Didactic Fictions

by David Arthur Walters


Internet forums provide writers with an opportunity to exchange ideas about writing and to practice their writing. However, irate writers have complained that writers are not writing about writing in forums, that they are engaged in heated arguments and in ego-tripping instead.

Well, the art of writing is just one subject among many, a provocative subject that has inspired many heated arguments. In any event, why write about writing per se when one has a golden opportunity to practice writing by engaging in a lively conversation or heated debate with others? Would not such a practice sharpen one's skills and teach one much about dialogue and character if not something about the purported objects of the debates or discussions? Yes, indeed, in retrospect forum exchanges are gold mines for many writers and actors who study dialogue. We even harvest the flaming wars. No form of exchange is beneath us, not even the inane chit chat.

A few writers are well aware of the value of written forum conversations. They are making articles out them or including them in books without even bothering to edit the dialogue. That is a serious mistake. First of all, there are copyright considerations: forum content might not be in the public domain. And publishing someone's forum conversation elsewhere might be at least an unethical invasion of their privacy. In any event, editing and revising the dialogue, or writing one's own dialogue to develop the ideas, will most likely result in a production far more entertaining to the audience, providing that an audience can be found given all the cacophony clamoring for attention nowadays. One also might be better off finding counterparts and exchanging dialogue by email in a joint-production effort; however, there is nothing like live improvisations in front of an audience: a person may learn more in private, but performs better in public.

For instance, I encountered some dialogue in a forum at now-defunct Writtenbyme. I manipulated it and put it into a different setting, It is the first act of a skit which takes off from that act according to my imagination, to an absurd conclusion in the fourth act. It is nothing great, but I am using it here as an illustration:

Alice Packer's Shadow

Location: S&M Art Studios, Ltd.


Alice Packer: Art Director
Walter Davidson: Senior Vice President
Harry Heckler: Computer Graphics Designer
Sheri Sands: Head Photographer
Susan Sockwith: Fashion Director
Angela Songerson: Human Resources Director

[It was time for lunch. Walter Davidson is about to adjourn the regular Monday staff meeting. Alice Packer had seemed distracted throughout the meeting. She suddenly proceeds to laugh hysterically]

ANGELA SONGERSON: Good heavens! Alice, get a grip. What's so funny? What are you laughing about?

ALICE PACKER: I'm laughing because I saw my shadow this morning at Raven's Nest. [She bursts into tears. Angela, stupefied, blinking characteristically, leans over and hugs Alice.]

ANGELA SONGERSON: Holy Moses, Alice, I'm sorry. What are you talking about? [ She continues to bat her eyelashes.]

ALICE PACKER: My shadow is dying to be me and she's been shadowing me for weeks now. So I go into Raven's Nest Cafe this morning for coffee and a bagel, and there she is, standing in line right in front of me, chit chatting with people, pretending to be me..."

ANGELA SONGERSON: Pretending to be you?"

ALICE PACKER [angrily brushing away her tears]: Yes, trying to look like a professional art director without even giving me credit. Professional liar, that's what that hussy really is.

HARRY HECKLER [snickering]: Now, now, sweetheart, you're just imagining...

ANGELA SONGERSON: Lay off, Harry, and if you say sweetheart one more time I'll file a harassment complaint. Go on, Alice.

WALTER DAVIDSON: This staff meeting is adjourned. [to Alice, jokingly.] When you said you saw your shadow, I thought you meant you needed a shave. I saw my beard this morning...[Nobody pays attention to him - everyone is gathered around Alice Packer]

ALICE PACKER: I was livid. I tapped her on the back and asked her for her name. "Moana," she said. I looked the lying hussy up and down, and said, "I don't know how long you've been lurking around the art business, Moana, but you should get a real life. The only person you're fooling is yourself. You don't even know what an art director is. Quit being such a wannabe." Well, she doesn't say a word, reaches into her fake leather briefcase, takes out and hands me a copy of her portfolio, picks up her coffee and struts out as if her tail doesn't stink just because men stare at it. So I look at the trash she gave me - it's a cheap knock-off of my own portfolio, she copied all my ideas!

ANGELA SONGERSON: Even your bio's are alike?

ALICE PACKER: Absolutely. And my logo too!

ANGELA SONGERSON [blinking furiously]: I feel for you, Angela, that's really scary. There's gotta be something you can do? That is outrageous. Oh, let me give you another hug... [Alice backs away.]

SUSAN SOCKWITH [nodding her head sagely]: I know her. She used to shadow me when I was shopping on Fifth Avenue. I'd see her reflected in the window, wearing the same dress as me. Moana is the worst nightmare a woman can have. She will copy your every gesture for years. Just keep in mind that everything this person says is a lie. Would you believe she started taking Qi Gong classes when I did? - there she was, trying to mirror my every move.

