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Another Op'nin', Another Line

The start of something good? Filichia surveys the fine art of the opening line. logo

Paul Newman as the Stage Manager in
the Westport's Our Town
(Photo: Larry Merz)
Thinking about "If music be the food of love, play on" from Twelfth Night started me thinking about first lines of plays. Does a great play start with a great line? Not necessarily. The best of them all starts, "This play is called Our Town." The best foreign one opens with, "It's exactly a year ago that father died, isn't it?" The longest-running play in Broadway history starts with "Good morning, ma'am," while the longest-running London play of all time still begins with a voice on the radio saying, "And according to Scotland Yard, the crime took place at 24 Culver Street, Paddington."

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.

George Grizzard, Uta Hagen, and Arthur Hill in
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
One of my favorite opening lines is from After the Rain, a British play that was briefly on Broadway in 1967, though it was set 200 years after The Great Flood of 1969. It began with a Lecturer coming to a podium, and saying, "Lower the lights, please, Mr. Porter, and take the names of any latecomers. I'll see them in the punishment room this evening after discussion." (And we thought Dame Edna was brutal with tardy theatergoers!)

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."

Walter Matthau and Art Carney in The Odd Couple
Give Lillian Hellman credit for what she chose as the opening line of her very first Broadway play, The Children's Hour. When the curtain rose, audiences heard, "It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes." Hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best. For his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon had a lovely lass say merely two words -- "Alan, no!" -- but they did a good job in establishing that Alan Baker is a woman-chaser. Yet for his 1965 smash The Odd Couple, Simon began with Speed, one of the card players whom Oscar Madison hosts, saying to Murray, who's shuffling the deck, "Tell me, Mr. Maverick, is this your first time on the riverboat?" The reference was to cardsharp Brett Maverick in a Western TV series that had once been wildly popular and had only been off the air three years when The Odd Couple opened. Now that Simon has rewitten The Odd Couple as Oscar and Felix and has set it in the here and now, I'd like to know his new opening line. Anybody out there remember it?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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