The beginning of a play or book is so hard. I was reminded of this last night while watching the RSC’s new production in Stratford upon Avon, Oppenheimer. It’s a pretty good play, as I’ll say in my review in Nature soon. But I had first to get over the hump of the opening lines, where Oppenheimer reads from Niels Bohr’s 1934 book Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: “The task of science is both to extend the range of our experience and to reduce it to order.” It seems an unobjectionable claim, even a rather good one. But as spoken by an actor dressed in period style as Oppenheimer, it seemed a terribly stagey and self-conscious opening. It was as if he were saying “The play’s starting now, and it’s about science, and now you have to believe that I’m Oppenheimer, OK?”
I had the same feeling at the start of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen when I first saw it years ago. As I recall, the actress playing Margrethe Bohr marched on stage, struck a pose and said “But why?” And I thought “Yeah, yeah, so we are supposed to allow that the play is starting in mid-conversation and to ask ourselves, Why what?” But Copenhagen is brilliant, and so is Frayn, so what’s my problem here?
It’s all about that transition to another reality, and how to make us believe in it. Once Oppenheimer was underway, there was no problem – there was still the odd stagey moment in that production, but on the whole we can get inside the narrative quite comfortably once we are acclimatized. But how do you avoid that awkward instant at the start, where the actors have to say “We’ve started pretending now”?
This matters to me even more with books. I won’t say that I judge them by their first line, but that first line is certainly a hurdle that they have to clear. If it feels as though it has been worked on, burnished, set in place like a jewel for us to admire, then I am off to a bad start. New writers seem to be told that first lines matter a lot, and in a sense they do – but this doesn’t mean that a first line has to strive to be brilliant and lapidary, to compete with the astonishingly over-rated opening lines of Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace. Getting it right with a memorable first line, like Camus in L’Étranger or Dickens in A Christmas Carol, is far more difficult than is generally acknowledged, and more often these attempts just come across as contrived and self-conscious. How much better it is to go for the effortlessly mundane: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Surely what is far better is that the opening page or so is captivating. If you can create one as jaw-dropping as Dickens in Bleak House, it doesn’t matter what the heck your very first line is.
But theatre: that’s another challenge. Here you’ve got the added problem that there are real people standing in front of you pretending to be different real people, and you know that and they know you know that. So how to start weaving the illusion without a jolt?
One of the best answers I ever saw was in Theatre de Complicité’s Mnemonic, when Simon McBurney just began by talking to us, as the audience. It seemed like a preamble to the start of the play, but gradually we realized that this actually was the play. Arguably that was a trick or gimmick, but it contained a more general solution: don’t try too hard. A Brechtian approach won’t work for every play, but at the very least it seems a good idea to relax and not to feel you have to ensnare the audience from the very first utterance. At that point at least, there’s really no risk we will be bored.