The Power and Guile of the First Line
“If music be the food of love, play on.”
That's the first line of a play. Easy enough to guess Shakespeare, but which one? Taming of the Shrew? Richard III? Midsummer? If you guessed Twelfth Night, you'd be correct.
From a dramatic standpoint, the first moments of a play have to hold the heart of the conflict. It's disguised, layered, waiting to be unveiled, but it has to be there. The first moments have to sustain an energy that will propel the characters through the next two hours.
"What I find most astonishing... is the belief that I might very easily-- as they say-- lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even... nearby...."
The author throws in a few extra clauses into that long sentence that I omitted, sentence fragments meant to disguise the central theme of the play, but you can still feel the energy. And if you know what play it's from, you feel it even stronger. Guesses? It's the first line of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. Yeah, makes sense now.
It's rare, though, that I writer invests the central conflict or theme in the very first line. Typically, it's spread throughout the first scene. It takes enormous control of your narrative to successfully embed it the way Albee does here. So it's with a bit of awe that I write Jez Butterworth's first line for Jerusalem.
A question delivered as a statement. Though spoken to Parsons, Mrs. Fawcett is calling "time's up" on Johnny Rooster Byron; Butterworth is dramatizing the changes of time in England, from the glory of old-- with its myths and power-- to the mundanity of new. Nearly every character in Jerusalem refers to time, and for Johnny Rooster the question is whether he can call the ancient power of the past into the present in time to save his skin.
Powerful stuff, first lines.