The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Silence that speaks volumes

Dexter’s Mum and Dad find it easier to engage with the lives of TV celebrities than with their own son.

Shut Up is a play about a boy who decides to stop talking. Dexter, the main character, opts for silence, and in the course of the play that silence becomes more eloquent than any of the babble that surrounds him.

Dexter is surrounded by people - parents, teachers, classmates, shrinks and doctors - who are talking at him all the time and what they’re saying is evasive, self-serving and often downright lies. And the background to all this babble is Television, the incessant, subliminal soundtrack in millions of homes, squatting there in the corner, seducing, bullying and cajoling us night and day. Sometimes we need straight answers, we need to be direct with people and we need them to be direct with us. That’s what Dexter wants. But no one can hear him. It’s just too noisy. So he shuts up.

Andrew Payne is not necessarily writing a polemic about the damaging effects of television on our society, but he is interested in the way the alternative reality of TV bleeds into and suffuses every nook and cranny of our lives. Dexter’s mum and dad find it easier to engage with the lives of TV celebrities than with their own son. When Dexter finally speaks, his language is laced with catchphrases from TV adverts, and finally gets his Dad’s attention: ‘Good old Dad. You know all the ads, don’t you, Dad?’

I have a very ambivalent attitude to television. I watch it and indeed I write for it, but it scares the hell out of me sometimes. Sit through two hours of prime time children’s TV and you need to lie down in a darkened room for half an hour. The ads are ruthlessly efficient, targeted with forensic precision, and often highly sexualised. Should we be worried about this? I don’t know. Should it concern us that the first words some children utter are global brand names? Again, I don’t know. But I like it when Dexter throws adspeak back in our faces. Good for him, I say.

Dexter stopped talking on his last birthday. In the course of the play, it’s revealed that a family row culminated in his father hitting him. Whether the beating happens once or is part of sustained abuse is not alluded to in the text.

You can only go by what is on the page. Anything else is speculation, for me as much as for anyone else. But I think Dexter’s dad is probably too lazy and too busy watching television to work up the energy for regular beatings. His life is completely bounded by TV and driving his van. He is not engaging with life at all. Engaging with his son would mean that he had to take responsibility for his own life. What is clear is that Dexter’s mother betrays her son when, in order to protect her husband, she will not reveal the cause of his silence. That’s a big moment, a turning point in the play.

The adults in Shut Up tend to be larger than life. Dexter and his fellow students are more naturalistically portrayed and, in a way, more alert and intelligent than the adults. Witty and manipulative, they fulfil the curriculum requirements with the minimum of effort, recycling second-hand opinions from the internet which is enough to satisfy their hard-pressed teacher. Dexter is the only student who makes an original analysis of the Blake poems. His analysis, whatever one thinks of it, has the merit of being personal and deeply felt.

Sometimes the writing gods smile on you. I came across the Blake poems by chance and they were perfect: a small boy is lost, his parents can’t find him, but God saves the day! But God ain’t going to help Dexter, and Dexter knows it. As far as Dexter is concerned, the poems are no better than the lies trotted out in TV commercials. That is not necessarily my view, but I do find Dexter’s take on Blake rather bracing.

Salvation appears to be offered to Dexter by the ambiguous character called Johnny Smith, a messianic figure dressed in white. Johnny Smith urges Dexter to start talking again: ‘The words will pour from you in a veritable torrent and you will be loved and you will be forgiven.’ Johnny Smith is another disappointment. The salvation on offer is nothing more than a job at the local burger bar.

I am very suspicious of preachers and proselytisers but I can’t help liking Johnny Smith. The poor guy. He’s out there preaching salvation and this salvation amounts to getting a job in a burger bar. Join us and you will be saved. Join our church, the church of burgers. Be a winner, not a sinner. Taste the quality. Poor Johnny.

The other chance of salvation comes from television itself. A couple of educational pyschologists express an interest in making a documentary about Dexter. Surely television will succeed in rehabilitating Dexter where all others have failed.

Television has become the last resort, the ultimate therapy: Brat Camp, Fat Camp, Neighbours from Hell, you name it, it’ll make good TV, and the more dysfunctional the participants the better. And it’s bound to end in hugs because it’s on TV, right?

Not for Dexter though. He sabotages his chance of fame by opening his mouth and talking. No redemption on TV for Dexter.

The only person who tells Dexter the truth is Tatiana, a compulsive fantasist known in school as Tats the Liar. Dexter, however, brings out the truth in Tatiana.

When Tatiana says, ‘That’s all true. None of that is lies.’ Dexter knows she’s telling the truth. I think Dexter and Tatiana will find some sort of redemption in their relationship, whatever it might turn out to be, because they accept each other for what they are.

When Dexter shuts up again, Tatiana says she does not mind and makes it clear that she will continue to see him. The last words are Dexter’s: ‘See you tomorrow, Tat-eee-arna.’ But there’s no one there to hear them.