The Civilizing Power of Conversation

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Paula Marantz Cohen headlined “The Conversations That Entertain Us”:

Conversation, when it is performed for an audience, has a structure and order that is impossible in real life. When my daughter was growing up, we watched the TV show “Gilmore Girls” together, and I was taken with the highly articulate and probing conversations of the characters, Lorelai and Rory, mother and daughter. “Let’s talk like Lorelai and Rory,” I would say to my daughter who, at 14 or 15, merely rolled her eyes and walked away.

In most movies and TV shows, the talk between and among characters serves only to drive the action forward. When the characters played by Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” say that they “like to talk,” the statement seems an ironic commentary on their cat-and-mouse interaction, which bears no resemblance to the undirected back-and-forth that constitutes good talk.

The unscripted interview or talk show is perhaps the closest we can come to the performance of authentic conversation. Unfortunately, most such shows are either trivial in subject matter or hew obsessively to a party line. For entertaining conversation in this format, we have to go back in time to the golden age of the talk show, overseen by Jack Paar, Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. Between 1965 and 1980, Carson’s show, for example, lasted 90 minutes—a very long time—and he would interview authors in the last half hour, resulting in some memorable conversation. Although I’m not much of a sports enthusiast, I see the closest approximation to these veteran conversationalists in shows like “Inside the NFL” and “Inside the NBA,” where ex-players parse a game with the same laser precision with which literary scholars analyze “Paradise Lost.”

There are exceptions to the rule that movies can’t represent conversation as it exists in life. Take the 1981 movie “My Dinner with Andre,” which is designed to give us insight into the dynamics of good talk. That film was made by the French director Louis Malle, and there’s no doubt that the French seem able to represent substantive conversation better than Americans. They’ve had more practice with it and have more patience for watching it. The films of Éric Rohmer, in particular, have the wonderful capacity to make one feel that the characters are plumbing the depths of an idea. His 1969 film “My Night at Maud’s” follows the talk between the two main characters, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Francoise Fabian, on the subject of religion and sex, late into the night.

The plays of Molière, the 17th-century French dramatist, have this virtue of not veering away from conversation. Molière has been labeled the French Shakespeare, but what most distinguishes him from the great English playwright is where the drama of his work resides. In Shakespeare, dramatic talk is mostly confined to the soliloquy—the conversation of a character with him- or herself.

This is very different from the socially engaged conversation that occurs in Molière. His most famous play, “The Misanthrope,” features a series of conversations between Philinte, a diplomatic courtier, and Alceste, who has no use for the politesse and conventions of court society. The play reveals a basic fact about conversation as entertainment: It helps if there’s a clash of viewpoints, even to the point of competition or combativeness. The great 20th-century comedy duos—Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope—involve opposing types: straight man and stooge, cool guy and dweeb.

The squabbling between these characters is an exaggerated but recognizable example of the kind of frustration we all sometimes experience when trying to converse with intimates. George Burns’s continual attempts to get his wife Gracie to understand him, and her dogged ability to misunderstand, become a congenial battle of the sexes—deadpan versus whimsy, rationality versus instinct. It is, quite simply, delightful, since George never really got angry at Gracie, and Gracie always managed to relay some kind of sense in her zany rebuttals.

While good conversation can be fast or slow—often alternating between these speeds—a vaudeville dialogue like Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” must be nonstop. Through exhaustive scripting and practice, the partners achieve the state of “flow” that can happen spontaneously when a conversation works. The same kind of compressed hilarity can be heard in the rapid-fire dialogue of 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies. For repartee, one cannot do better than Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their films together.

In the 1950s, “The Honeymooners” brought this kind of dialogue to television: Ralph Kramden starts out bombastically lecturing his wife Alice, and she ends by putting him definitively in his place. Ever since, popular sitcoms like “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Frasier” have featured fast-paced conversation, full of banter and fun.

More recent TV dramas like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” contain more textured and in-depth conversation, given that they extend their narratives over multiple episodes. These shows require a considerable investment of time and attention to watch to the end, but this creates a shared sense of expectation as friends watch together and discuss the show. One could argue that long-form television has become a shared canon in an age in which most people no longer read the same books. It provides us with new, shared things to talk about.

Paula Marantz Cohen is dean of the Honors College at Drexel University. This essay is adapted from her new book “Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation,” published this month by Princeton University Press.


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