Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sarcasm: A Conversation at Downton Abbey

By Kimberly Johnson
Full disclosure--Maggie Smith’s acting is the reason why I watched Downton Abbey. The acclaimed actress plays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the PBS period drama. Smith dispenses stinging sarcasm to her cast mates better than an angry honeybee attacking a brown bear raiding its honey tree.
Here’s proof:
Lady Grantham (Smith): “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.”
Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton): “I take that as a compliment.”
Lady Grantham: “I must have said it wrong.”
Here’s more proof:
Mrs. Crawley: “What should we call each other?”
Lady Grantham:“Well, we could always start with Mrs. Crawley and Lady Grantham."
I take my fedora off to writer and creator Julian Fellowes for his interplay of mockery and cynicism in keeping the dialogue so fresh and so uniquely British. The finest scenes are when the Dowager and Lady Crawley trade barbs. I think that sarcasm bridges the gap between the two spirited women who have nothing in common, yet have to get along for the sake of the family. Fellowes uses the confrontations to create tension which is a great way to construct conflict.
With this in mind, I researched how a writer can use ironic or satirical remarks as a writing device to lure readers into his text. I found blogger David Hartstein of Wired Impact. He blogged a satirical post that received mixed reactions—mostly negative. He concluded:
#1: Writing sarcasm to an audience that doesn’t know you personally will probably fall flat. Focus on the message that you want to deliver to the reader.
#2: Sarcasm is in the delivery, according to Hartstein. “It’s about your inflection and emphasis. This requires a bit of extra thought when you’re trying to convey it in writing.” Use bolded words and italics for emphasis.
#3: Sarcasm is in the eye of the beholder and someone may take offense to it. Hartstein adds, “In fact, chances are you’ll come across as a jerk. The feeling of it being something of an inside joke is actually what makes sarcasm worthwhile. You just have to craft your delivery to make as many people feel like insiders as is possible.”  
I wonder does Julian Fellowes go through the same thing.                    

1 comment:

David Hartstein said...

Hi Kimberly. Thanks a lot for referencing my post on sarcastic writing. I definitely didn't expect my satirical post to get the sort of reception it did, which led me to reflect a lot on the execution of satire, especially in writing.

Your post is interesting and refreshed a lot of my original self-explorations on the topic. Thanks again for sharing.