurately), this next sentence contains nothing of interest, absolutely nothing of value and, before you can make some cruel joke about how “absolutely nothing of value” is more or less par for the course with these articles, let me tell you that my fourth sentence will also be supplied without meaning, significance or subtext: Curious isn’t it? In truth, I am deliberately spending the whole of my opening gambit saying nothing. I am speaking to you, certainly, but the only thing you can take from my words is that I have nothing whatsoever to say…

…Until now: after several weeks of me waxing lyrical about, well… waxing lyrical, I thought that, today, we might spend a little time talking about the power of saying nothing at all. Which isn’t to say we’re talking politics. Or rather, not talking politics in the way the all politicians are wont to do. We’re not talking talking for the sake of talking, the art of speaking as an act of circumvention, answering questions with abstract sounds rather than words in the belief that our audience will be mollified or reassured simply by the fact that we’re speaking at all. No, no. We’re talking about talking about something else entirely, or else nothing whatsoever at all, as a disguise for our real intentions, or as carefully wrought mask for our own beliefs.

A character is defined by what she or he says, and what they don’t say. How they say it, and how they don’t say it. How they sing it, and why sometimes they don’t sing – even when the music’s playing, even when everyone else is singing along, because for some reason, the lyrics turn to ashes on their lips and they’d rather keep their mouths shut. Ben and I are in the middle of writing an “Electric Opera” called NEON. Over the coming months, you’ll be able to find our more about it, and hear songs from the show, on this here very website. Until then, all I can tell you is that NEON is the story of a powerful woman, in the autumn of her life, finding love and losing love and proving to herself that love is too great a price to pay, and that power is better and business is everything. Her name is Louisa McAdams and she is introduced in an extended opening sequence as the Designer of a exciting range of Winter Couture, on display at London Fashion Week. The opening sequence is a ten-minute fashion show followed by a glitzy, sexy, backstage party. And throughout, as the models and the VIP guests dance about her, our protagonist, Louisa McAdams, says nothing. All eyes are on her, the world revolves around her, but she keeps schtum.  

Well, not entirely schtum. She does say, “Hi.” Twice. To the same gorgeous model, thirty-years her junior, who will one day have such an impact on her life, but other than that she remains silent. And the effect is powerful, as powerful and enigmatic as our lead. The fact that she refuses to speak or doesn’t need to speak, or perhaps, hardly dares to speak, invites so many questions from the audience. Both audiences – her invited guests and ours. A mystery is created, artificially by the writers but quite deliberately by Louisa McAdams, a mystery to be resolved on her own terms over the course of the drama.

Not that Louisa is wholly mysterious. The situation tells us a great deal about her, her status and her attitude to the world (even if that attitude is the mask she wears only in public). The music tells us even more, it speaks of power and practice, of confidence and competence, of boredom, perhaps, and of desire. The fact that Louisa ends the sequence by slipping our of her own party in the arms of the young model, a fact that does not go unnoticed by many of her guests, speaks volumes as to her character. Indeed, by the end of the opening sequence, we know a lot about a woman who hasn’t said a word and we want to know more.

Somebody somewhere said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about – which is balls; obviously, whoever said that had never been to Kettering. However, it’s true that a person exists as much in the minds of her or his friends and colleagues as she or he does in their own psychology. To be talked about is to be kept alive, and to be defined. In the opening sequence for NEON, Louisa is talked about almost continuously, variously in words of praise and of censure. In this way, once again, the character doesn’t have to utter a word for us to know all we need to know about her. Of course, there’s nothing particularly new or innovative in these story-telling gimmicks. They’ve been around in other media for decades. But in a field where character can sometimes be delivered for you wholesale in a clunky “I Want” song, a more subtle mechanism for introducing a protagonist is immediately attractive. Musical Theatre has the unique advantage of having music to do at least half the story-telling work for you, half the heavy-lifting and fifty per cent of the characterisation. And therefore, although I love a spot of idiomatic verisimilitude and a vibrantly verbose lyric or two, of course I do, I’m also fond of the times when a character does it all through music and song. The times when I get to write something like: 

She tries not to cry.

And Ben does the rest.

Rich Hough

Follow Frost and Hough on Twitter: @frostandhough