SHERI SANDS: I've seen her too. She is a pretty but pathetic young woman.

WALTER DAVIDSON: I think I know your shadow too. Some forger was using my name and style at several studios. I filed suit and got an injunction.

SHERI SANDS: Well done! That'll teach them!

HARRY HECKLER: C'mon, Walter, we know what was up with that. You signed your name to blank sheets, gave them to your students and forgot about it, for crying out loud!

ANGELA SONGERSON:[grasping Alice's hand.] She's not worth thinking about any more, Alice. Frankly, she's a human leech. The best thing one can do with her is ignore her and smack her down when she comes around. There's nothing she can do, really. She's just your shadow and can never be an true art director like you. Come now, let's have a long lunch together - Walter won't mind - it's on me. [all file out of the meeting room except Walter, who stays behind to write up the Minutes.]


I wrote the following skit within a forum discussion one evening, a little satire on the bellicose attitude of patriotic writers, including that of an acquaintance of mine who has a knack for intuiting which side of a conflict is on the highest of moral grounds; namely the United States and any of its allies at the moment. I exaggerated the tenor of the patriotic position for effect. When the skit was performed, the voiced reactions ranged from hysterical laughter to angry remarks including "Traitor! If you don't like this country, get the hell out of it and live with the scum!"

The Altar of Intuition

SCENE: On the High Moral Ground of Intuition

HIGH PRIEST: We are gathered here today beside the Altar of Intuition on High Moral Ground to make our Humble Petition in the Spirit of Unity to the Presiding Officer of This Great Superpower of Ours.

PRIESTS: Hail, Lord Mighty Almighty, the Might is with Thee!

BROTHERS: Might is Right! Might is Right! Might is Right! Unite in Hate! Unite in Hate! Unite in Hate! Roll out the Big Gun, Roll out the Big Gun! Roll out the Big Gun! Hail to the United Hates of America!

CHORUS: Moo, moo, moo... baa, baa, baa... moo, moo, moo... baa, baa, baa... moo, moo, moo... let us go along and be safe... what channel is this, by the way?

HIGH PRIEST (to priests): Reveal the Bull Dung that it may be offered to Lord Mighty Almighty on the Altar of Intuition and go up in Holy Smoke.

PRIEST A: Our Superpower is the only Superpower, the Acne of Civilization.

PRIEST B: You mean Acme I think.


CHORUS: Moo, moo, moo... what is true? what should we do? has anyone seen the latest poll?

AN ANONYMOUS PRIEST: Any attack on Our Great Superpower is an attack on Civilization itself.

CHORUS: Baa, baa, baa... rah, rah, rah, Go Military, Go!

BROTHERS: That is Right and Might is Right. Unite in Hate, Unite in Hate! Unite in Hate!

PRIEST C: Anyone who disagrees is wrong, as every casual observer intuitively knows.

BROTHERS: Right, right, right, fight, fight, fight!

PRIEST D: They hate us because they are dead wrong, so let them die! They are jealous of our wealth and power, that is all there is to the absolute truth.

BROTHERS: Right, right, right, fight, fight, fight!

CHORUS: We have done no wrong, we never have nor will we ever, for we are always right and never wrong, moo, moo, moo, baa, baa, baa...

BROTHERS: Right, right, right, you've done no wrong, you've done no wrong, we must fight, fight, fight!

CHORUS: We hate the enemy. Only traitors love the enemy.

BROTHERS: Unite in Hate, Hate the Enemy, Might is Right! The Enemy is wrong! The Enemy is guilty.

HIGH PRIEST (to a priest holding torch): Light the Bull Dung and let the Holy Smoke cloud the Altar of Intuition. (priest sets fire to the Bull Dung)

CHORUS: Holy Smokes! How beautiful! Our intuition is good.

BROTHERS: (behind the smoke screen): Bombs away, boys and girls! Kill! Kill! Kill!

HIGH PRIEST: Let us now bow our heads in humble group love and offer up our petition to Lord Mighty Almighty, President George Bush, Junior.

CHORUS: Who needs a god in heaven when the President is in the White House?

HIGH PRIEST: Our President in the White House, hallowed be thy name, the Might is with Thee. Lead us into the Valley of Death to fight the War on Terrorism....

Smoke Screen

Of course when a writer becomes bored with forum discussions, she can simply make up her own dialogue. The following skit is based on my studies of the ancient oracle at Delphi - I might flesh it out some day:

Pythia Screams Again

Scene: a vault filled with treasure. Two priests are playing chess at a table downstage center. Piercing screams are heard coming from beneath the stage.

FIRST PRIEST [annoyed]: Pythia is screaming.

SECOND PRIEST: No kidding. I'm not daft.

FIRST PRIEST: What do you make of it? It's not that time of the month.

SECOND PRIEST: How should I know? Maybe she's high on the gas again, or had too many laurel leaves for breakfast. It's your move.

FIRST PRIEST: We've got to fix that gas leak. She's been drinking a lot lately too.

SECOND PRIEST: From the sacred cellar spigot?

FIRST PRIEST: Cheap red table wine from Athens. Aha, your time is almost up - check!

SECOND PRIEST: Maybe we should lay her off for counselling?

FIRST PRIEST: I don't think so, it would violate the contract with Madame Dragon. So what's your move?

SECOND PRIEST: No problem, I'm blocking you with my bishop.

FIRST PRIEST: Excellent, kiss your Queen good bye!


FIRST PRIEST: Scream on, Pythia! You're bringing me good fortune!

SECOND PRIEST: She's still at it, for crying out loud. What is the meaning of this?

FIRST PRIEST: Wait a minute, wait a minute, maybe we can interpret these screams to answer the U.S. President's question!

SECOND PRIEST: Is peace possible in the Mideast now?

FIRST PRIEST: Right. Checkmate!

SECOND PRIEST: That figures, with all this racket around here. So, what do you think?

FIRST PRIEST; How much tribute has come in from the U.S.?

SECOND PRIEST: I don't know the exact amount, but that stack of U.S. dollars on the skid over there just came in.

FIRST PRIEST: I thought that was from Baghdad or Tel Aviv.

SECOND PRIEST: What's the difference? Sorry, Just kidding!

FIRST PRIEST: Let's check with the auditors and see what's up with the numbers. I'm sure we can come up with something ambiguous enough to suit everyone after taking everything into account. [The piercing screams below grow in intensity] For Pete's sake, could you shut her up?

SECOND PRIEST [gets up, walks upstage, opens up a basement door flush with the stage, and shouts into the basement]: PYTHIA! THAT'S ENOUGH ALREADY! SHUT THE (EXPLETIVE DELETED) UP!



Everyone has the general idea by now. In fine, forums stimulate the creative imagination; they provide a place to write live and to extract conversational styles and sketches. Forums are indeed a valuable source of ideas, just as were the salons of old; however, forums lack the personal presence of all those involved and the personal skills of a brilliant and often beautiful hostess. We are certainly not breaking revolutionary ground. The ancient plays were conversations providing a cultural education for all who could attend or talk about them. The Greeks are famous for their forums and Socratic dialogues. Socrates did most of the talking; the intention was obviously didactic. Socrates learned that he was the wisest man of all those he questioned because by that questioning he discovered that he did not know the absolute truth about anything; that is not to say we should preach ignorance as a virtue, but that we should encourage the continuance of the great conversation of humankind.

Today didactic dialogue is not much admired in non-fiction: direct statements are preferred. Nor is it cared for much any more in fiction except to explain the setting or what is going on in a play or film. People do not care for long-winded conversations, especially those of the moral sort. But not long ago, before telephones and televisions, long conversations were the main attraction. Periodical articles took on the form of conversational essays to make things interesting. Religious sermons and political writing was vicious, but the purpose of such famous eighteenth century publications as Richard Steele and Joseph Addison's Tatler and the Spectator were designed for the moral edification of their readers: vice, cynicism, ungenerosity, and infidelity were held in contempt as unbefitting to man's true self. Indeed, the purpose of a genuine essay was believed to be the uplifting of moral virtue and the teaching of science. Fictitious characters such as 'Mr. Spectator' of the 'Spectator's Club' were used to present ideas in conversational tones. The Spectator agenda included popularizing science "as a reinforcement of religions faith": the evolutionary adaptation of animals was presented as demonstrative of God's beneficience. The Tatler 'Trumpet Club' was headed by 'Sir Roger de Coverley', a kind and elderly country squire. One of the aims of Tatler was to bring philosophy out "to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses." By 'philosophy' was meant comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.

Publications such as Tatler and Spectator had quite a civilizing effect on its audience. But people eventually tired of the pious moralizing. Didactic fictions became terribly boring to most people. They wanted entertainment, not sermons. But the form did not disappear.

H.G. Wells, who considered himself to be first and foremost a teacher, was a master of didactic novels. We know him best for War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, yet most of us do not know him very well at all. He considered himself to be a journalist rather than a novelist. He could not restrain himself from writing about current topics, the interest in which was bound to rapidly fade in time, as opposed to artful novels which might attain to immortal fame. He was criticized for turning to non-fiction and didactic novels. Virginia Woolf thought Joan and Peter was too didactic for fiction. Thomas Hardy, though, loved it so much he read it aloud to his wife, and said Wells had a "preternatural knowledge of what people do" in their houses. The English biologist, Sir E. Ray Lankester, who was chairman of the Committee on the Neglect of Science and was involved in educational reform for the purpose of making better people and better governments, told Wells to ignore the petty and jealous critics "making their puny efforts to crab the book declaring it to be all schoolmaster and no story...." H.L. Mencken took Wells to task in his inimitably caustic fashion, for heaving larger and larger doses of theory into his work. In an essay dated 1918, Mencken, uncomfortable with Wells' "Flabby Socialism", that of the English lower class, has this to say in regards to a few of his didactic novels:

(But it) was not enough to display the life of his time with accuracy and understanding; it was not enough to criticize it with a penetrating humor and sagacity. From the depths of his being, like some foul miasma, there arose the old, fatuous yearning to change it, to improve it, to set it right where it was wrong, to make it over according to some pattern superior to the one followed by Lord God Jehovah. With this sinister impulse, as aberrant in an artist as a taste for legs in an archbishop...

"...And under all the rumble-bumble of bad ideas is the imbecile assumption of the jitney messiah at all times and everywhere: that human beings may be made over by changes the rules under which they live, that progress is a matter of intent and foresight.... "

So much for the snobbery of my favorite critic. To better discern what he is speaking about and to close my own essay in the didactic mode, I shall quote from H.G. Wells' Undying Fire (1919).

The protagonist, a progressive schoolmaster named Job Huss, suffers trials similar to the biblical Job in regards to the traditionalists who want to close his progressive school and return to the old educational ways that inculcate going along with an "all-wise and amiable" Providence like a "trustful child which need only not pester the Higher Powers" while doing "its simple congenial duties"; or, on the other hand, teach that the "Process is utterly beyond control and knowledge... It has scrawled our race across the black emptiness of space, and it may wipe us out again. Such is the quality of Fate."

Job Huss claims the two approaches have the same effect in practical matters. The child-like attitude of his antagonist, Sir Eliphaz, and the fatalistic attitude of his fellow debater, Sir Barrack, amount to bowing to the status quo: the former, "gladly and trustfully", the latter, "grimly - in the modern style." Wells writes:

For some moments Mr. Huss sat with compressed lips, as though he listened to the pain within him. Then he said: "I don't.

"I don't submit. I rebel - not in my own strength nor by my own impulse. I rebel by the spirit of God in me.... I am a rebel of pride - I am full of the pride of God in my heart. I am the servant of a rebellious and adventurous God who may yet bring order into this cruel and frightful chaos....

"... I differ from you all. You see that the spirit of my life and of my teaching... is a fight against that Dark Being of the universe who seeks to crush us all.... It is a fight against disorder, a refusal of that very submission you have made, a repudiation altogether of that same voluntary death in life..."

He moistened his lips and resumed.

"The end and substance of all real education is to teach men and women of the Battle of God, to teach them of the beginnings of life.... to show them how man has arisen... to draw men together out of themselves into one common life and effort with God....

Huss continues at length. He repudiates the gentlemen's claims that the world has learned a lesson from the war, and that setting up League of Nations will put an end to war. "But on what foundations have you made in the last four years but ruins?" Huss asks. "Is there any common idea, any common understanding yet in the minds of men?" No, says Huss, and because the traditional schools are failures. "What common thought is there in the world? A loud bawling of base newspapers, a posturing of politicians. You can see chaos coming again...." He provides the analogy of French and American forces battling back and forth with the Germans: "Which side may first drop exhausted now, will hardly change the fact. The supreme fact is exhaustion..." Wells then writes:

"What's the good of such despair?" said Mr. Dad.

"I do not despair. No. But what is the good of lying about hope and success in the midst of failure and gathering disasters? What is the good of saying that mankind wins - automatically - against the spirit of evil, when mankind is visibly losing point after point, is visibly losing heart. What is the good of pretending that there is order and benevolence or some sort of splendid and incomprehensible process in this festering waste, this windy desolation of tremendous things? There is no reason anywhere, there is no creation anywhere, except the undying fire, the spirit of God in the hearts of men... which may fail... which may fail... which seems to me to fail."

He paused. Dr. Barrack cleared his throat. "I don't want to seem obdurate," said Dr. Barrack. "I want to respect deep feeling. One must respect deep feeling... But for the life of me I can't put much meaning into this phrase, the spirit of God in the hearts of men.... I would like to ask you, Mr. Huss - frankly - is there anything very much to it, than a phrase?"


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