March 21, 2023
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Life & Culture

Q&A: Nuances of language explored in Ithaca College professor’s play

James Pfrehm, assistant professor of modern languages and literatures, had his satirical linguistics–based play, “Death by Dictionary,” published in the Winter 2014–15 edition of The Fourth Wall Review. The Fourth Wall Review is a print and online journal aimed at publishing original pieces of drama by up-and-coming playwrights through the use of audio, video and print art. Pfrehm is also the author of such language books as “Austrian Standard German: Biography of a National Variety of German” and “Kunterbunt und kurz geschrieben: An Interactive German Reader” and has been a playwright since 2001.

Staff Writer Josh Vitchkoski sat down to speak with Pfrehm about the linguistic atmosphere of his play and the art of playwriting.

Josh Vitchkoski: What is the premise of “Death by Dictionary”?

James Pfrehm: It starts out in an office of some newspaper, some fictional newspaper or writing outfit, and there is a journalist — I believe he’s a writer — and it’s like a combat zone. He’s gone berserk on his editor because his editor wants him to not use a specific word in his piece on “the new first decade of the 21st century.” It’s the breaking point of other things in his life. Everything goes to hell based on his editor’s decision not to use a certain turn of phrase in his piece. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and he holds his editor hostage, and that’s where the play starts. Police show up, they want to talk about “Why are you doing this?” It turns out he’s doing it because of a word that set him off.

JV: What particular genre does this play fall under?

JP: It was meant to be a comedy but really just a highly dramatic and quirky comedy. I don’t really think in terms of genres. I do think in terms of what would make an interesting story, what would make interesting characters, and if the story and characters lend themselves toward a comedy, then I go with comedy. I just recently finished a full-length play last summer called “When a Man Wants a Baby,” and it’s a procreative comedy. It’s about a man who’s trying to hire a surrogate for a baby and all of the funny stuff that ensues. Other things I’ve written are drama.

JV: What made you step into the field of playwriting?

JP: I like creating situations that I can control, like a writing god. I think a lot of writers enjoy that, creating their own worlds, populating them with characters. And then, I really like to make people laugh. My career in standup comedy didn’t go anywhere, so I decided then to look at playwriting. And I love language. I absolutely love all of the different shades of language, shades of meaning, from the pragmatics to the actual semantics, and I like playing with that in plays. So if you read the play as a linguist, I think you’ll get a lot more out of it and see where I’m playing with the arbitrariness of language and language usage, perceptions of language, things like that. Language prescriptivism versus language descriptivism, all these things that I teach in my classes. They’re all there, but in the form of comedy.

JV: Where did your inspiration for this play come from?

JP: I read an article in 2005 or 2006 about somebody complaining that there was no term for the first decade of the 21st century, and that’s not true. There’s a term for everything. You can make one up even if there isn’t, and we know that because language is inexhaustible in that way. People were upset that they had to say “the first decade of the 21st century,” whereas you say the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s. Somebody had suggested numerous ones like the naughts, the aughts, or the ’00s. People were grappling with what term to use, and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be funny if I started a play where there’s this cracked-up writer who’s gone berserk because he wants to use the aughts, and his editor says, ‘That’s not a word’?” So there’s this battle between prescriptivists, on what we basically consider correct usage, that the drama arose out of. This linguistic fact that was going on in the aughts, the 21st century. So I thought it’d be funny.

JV: Which of the characters in your play do you most identify with?

JP: Probably the policeman, just because he’s trying to diffuse the situation, and that’s kind of, as a playwright, what you try and do. As a playwright or as a writer, you have innumerable decisions you can make. You can go all over the place. You can go crazy, but you need to also exert control, like the officer. So it’s kind of like the officer was the disciplined writer in me, and Bill, the cracked-up writer who’s holding his editor hostage, was the creative writer in me, going back and forth.

JV: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

JP: If you have interests, and those interests coincide at all with what you have to do professionally, find time to pursue those interests. That’s how I got started in playwriting. I was in grad school. I wasn’t being creative. But I found an interest in it and I started reading manuals on how to write plays, going to a bunch of plays, reading as many plays as I could — I was reading three plays a week. Don’t let what you do professionally or academically hold you back from pursuing interests when you have the time.