A pause, a beat…

Issue No: 123 What is the difference between a pause and a beat? I was recently asked this question in a playwriting workshop and the answer and subsequent dramaturgical discussion prompted me to write a short note on this topic.

The simple answer is that a beat is equivalent to a pause. However, while both a beat and a pause indicate a moment of change of idea or intention, there’s a little bit more to it. A lot of this depends on perspective of course. Screenwriters tend to shy away from the term beat and prefer to use pause, and that too primarily in dialogue. Actors tend to interpret this from the perspective of psychology. A beat is a momentary unit of action, smaller than a pause. This is interpreted as an indication that something has changed in the mind of the character, or in the exchange between characters. Directors might consider the pause an external cue, whereas the beat might be more of an internal cue for the actor.

While these perspectives may all arrive at a working conclusions the difference is somewhat more pronounced. If we consider the play as operating on units of time – the pause and the beat operate on entirely different aesthetic principles. The pause is generic blank time, that is, multiple units of time where there are no spoken words. The beat however, is a single unit of blank time, and is entirely dependent on the overall composition presented by the playwright. At this point the workshop erupted in heated debate, with various contesting claims.

A little known fact acknowledged by almost all playwrights, but very few critics is that playwriting unlike other forms of narrative writing is about composition. The dramaturgical principles of playwriting because they are concerned with ordering time and space for performance, remain closely connected to musical structures. The unique thing about playwriting is that the basic unit we work with is temporality. A significant number of critics evaluate plays based on critical principles that do not adequately understand this. The dominant paradigms of critical analysis all derive from literary theory, or if one is to update this based on trends in the academy – cultural studies or some variant of deconstruction. Somewhere in the analytical quest to contextualize dramaturgical expression, either against a political project or a commercial paradigm of consumption and reviews, the compositional aesthetics of a play are rendered invisible. The cold logic of content invariably trumps the ephemeral and temporal aspects of compositional form.

The interesting thing about Indian dramaturgical paradigms is that they do not create this dualism. The compositional aesthetics of the Natya Shastra remain rooted in temporality and the core tenets of evoking rasa. Hence the effectiveness of composition tends to favour what is said as much as how it is said in equal measure. This is of course a classical paradigm, and the further investigation of how Indian playwrights have deployed this in contemporary writing is an exciting though underexplored space.

All this of course assumes logical and methodical meaning making. There is a comical anecdote about the origin of the term beat that is worth considering. As Lee Strasberg was engaging with Constantin Stanislavsky’s ideas to arrive at method of acting, there was an occasion where several Russian theatre people were working on a text. The Russian translator would say, “Lets look at this beat here.” The Americans were puzzled by the term. “Now in this beat, there is something different happening.” After much cultural cross wiring, a eureka moment occurred… This very peculiar usage clearly meant that there was some Russian terminology that looked at the text as made up of discrete units called beats. Each beat had a certain intention to it, which translated into an actor’s playable motivation. It didn’t help that the Russian was merely saying “bit” with a Russian accent, but that is one story on how the term emerged!

Is this a matter of splitting hairs? Then perhaps one ought to go the whole hog. A key break from realist dramaturgy occurs with the shift away from psychology/intentionality and towards the play of language. Realist dramaturgy is broadly characterised by a preoccupation with psychology. The assumption in this kind of dramaturgy is that each action carried out by the character expresses an inner state and the text is an excavation of this terrain. However, with the shift to language playwriting, psychology is just one point of focus, as the play is considered for what it is – a language game of signs organised around certain rules. This means the pause is as far removed from the beat, as Searle is from Wittgenstien, as a speech act is from a language game. Certainly, the pause and the beat, when scrutinised at this level of detail, lead to entirely different views on dramaturgy and lift the play from the stolid realm of the literary into the transient realm of the performative.


Ram Ganesh Kamatham is co-editor of e-Rang. He is a playwright and director with the Actors Ensemble India Forum.

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