Talking Heads

Themes and issues

All the pieces in the collection deal in some way with people who are isolated or marginalised, either because of circumstances or because of their own idiosyncrasies. Every character is, in some way inadequate. Graham is a mother’s boy, whose dubious sexuality seems to have caused him severe mental stress. Susan, the vicar’s wife, is an alcoholic woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, whose caustic intolerance of her husband’s calling alienates her from the rest of the parish and forces her into behaviour which is damaging and dangerous. Irene Ruddock is narrow minded and malicious, believing herself to be a guardian of public morals, when, in fact, she is no more than a dangerous slanderer. The actress, Lesley, believes that her talent is genuine, but has not the intelligence or wit to realise that she is, in reality, a failure. Muriel Carpenter has spent her whole married life refusing to face up to reality and suffers tragic consequences from years of selective vision and poor Doris finds her age and upbringing have made her an anachronism in modern society.

Although Irene is the only one of the characters who spends "real" time in prison, it could be argued that, in a way all of Bennett’s subjects are prisoners of a sort. Graham’s claustrophobic existence with his aged and senile mother is a form of imprisonment. Ironically, the opportunity of "escape" offered by his mother’s affair with Frank Turnbull, is very threatening to him, causing him to begin to exhibit all of his "old" symptoms and making him more nervous than ever. Although Graham seems to be unhappy with the tedium of his life, it soon becomes obvious to us that it is that very predictability which keeps him relatively sane. For Graham, the prison of life with Mother IS freedom of a sort – freedom to be himself and not to have any decisions to make. When this stability, tedious though he sees it, is threatened, he cannot cope with the change it will make to his life and he becomes very anxious and paranoid. We cannot help but feel his relief when he finds out from Frank’s daughter that Frank is already married. Even his mother’s waspish retaliation about the "chess men" in Graham’s magazines cannot dampen the obvious sense of relief Graham feels. In his case, the prison called "home" is secure and it is the threat of freedom from its predictability, which causes his disquiet.

Susan, also, is a prisoner, trapped as she is in a loveless and, we feel, unequal marriage to an ambitious clergyman. In addition she is confined within a rigid and sterile religion, which seems to attach more importance to outward observance of ritual than inner spirituality. Her drinking is an attempt to forget, or block out her frustrations, both sexual and spiritual. It s an artificial life she is forced to lead, having to seem to be what she is not – a competent and willing helpmate – a subordinate, biddable woman (true, of course to Biblical tradition) and someone who can "run a tight jumble sale". Her formidable intelligence obviously makes it very much more difficult for her to be compliant and her "desiccated conjunctions" with Geoffrey add to her general frustrations. The escape she finds, through drink, then through her short lived affair with Ramesh Ramesh, only serves to imprison her even more firmly, this time into another "religion", that of Alcoholics Anonymous".

Ironically, for Irene Ruddock, it is a literal prison sentence, which liberates her from the imprisonment of frustration in which she has lived her life for many years. A solitary woman who lives her life through the letters she writes, she becomes a recluse. The letter writing, which begins as a genuine crusade against perceived injustice in society, turns into a destructive campaign of poison pen letters, ending in a prison sentence. In prison, Irene finds the company and the purpose in life, which have eluded her for so long. Ironically, she comes to appreciate her potential as a human being when she is confined with criminals. A criminal act, in fact, liberates her from the criminality of her "ordinary" existence and turns her into a fulfilled and purposeful individual. Of all the stories in the collection, this one has what might be termed as a "happy" ending, although with typical perversity, Bennett twists convention by making prison into freedom, for Irene.

Lesley, the actress, is imprisoned in a tawdry and demeaning professional dream. She believes that she is a serious actress, but it is obvious that she is neither talented nor successful. Her life is a repetitive cycle of bit parts in very dubious films, probably soft porn, or worse, but she seems to be oblivious to the truth and believes that the "big chance" will occur. Of all the characters in the collection, she seems to be the most insensitive and there is a very clear vein of cynicism in the authorial voice, which is not always apparent in the other five stories. Possibly Bennett, writing here about a profession which is well known to him, allows his own prejudice to surface more clearly because he is more "at home" with this type of character than with the others he chooses to portray. Lesley is crass and totally oblivious to reality. She is immoral, allowing herself to be exploited by men quite casually. There is little evidence that she feels any self - disgust or shame about her liaisons with the film crew, on the contrary, she seems to feel very little real emotion at all. Her personal encounters with the people she works with are as contrived as her performances on screen. She seems to be trapped in a cycle of self -parody – a "luvvie", who believes the acting myth and is doomed to live it indefinitely. Unlike some of the other characters, there is little hope of any escape for Lesley, because she is so self-centred.

