Likely the most famous passage in The Real Thing, protagonist Henry’s “cricket bat speech” is a superb example of writing about writing. Henry and Annie have been arguing about the writing talent of Brodie, a political-prisoner-turned-playwright. Annie, who wants to renew public interest in his case, has encouraged him to write a play and plans to perform in it. She asks Henry for his advice on the script, hoping that he’ll help Brodie with rewrites. When Henry scoffs at the writing, Annie attacks his pretension, insisting that his writing style is an empty intellectual exercise and that Brodie’s, by contrast, is less polished but more passionate. After asking Annie to bring him his cricket bat, Henry defends his disgust by illustrating an extended metaphor. Using his bat as a prop, he argues that a writer with a facility for language (a well-sprung bat) can hit and propel an idea forward effortlessly, so that the moment resonates beyond the mechanics of the scene. By contrast, the unskilled writer (brandishing a hunk of wood) will attempt the same hit, but though the motion may look identical, the tool is insufficient, and the idea falls with a dull thud. To Henry, the latter kind of writing is as painful to listen to as a harshly reverberating bat is painful to the hands (thus his “Ouch!”).
HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC¹ to keep cudgels out of Lords². It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’³ Ooh, ouch! He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’ Annie watches him expressionlessly until he desists.
¹Marylebone Cricket Club, a famous London cricket club and the authority on the Laws of Cricket. Founded in 1787, the club holds matches, hosts youth cricket programs, owns a museum and library, and runs the World Cricket committee.
² “Lord’s Cricket Ground,” located in St. John’s Wood, London. The home of the Marylebone Cricket Club since 1814.
³ Henry is quoting a bit of dialogue from Brodie’s new (and first) play. The scene he’s referencing is a stilted, heavy-handed set-up of Brodie’s political beliefs. Henry cringes at both the bald self-righteousness of the ideas and the clumsiness of the language. Earlier in Henry and Annie’s conversation, Annie says, “I know it’s raw, but he’s got something to say.” Henry replies, “He’s got something to say. It happens to be something extremely silly and bigoted. But leaving that aside, there is still the problem that he can’t write. He can burn things down, but he can’t write.”
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage