“Oh wondrous power of words, how sweet they are
According to the meaning which they bring”
– Wordsworth The Prelude (1850)
Behind Wordsworth’s assured pentameter there lurks a nagging doubt about whether we can ever truly say what we mean, or mean what we say. The ‘wondrous power’ of words is, precisely, to mean something, despite all of the possible ambiguities which threaten to upset things along the way. Words are ‘wondrous’ in all senses. Tellingly, Wordsworth worked on The Prelude for over forty years, and in that time extended it from 500 lines to around 9000 lines. It is generally agreed to be an editor’s worst nightmare. With its constant refrains and reiterations, it bears the hallmarks of a writing struggling to pin down meaning. Even the supposed climax of his journey – the tip of a mountain coming into view through the clouds – in the end does not quite mean what Wordsworth had hoped.
But Wordsworth is definitely not alone in his struggle to transmit meaning. We might reasonably ask: how can we ever know what words mean? How can we routinely connect words so seamlessly with actions? How, given a potentially infinite variety of contexts, can we distinguish right from wrong when engaged in conversation, or following instructions, or sharing ideas? Poets, linguists and philosophers have devoted entire lifetimes to these questions, and yet answers remain frustratingly elusive.
No one fought more vehemently to answer these questions about language and meaning than the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the 1920s, Wittgenstein claimed, with typical stridency, to have solved all philosophical problems, after which, he gave away all his money and became a gardener. He states at the end of his book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’. In other words, if you’re not sure how to say it, just keep schtum. How fitting that Wittgenstein’s conclusive words echo those of the famously befuddled anti-hero Hamlet in his dying moments: ‘the rest is silence’.
Perhaps the question of what words mean is more important now than ever. We are, as the post-Trump media reliably informs us, in a post-truth world, a world so steeped in confusion and uncertainty that nothing can escape the ensnaring mesh of subjective opinion disguised as fact: politics, the media and the internet are all apparently post-truth, post-fact, or ‘fake’. The nature of meaning and truth has never been questioned as profoundly as it is today. Perhaps the problem is in finding the words to say what we really mean.
And all of this brings us to ‘Word Play’. As you sit and watch this delightful slice of absurdism, you may ask yourself, ‘What does it mean?’, and the only appropriate response is, ‘Who knows?’. Is it an exploration of a post-truth world? Is it a reflexive comment on the death of Theatre? Is it even art? We cannot say for certain, but through this miasma of doubt and confusion, we will hopefully see something of the world we live in today, and begin to ask our own questions about what it all means.