They're not the only ones with banal beginnings. All My Sons starts with "Where's your tobacco?" and Death of a Salesman merely with "Willy!" S.N. Behrman chose to begin The Second Man with "Gramercy 4304, please." American Buffalo? "So?"
So indeed. But then a play of lesser stature than all of the above can start in a tantalizing way, such as Arthur Kopit's Y2K, which raises the curtain on an antagonist who ominously says, "Though you think you see me now, I promise you, you do not." Or Michael Weller's Loose Ends, which has its leading man say, "It was great in the beginning." (And Loose Ends was, thanks to this line, though not so great after that.)
Any discussion of opening lines has to include Edward Albee's startling one for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Remember, it was 1962, so Martha's saying "Jesus H. Christ!" certainly commanded our attention. I've often wondered if Albee inspired Preston Jones, a decade or so later, to begin The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia with "Ah been playin' horseshoes since Jesus H. Christ was a windmill salesman, and ah never seen nuthin' like it."
Not that a great opening line has to be so dramatic to command our attention. One classic play begins matter-of-factly, if you take its first two words ("She'll live") at face value. But the play is The Miracle Worker, which we know before we enter the theater is about Helen Keller, who lived her life with multiple disabilities she contracted during her infancy. So when we see the doctor over her little cradle as her anxious mother and father look on, those words "She'll live" put relief on the parents' faces but not on ours, because we already know what happened to Helen.
Compare this with Judith Ross' An Almost Perfect Person, which also began with a lecturer at a podium. And though that lecturer was the heavenly Colleen Dewhurst (or Marcia Wallace, if you saw it at the Waldo Astoria Dinner Theater in Kansas City, as I did), the opening line was too obvious with its heavy exposition: "My friends, three months ago, I ran against Morton Davis in the Democratic Primary, and I won!" (The exclamation point, by the way, is indeed the playwright's and not mine.)
Here's a better, more novel way of addressing an audience. In Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, Matt Friedman comes out, looks at us and his watch, and says, "They tell me that we have 97 minutes here tonight -- without intermission." That pretty much tells us that we're going to observe at least two of the Aristotlean unities. (By the way, you'll have a chance to hear this line and see this play this season at Signature; and may I predict that you'll find that Mark Nelson is wonderful as Matt, based on my seeing him do the role splendidly last year at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.)
Courtroom dramas can't be counted on to yield terribly interesting opening lines. More often than not, they're either like the one that begins Saul Levitt's The Andersonville Trial ("This military court convened by order of the war department is now in session"). But, every now and then, there's one like the opener of Ruth Ford's adaptation of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, where the judge says: "Have you anything to say before the sentence of the court is pronounced upon you?"
Out of the courtroom, some plays do surprise us. Like Jean Genet's The Balcony, in which an esteemed bishop says, "In truth, the mark of a prelate is not mildness or unction, but the most rigorous intelligence." Marty Martin's Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein startles us when the title character says, "It is, it always is -- and it always most certainly is -- an inconvenience being evicted." Or Peter Shaffer's Equus: "With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces." Eight words, and we already know precisely what this play is going to be about. And would you expect that Terrence McNally's hilarious The Ritz, about a frenetic night with gays in a bath house, would begin with a priest saying, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee?" (Well, perhaps you would.)
Other attention-getters: In The Glass Menagerie, Tom says, "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket." Miguel Pinero's Short Eyes begins with a prison guard saying to inmates, "All right, listen up, I said, listen up." They and we do. Sidney Michaels' dramatic biography of Dylan Thomas, which he chummily entitled with the poet's first name, has the man's wife walking in and saying to him, "So there you are, you scum."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]
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