Muriel Carpenter, the "memsahib" whose life disintegrates with tragic inevitability after the death of her husband, is a much ore complex person, although, like the others she suffers a form of imprisonment caused by her breeding, background and attitude. Bennett writes with a considerable insight about the elderly and in Muriel and Doris he creates two poignant studies of the handicaps of age and upbringing. Muriel is very much a product of the upper middle class. A woman whose life has been circumscribed and whose behaviour is dictated by "keeping up appearances". We see this also in Doris, who is from the other end of the social spectrum to Muriel. Both have been bred to endure hardship and not to make a fuss. Muriel’ s way of tackling crisis is to "rout out the inevitable quiche", or "plug in to the coffee morning circuit". She is a person who copes with everything practical and ignores the personal. It becomes clear that her daughter’s mental illness, caused by the sexual abuse at the hands of husband, Ralph, has been carefully ignored for years. What Muriel does not wish to see; she ignores. The embezzlement of her estate by Giles is allowed to run her into financial ruin, again because she consistently wishes to believe the best about her family. It is a kind of wishful ignorance, on Muriel’s part, which leaves her in a penniless and quite desperate situation by the end of the episode. Perhaps it could be argued that to an extent Muriel is imprisoned also by her sexuality. She is quite clearly determined to believe that men can handle business better than women. Her attitude to her daughter is rather scathing, while she continues to believe in Giles, even when it is obvious that he is a "scoundrel". There is little evidence that Muriel either can or will break free from the chains of convention, which have shaped her character. At the end of the text she seems to be losing her hold on life and retreating literally and metaphorically into a world of her own with the "telly box" and Walkman.

Bennett’s study of old age in the character of Doris, is, perhaps the most poignant of the stories. Her fierce independence and her reluctance to go into an old people’s home are both understandable and exasperating. Age and infirmity have made her home into a prison. She is dependent on a "warder" in the shape of the home help, Zulema, whose well meaning efforts to help only serve to make Doris more stubborn and non co-operative. It is, though, Doris’s upbringing and her social class, which have made her what she is. Bennett has drawn heavily on personal experience to draw this character. Her dismissal of Walter’s fret working and gardening are based on his own parents experiences. Her obsession with being "clean" and "decent" are typically Northern working class values. There is much about this character that is irritating but when we learn about the dead child who "wasn’t fit to be called anything" we suddenly realise that there is more to her than we thought. Like Muriel, Doris has spent her life "keeping up appearances", refusing to cave in to hardship and making the best of her situation. Also like Muriel she has a strong sense of her position as a woman, although here we see the opposite attitude – that the woman is the "boss" in a marriage. Poor Walter was definitely a henpecked husband. Her strength of character is such that she quite deliberately decides not to ask the policeman for help when he knocks at the door. She knows that she will die and seems to prefer to choose her own time and place for it.




Bennett states in hi introduction that "forms….dictate themselves" and that material demands to be "written in a particular way and no other". Each of the characters, according to the author has a "single point of view" and none is "telling the whole story". He says that his characters are "artless" and "don’t quite know what they are saying". It is true that this is so. We, the listeners, can make conjectures about all of them. Graham’s ambiguous sexuality, Susan’s alcoholism and Muriel’s perverted husband are not revealed directly through any statements made to us. They are hinted at by what is left unsaid or by what is obliquely inferred. In a very real sense, though, this is true to life and Bennett cleverly constructs each monologue to be as realistic as possible. In speaking to an inanimate object - the camera – each character is, so to speak, alone. The audience is not "there", as far as the speaker is concerned. Better still, the camera is like a hidden priest in a confessional. Each person is able to speak quite frankly to the anonymous listener. If we make judgements we have no means of interaction. This is not a two – way process of confidential gossip, for none of the characters expect a reply. Bennett lets his characters reveal themselves openly and we are left to form our own opinions of them. He calls the style "austere" and so it is, for there is no authorial decoration of expression. What each character actually says is all we are given to work on and we must sift the inner meanings for ourselves.

One of the author’s most impressive gifts is his ear for idiom. All of the characters use an idiomatic turn of phrase exactly suited to their lifestyles and backgrounds. Bennett’s use of cliché is extensive, each character again using appropriate language with regard to background and upbringing. Their choice of idiom is often very funny, sometimes intentionally, as in the case of Susan’s "Hazflor" episode and sometimes unintentionally, as in Doris’s "Love God and close all gates".

It is difficult to categorise the form of these stories. Bennett calls them monologues, which, strictly speaking, they are, but he also says that several of them could be plays. In fact, two have been lengthened to enable them to be performed in a theatre. They could, equally well, be called short stories, for although none have a conventional short story construction, each has a plot, of sorts and a cast of secondary characters who interact in some way with the central character. It is a measure of Bennett’s skill with language, that all of the scripts can stand as narratives without the "battery of expressions" which conventional short stories use to establish detail, plot and development of character.

Copyright© 2000 Val Pope