Q & A with Student: Will You Tell us If Our Monologue is Bad on Rehearsal Day?

Student: Hi Dr. Pierce. If you don’t think what we have chosen is aiming high for this assignment, will you tell us when we meet to practice in class or will we just do our best for the 5 points when we deliver the monologue next week?

Me: Hi _______. That’s an interesting question, which means it is also complicated to answer. When we meet for class on rehearsal day (the day when you are bringing in a hard copy of your script) we will talk a little bit further about what makes for a compelling theme but for the most part we will focus on delivery generally and delivery of the monologues in particular. If, after that discussion, a student is convinced they need to change their monologue I’m not going to object but I also won’t be telling anyone that their monologue should be changed. Generally speaking, I will recommend to everyone that they stick with the monologue they bring to class when we meet to rehearse because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do all of that practicing in class and then switch monologues.

Ultimately if you look at the assignment description this is a small assignment (5%) and everyone who delivers any monologue at all gets at least 2/5. The remaining 3/5 is split equally between delivery and content of the monologue. So ultimately I would rather students did a really excellent job of performing a monologue with a less-than-stellar theme than I would students change their monologues and risk poor delivery, start-overs, and general dissatisfaction with their performance.

 

Thoughts on The Good Will Hunting “NSA” Monologue

I pick this monologue to make a point about the differences between a monologue that has a strong theme or central idea and a monologue that, well, does anything else. And this is one of those tricky ones that you can’t really tell.

If you’re not familiar with this monologue you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrOZllbNarw. Here is the script: from http://genius.com/Good-will-hunting-good-will-hunting-nsa-monologue-annotated.

Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army… in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Essentially there is no central idea to this monologue. If you wanted to read into it very, very deeply and bring some extra things to the scene that Will is not providing you could argue that there is a kind of “banality of evil” or “criminality of just doing what you’re told” hiding in here and you’d be right. (Think of the cliche “if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.) But you couldn’t highlight a sentence or a phrase in the actual monologue script that even comes close to saying something like that.

You could also say that the monologue’s theme is something like, “everything has consequences” or  the whole “drop in the bucket” idea. But that’s not a theme that’s interesting. That’s just an obvious statement. Obviously everything is connected; choices in one place influences outcomes and new choices in other places. I don’t think anyone would argue against that AND it’s not a unique idea to this movie. So it’s not as strong a theme (especially considering all of the work that it takes to memorize it).

Also if you think about the larger scope of the movie there’s no dominant theme about, for example, the interconnectedness of the world or the cowardice of “just doing your job” when it might cause someone else harm. So if the movie isn’t taking on those bigger issues then it’s unlikely it would bother to devote two minutes and a LOT of good writing to tackling issues that don’t really concern the plot.

So then what’s the point of the monologue?

Characterization.

We like this monologue because it establishes Will’s character. He’s a quick thinker who can rapidly produce details, pile them up, and deconstruct and construct arguments. He’s a fast talker. He’s a charmer. And he’s incredibly brilliant. He’s also anti-authoritative and doesn’t like to do what he’s told. To enjoy the movie the audience has to LIKE Will even though Will is sort of a pain the ass. Monologues like this accomplish that task. He’s establishing himself as a complex person and a smart ass at the same time – he’s likable but he’s duplicitous. The themes of the monologue are irrelevant because they’re really just byproducts of Will’s ability to spin yarns and wrap people up in logic. He doesn’t believe what he’s saying – he’s not making a point about the greater good – he’s just being a likable pain in the ass.

Now there are parts in the movie where he does all of this AND there’s a theme. The classic example here is the “how do you like them apples” scene where he dresses down the yuppie in the bar and comments on the importance of having original ideas over and above monotonous knowledge that might be correct but isn’t creative. There you see this theme get developed into a much stronger argument that resonates more with the audience as a kind of lesson. It’s also a lesson you’ll notice that gets repeated throughout the movie. For example, in Robin Williams’ character’s choice to become a small town psychiatrist instead of a big shot so that he could pursue his own path or Will’s decision at the end to go after the girl instead of take the awesome job.

In these moments the movie is trying to help the audience understand, in an interesting way, what life is about and if it had a theme it would be something like “your choices define you not your circumstances.” The second “apples” monologue picks up on that theme but the NSA monologue only does so very, very vaguely.

Understanding the difference between character development or plot advancement and strong thematic resonance is a difficult task and one we will keep working on throughout the semester. It makes the difference between a public speaker who is enjoyable to hear and a public speaker who is actively sought after.

Vet Your Monologue with Research

For those of you worried if your monologue is “acceptable” or “good” —

There’s really no such thing as an acceptable/unacceptable or good/not good monologue except when it comes to things that obviously don’t meet the basic requirements (it’s four minutes long, it’s from an Obama speech, etc.). Otherwise there’s just more clear and interesting and less clear and interesting themes. Part of what the assignment is teaching and assessing is whether you can parse that out.

One way to help you make that judgment (besides applying what we’ve discussed in class to the monologues under consideration) is researching who else has discussed/reviewed/critiqued your monologue somewhere on the interwebs–usually if people are talking about the meaning of something (or even better debating the meaning of something) you’re onto something with strong potential. Even if you find a lot of writings about how a particular monologue is the worst (i.e. the mean girls prom scene) then at least you can safely rule it out.

It’s probably above and beyond the research I expect most students to do for this assignment but, nonetheless, it’s available to you if you’d like to do more vetting of your monologue prior to delivery.

Q & A Monologue Assignment

Q: I found a monologue that I really love, but am unsure if there is a strong enough theme only because unless the audience knows the story, the theme is not necessarily evident. I would like to perform the opening monologue from the movie THE BLINDSIDE…

A: I can’t really “vet” monologues (I wrote a wordpress on this recently) but I would say that if you think the audience NEEDS the story’s context to understand the monologue’s theme then it probably isn’t a very good theme (or you are underestimating your audience). I will say that this monologue is very popular and having heard it a few times I don’t think the audience needs the story to understand the theme. In fact, the monologue appears before the audience even gets any story in the movie. so….?

The more important questions you should ask yourself are a) where does the theme appear, b) do you need all of this monologue or only a piece of it to make your point, c) is the theme any good?, d) are you likely to be the second or third person to deliver this monologue and, if you wind up being that person, can you still deliver effectively?

Hope that helps,

L

Q & A Monologue Assignment

Q:

Would the monologue from 10 Things I Hate About You be a sufficient monologue for the assignment?

A:

I don’t really vet monologues–some of the assignment is you using the criteria to select a good fit. My thoughts are this, assuming you mean stiles monologue/poem toward the end since you didn’t specify.
That’s a tricky one. It doesn’t have a central idea really; she’s processing out loud the fact that she still has attachment to a person who has not treated her well…so the central idea is like “I hate that I love you” which I can see coming across as complex and interesting in some situations but not on this one as much. It’s more about character development, which is to say that even disappointing emotional attachment has made her more available to herself and others (hence the teacher sending her to the principal for not being a smart ass). But I think that’s something we learn from the movie arc generally that isn’t necessarily clear from that movie specifically.