The Brigadoon of the Conversation

by Alyssa Pelish

There was a time, oddly, when I very much identified with Alan Shore, the charismatic skirt-chaser of an attorney played by James Spader on Boston Legal. Not that I shared Alan Shore’s tastes for bespoke suits or cigars, let alone his highly cultivated predilection for women. My fellow feeling did, however, have everything to do with his absolutely mordant wit. As with the best wit, it had an economy and timing that thrilled me. (And it was, of course, all of a piece with Spader's acting that, in its purest, most enduring form, seems to rely on only the musculature of his eyes.) But Alan Shore’s wit, like his eternal bachelor of a character, was never quite matched. His remarks, cutting through the general babble of conversational convention, would typically hang in the air for a beat — while I would chortle and the characters on the show would either ignore, shake their heads at, or (most typically) take offense at them. Even his best friend, the aging rainmaker Denny Krane, was typically too near the precipice of senility (or his own lascivious preoccupations) to fully match Alan’s witticisms. That was just how the dynamic of the show worked — and it worked pretty well. But of all the staple characters — the bluster and senility of William Shatner’s Denny, Candice Bergen’s no-nonsense senior partner, René Auberjonois’ milquetoast authority figure, the expendable cast of comely junior partners — Alan Shore was really the one who had my empathy. Spader repartee

Alan Shore was (and probably still is) one of my favorite instantiations of what I think of as the solitary wit. This is the sort of person who is always at the ready with an epigram or an ironic aside. There's a detached elegance to their pith that places them above the pedestrian fumbling of ordinary conversation. But if honest-to-goodness repartee consists, at a minimum, of one wit’s thrust followed by another’s riposte, the solitary wit’s rapier is ever brandished but never met by another blade. Alan Shore’s predecessors, Oscar Wilde’s most epigrammatic characters must have pride of place in this. Although the dialogue of Wilde’s prose and plays is, in general, known for its incisive wit, it almost always turns on the solitary wit — for whom the world is his straight man. Think of the caustic bon mots dropped by Dorian Gray’s Lord Henry, which are never quite returned in kind by the more socially reserved Basil or wide-eyed young Dorian.[1] Even in The Importance of Being Earnest, which is adored for its comically mannered exchanges, Algernon is the only true wit. His every other line is a perfect epigram — but it's rarely ever returned in kind by the others.[2]

At the time that I was most enamored of Alan Shore, I had just ended a relationship that, despite its many flaws, had been founded on the mutuality of repartee. I had also just moved from New York to a decidedly more provincial location. In the absence of my longtime partner in repartee, I continued to make wry thrusts, deadpanning my way through the days — but there was never any riposte. I threw down gauntlets here and there, but no one seemed compelled to pick them up. The tedium of small talk, and even the relative transparency of frank conversation, failed to acknowledge this crucial — waggish — part of me. So, if I continued to watch Boston Legal far past its expiration date, it was largely because of Alan Shore's lone wit. Sometimes, I imagined that I was the only one in the world who could offer a riposte to his solitary coups de pointe.
Wilde repartee
But the lone wit is only playing solitaire. It's only his own thrusts, the wit of his own rapier, he can best. No one else is playing. In my experience, it's lonely. It's a much better kind of game, I think, when such verbal thrusts meet with ripostes that build to an entire conversation. (No lie: the fencing term for the back and forth play of blades is conversation — composed of individual phrases.) There's a mutuality to it that's unmistakable. I remember first seeing the Branagh-Thompson Much Ado About Nothing. At the age of sixteen, there was a lot about the language that I missed — but what I did get was how perfect Beatrice and Benedick were for each other. Watching and listening to their repartee was like observing two people who spoke the same obscure language. (And really, at its best, repartee is a lot like one extended inside joke.)

Such banter has the superficial structure of conventional conversation: one throws — as etiquette manuals would have it — the conversational ball; the other person picks it up and throws it back. But repartee is both more playful and competitive. If it's playful it's because, even at its most antagonistic, it's collaborative instead of zero-sum. It results not in a running tally of palpable hits but in something like a shared reality — a reference point you both get. That is, you rely on your interlocutor to deliver thrusts as sharp as your own ripostes; otherwise the shared reality won't ever materialize. Otherwise, you're just the lone wit.

If it's exciting to watch Beatrice and Benedick spar, this is at least in part because each one's riposte raises the stakes just a little bit higher.


I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior

Benedick: nobody marks you.


What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?


Is it possible disdain should die while she hath

such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?

Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come

in her presence.


Then is courtesy a turncoat. …

Your breath maybe catches a little with each precisely turned retort. This, I think, is the beauty of a repartee that's propelled almost wholly by the specific kind of reply that is the retort. The retort is sort of the jujitsu move in the repertoire of repartee, in that it neatly turns a received thrust back on itself. Beatrice and Benedick are both so good at this, and especially together, that it's kind of like watching two star athletes at the height of their game — two fencers, I suppose. And for all they appear to dismiss one another, they are actually listening quite closely to each iamb that issues from the other's mouth. Each retort turns on an idea-bearing word or phrase in the previous thrust. How fluidly Beatrice takes Benedick's jab of “Lady Disdain” and turns it into an assault on his character. And how calmly and expertly he receives her rejoinder, picks up the word “courtesy,” and blithely turns it back on her.
Beatrice and Benedick repartee
There's a bit of wish fulfillment in watching them, so honed is their wit, and so mutual is their language. Would that we all could fashion such pithy rejoinders at the speed of normal respiration.[3] And would that we all could find an interlocutor who complemented us so completely. But their exchanges are, most definitely, a contest. (Benedick acknowledges as much when he attempts to have the last word, but Beatrice calls him on it.[4]) Their fencing pulses with the agon of those long ago formal debates of Greek drama, where protagonist and antagonist compete, trying to best each other's rhetoric. At times its pace even approaches that of the volley of literal one-liners, stichomythia, that punctuates those ancient dramas. Perhaps what heightens the tension of Beatrice’s and Benedick’s retorts is their insistent denial of any attraction to one another: it sharpens the blades of their conversation. Yet the word for word sharpness of those blades betrays just exactly how made for each other they are. It's a dramatic shorthand we love (cf. just about every screwball comedy ever made, not to mention the most recent rom-com starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, in which we know how right their characters are for each other because of how well they verbally spar). A shorthand because, while few of us wield such well-scripted rejoinders, we tend to be attracted to people with whom we have something like a common language.

