Cigarettes and Chocolate

Anthony Minghella

I want it to go silent, it wants to go silent, it can’t, it does for a second, then it starts again, that’s not the real silence, it says that’s not the real silence, what can be said of the real silence, I don’t know…

Anthony Minghella prefaced his own play “Cigarettes and Chocolate” with the above quote from Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnameable” in order to greet the reader with the confounding notion that real silence can never be achieved or maintained. That notion becomes a leitmotif for Minghella’s radio play in which the central protagonist, Gemma, attempts to stop speaking as a form of protest only to suffer a fierce backlash from her friends and lovers who grow intolerant and even violent toward her. The action takes place in friends’ apartments, cafes, and the garden level terrace at Gemma’s North London flat where she spends her time, with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always playing in the background. Gemma is a silent character for a majority of the play, with the exception of a voicemail greeting that opens the play, a short monologue midway through, and her final monologue that ends the play. Although originally conceived and performed as a BBC radio play, “Cigarettes and Chocolate” has had an afterlife with appearances on small stages around the US.

Minghella wrote this radio play in 1989, a tumultuous year in European history that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Gemma’s bizarre resolution to stop speaking comes, as we learn through other characters talking about her, after a long string of failed attempts at small-scale social activism made in the name of altruism which ultimately prove selfish: She donates clothing to Oxfam only to buy them back, she tries to adopt an orphan she meets on vacation in Italy with her boyfriend Rob only to leave him behind, and she tries to help a homeless woman only to leave her stranded at a McDonald’s. Her final act of stopping speaking is an attempt at martyrdom, which is underscored by the Passion of the Christ being sung in the background, and each friend who visits her in the garden takes their turn verbally lashing her. It is also an attempt at self-punishment, self-flagellation: Gemma is atoning for her sins.

During the final monologue at the end of the piece, Gemma has heard from her lovers and friends and she is alone. In the course of her silence they have been driven to their wits’ end, and without a response or verbal acknowledgement from Gemma, they offer unprompted confessions, make false accusations, and selfishly imply they were the catalysts for her stopping speaking. This play has been with me for years because I performed Gemma’s monologues in high school drama. I have only ever known “Cigarettes and Chocolate” as a radio play, and since I performed the monologues outside the context of the play, I have never conceptualized the scenography or seen any stagings. As a method actor, I had a mental image of that garden because I had to visualize my environment every time I performed. I used Minghella’s stage directions- “Gemma’s flat. The garden. Morning. No music,” along with my own imagination.
Nearly a decade later, I wanted to try and make that mental image a material reality.

I decided to use audio and visual media because they enabled me to relay my own mental image of the monologue and the personal and experiential memories I have of performing that piece. Audio was extremely important because the play is about the duality of words and silence, making a statement or holding back, and the monologue itself is our one and only opportunity to access Gemma’s rationale, thoughts, and reflections.

I wanted to shoot the footage from my own point of view as Gemma in the courtyard garden. I wanted to leave the identity of Gemma slightly ambiguous because it is a radio play, and the voice and text of the protagonist were always paramount to any visual likeness. Without recording myself, I found another Gemma to stand in my place and read the monologue. I also found a walled courtyard garden and selectively arranged the furniture and shot the video so that it best matched the mental vision that I grounded myself in every time I performed the monologue. I opened the scene with a sweeping establishing shot of the garden. I incorporated lots of sky in the shots because I imagined Gemma felt stifled having cloistered herself in her garden under a vow of silence, and took some comfort staring up at the trees and clouds. The majority of the footage depicts Gemma seated at a small table, showing the back of her head and torso, to give viewers a glimpse of her world. It is also shot from my mental point of view, how I actually visualized myself while giving the monologue standing and facing an audience.

Finally, I visualized Gemma’s final words playing over still images of Jaume Plensa’s monumental sculpture Echo of 2011 exhibited in Madison Square Park. I edited the images using Photoshop to heighten the soft contours of the girl’s face and highlight her closed eyes and peaceful mouth. For me, Echo was like another Gemma; she is in a meditative state of reverie and silently bears witness to the grievances and tirades of others, not unlike the placid and blind allegory of Justice:

Plensa's sculpture refers to an episode in Greek mythology in which the loquacious nymph Echo is forced as punishment to repeat only the thoughts of others. Plensa’s Echo plays on the narrative of this Greek myth by depicting a young girl’s face in a state of reverie, translating this sculptural portrait into a physical monument of the internalized voices of the thousands of daily visitors to Madison Square Park.

It is never entirely silent in Gemma’s yard, and police sirens wail in the background as construction crews hammer and bang. I didn’t intend for these distracting noises during filming, but I didn’t completely edit them out in iMovie because I felt it made a powerful statement about Gemma’s act of protest: Absolute silence can never be achieved, life always makes itself heard, and one individual’s simple action is capable of producing exponentially more drastic reactions when something as basic as speech is suspended.

Reference

Minghella, Anthony. “Cigarettes and Chocolate.” In Interior: Room, Exterior: City, Three Plays by Anthony Minghella. London: Methuen, 1989.