Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9
Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo
While I was a student at Yale in 1962, I took courses in set design, lighting, and costume from Donald Oenslager and Ernest Bevan. I needed to learn the light in which a play must live. I wasn’t any good at the technical bits, but that wasn’t the point. I learned the work processes and the range of possibilities of the design people with whom the playwright shares the stage. They provide the visual entry into the playwright’s world. The playwright is the person responsible for everything on that stage. If the play doesn’t work because of a miscast actor or because of a bad set, or it’s misdirected, it’s the play that will take the brunt. Anything that happens on that stage is playwriting. So the playwright better know the actors available, the directors, the designers, all of whom deal with the life being created on stage. I once saw a comedy in rehearsal, funny and knockdown, but not until it got onstage did we all realize that the costumes, which had looked so witty on paper, had been constructed in a very heavy fabric that disguised and covered the actors’ bodies and de-physicalized them. It was too late and too expensive to change anything. The costumes went on. They got raves. The play was a bust. So the playwright has to look at paintings, listen to music, to say, Yes that’s the effect I want my plays to have.
I love the part of playwriting that is a craft to be learned continually, the -wright part, like shipwright or wheelwright or cartwright. Whether Aeschylus or George S. Kaufman, a playwright is a writer who understands the technical aspects of knowing how to deliver exposition, how to get a character on and offstage, where to place the intermission, how to bring down a curtain. How to have all the characters’ stories end up simultaneously. That’s craft, and craft can be taught by emulation. You figure out how your playwright of the moment accomplishes those facts of the theater. You learn to study those playwrights technically, the way a musician does a score, breaking the work down to learn how its composer achieved certain effects. And then, having learned a technique, one can use it oneself.
Durrenmatt’s The Visit . . . had a profound effect on me. To have a play draw you in with humor and then make you crazy and send you out mixed-up! When I got to Feydeau, Strindberg, Pinter, Joe Orton, and the “dis-ease” they created, I was home. Pinter’s plays had the rhythm of high comedy trapped in the wrong surroundings; I identified with that. I loved the strictures of farce, besides liking the sound of an audience laughing. I loved Feydeau’s one rule of playwriting: Character A says, My life is perfect as long as I don’t see Character B. Knock knock. Enter Character B. And Feydeau’s hysteria opened the door to Strindberg.
I always liked plays to be funny and early on stumbled upon the truth that farce is tragedy speeded up. Filling up that hunger. Get to Moscow. Get into an adult world. The want becomes a need. The need becomes a hunger and because you’re speeding it up so much . . . it becomes ridiculous . . . . The intensity puts it on the edge. The top keeps spinning faster until it can only explode, and if you’ve got a stageful of people at that psychic, manic state, and an audience in tune with them, then something dangerous might happen out of that hysteria. You want to move the audience into a new part of themselves.
Beckett’s a great writer but a bad influence. Young writers used to think that tramps speaking non sequiturs was playwriting. As a teacher, you want to stop people from writing pastiches of Beckett and thinking that’s playwriting. You want them to learn how to admire him, but to know the aim of playwriting is not to become a ventriloquist in someone else’s voice . . . . You have to keep working to find your voice, then have the grace or good sense to recognize it as your voice and then learn how to use it.
If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
Part V of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.