There is, though, a slightly less barbed kind of repartee, one whose emphasis is more on the conspiratorial quality of the exchange. Predictably, I think of Shakespeare again, who so often depicts camaraderie through the playful mutual inventions of a group of friends. There's Romeo and his laddish buddies as they stroll through Verona, replying whipcrackingly to one another, but without resorting to the near fisticuffs of Beatrice and Benedick. You can see it, too, in the quite gentle badinage between As You Like It’s Celia and Rosalind. But by far my favorite is the crude banter between Hamlet and his schoolmates as they’ve just arrived. When Hamlet asks how they are, Guildenstern observes that they are “Happy, in that we are not over-happy; / On fortune's cap we are not the very button.” At which point Hamlet delivers a clever little riposte, and they are off:


Nor the soles of her shoe?


Neither, my lord.


Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of

her favours?


'Faith, her privates we.


In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she

is a strumpet.

There’s something entirely endearing about the way these old friends pick up on and spin out a thread of ridiculously figurative speech, each turn extending it ever more waggishly. This is not at all the barbed exchange of Beatrice and Benedick. Yet it's every bit as clever. It also seems sweeter to me, possibly because it’s based not on retort but on a bit of shared confection.[5] The camaraderie comes in the form of collaborative creation, and the competition is in being able to keep up with each new invention. Off the very cuff of conversation, they have concocted a moment’s alternate reality, which relies on a shared understanding outside the bounds of workaday communication. Of course it's silly — but it's the combination of playfulness with mutuality that makes the whole thing so marvelous.[6]

Of course, this shared understanding is just what we value in our friends and lovers. It's the feeling of being at home with someone — a feeling that the philosopher Vincent Descombes pretty much pegs, for me, when he writes that “the sign of being at home is the ability to make oneself understood without too much difficulty, and to follow the reasoning of others without any need for long explanations.” It is, he says, being “at ease in the rhetoric of the people with whom he shares life.” It means, most simply put, that you speak the same language. But, most importantly, the two of you may be the only ones in the room who speak it. In this respect, repartee functions as a kind of shibboleth, creating a miniature Brigadoon of a community amid the otherwise eminently interchangeable conversations that fill a cocktail party or the line at the post office.

If I missed repartee when it was out of my life, it was because I missed that sense of belonging that it gave me. I never wanted to actually be the solitary wit that Alan Shore was. I just wanted to riposte.

[1] Lord Henry will let fall a dry quip, maybe something like “Sin is the only color- element left in modern life.” But Basil will counter him quite literally, as if refusing to play.

[2] This little sequence, of literal-thrust-literal, is typical when anyone is talking to Algy:


I haven’t asked you to dine with me anywhere to-night.


I know. You are absurdly careless about sending out invitations. It is very foolish of you. Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.


You had much better dine with your Aunt Augusta.

[3] Rob Thomas, the creator of the film-noir inspired but all too short-lived TV show Veronica Mars, said something once in an interview that wonderfully epitomizes just what kind of wish fulfillment writing this kind of repartee allows. Of the show's always-ready-with-the-one-liner heroine, Thomas explained, “We like to give Veronica the lines that it would take the rest of us maybe two weeks to come up with.” This is another pleasure of watching such exchanges: the transfer of always-wistful esprit de l'escalier to something like l’esprit de la repartie.


I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and

so good a continuer. But keep your way, i' God's

name; I have done.


You always end with a jade's trick: I know you of old.

A “jade’s trick” is a stubborn horse’s way of slipping its neck out of its collar instead of going on (i.e. Benedick's attempt to get in the last word by simply declaring “game over” before Beatrice has a chance to respond. But she does!).

[5] Another, equally endearing instance of this kind of banter is, of course, in the seven seasons of the screwball comedy-inflected Gilmore Girls, which was known for squeezing 80 pages of script into its typical 42 minutes of show, and in which the closeness between the thirty-something mom and her teenage daughter was made most legible by their running repartee. Here, for instance, are the two debating where to sit at their regular café:

RORY Where do you wanna sit?

LORELAI I don’t know. Um, how about this table with its unobstructed westward view of the wide cosmopolitan expansive Klump Street?

RORY Tempting. Do you know that on a clear day you can see all the way to the garbage cans behind Al’s Pancake World?

LORELAI Hmm. Or we could sit in the corner — you know, the Mafia table. So that no one can come up behind you and whack you with a cannoli.

[6] In this respect, in the hardboiled-inspired Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005), you completely get how right Robert Downey, Jr's “Harry” and Michelle Monaghan's “Harmony” are for each other during their bar room meet-cute. Together, the the two facetiously consider all the other candidates Harry might have hit on instead of Harmony:

Well, that one over there?
Between — Oh, God. Nix, nix. That's — the blond. The blond's pathetic.
For starters, she's been fucked more times than she's had hot meals.
I heard. It was neck and neck, and then she skipped lunch.

They speak at some half-way point between fact and felicitous fabrication, but the subtext is always their shared amusement.