Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9
Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo
A TV network gave money and movie cameras to Yale so playwrights could learn how to make movies. Sam Shepard, Ken Brown, who wrote The Brig, Barbara Garson, who wrote MacBird, Megan Terry, and I were the first group. What a remarkable year! Robert Lowell was in residence. Jonathan Miller. Irene Worth. Arnold Weinstein. André Gregory. Ron Leibman. Linda Lavin. Bill Bolcom. I wrote Muzeeka about all those undergraduates I saw around me, so free and happy but wondering what in adult life would allow them to keep their spirit and freedom? How do we keep any ideals in this particular society? Vietnam was starting to become a specter that wouldn’t go away.
The first act (House of Blue Leaves) was written in one sitting, but it took me nearly five years to write the second act. I knew what the events would be, but I lacked the technical skill to handle nine people onstage, to make the material do what I wanted it to do . . . . A friend . . . John Lahr, told me about a director from the Guthrie Theater named Mel Shapiro. I saw his work at Lincoln Center on a Vaclav Havel play; I loved it. We got a wonderful cast, went into rehearsal. Blue Leaves was a success. We won the Obie and the New York Drama Critics prize, and my picture was on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature. Then Joe Papp asked Mel to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona. The production toured around the city parks on a truck in the summer of 1971. Because of the work we had done on farce structure for Blue Leaves, Mel asked me if I would cut and shape Two Gentlemen into ninety minutes . . . . By the time we opened, we had a musical that became a great success and moved from Central Park to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award. So I had a play and a musical on at the same time in New York. I was asked to do more musicals . . . . I didn’t know quite what to do. I was in a panic.
(A) few of us . . . moved up to Nantucket and started a theater where we did Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I wrote fifteen drafts of that play. Then I realized that I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to make something perfect.
Garson Kanin once said, Isn’t it funny that not many people know how to write a play but everybody knows how to rewrite a play. That’s what you have to be careful about: to whom you listen and whom you close out. And also, strangely, how to keep the radar open just in case somebody, some stranger, does throw something good at you. Answers are easy. Formulating the problem—that’s the art. But finally you have to realize there are certain times when, as Valéry says, a work of art isn’t finished, it’s just abandoned. You have to cut bait and move on to the next work.
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 VII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.