John Guare On Playwriting VII

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

Living in Nantucket got me in touch with the New England part of my past—my mother was from Lynn, Massachusetts, and my father’s family is from Gloucester, Massachusetts . . . .  My parents were born in the 1890s, and I wanted to imagine myself back in that time and write out of that. A pre-Freudian time. I wanted to make sense out of family myths—overheards and recriminations and family legends and half-understood events that happened before I was born in 1938. When my parents were battling at night, I’d hear my mother say to my father, Your grandfather might have been a slave driver, but you’re not turning me into one of his slaves. And I’d put my hands over my ears and stay under the covers. Years later, I wondered what they were talking about, what did that mean? That time in Nantucket awakened a lot of that lost past in me; I was very grateful because a whole new imaginative life began once I got to Nantucket . . . . I wrote Lydie Breeze first, but that’s chronologically the last. To explain the past of the characters, I wrote another play called Gardenia, which dealt with these people at the end of the Civil War. Then I wanted to write the magical time when these people all met during the war. That play is called Women and Water

On a plane coming back from London in 1972, I got in a panic because I had no new work and said to myself, Before this plane lands I’m going to have the first act of something. I don’t care what it is. I can’t land without having another play to work on. I wrote the first act, of Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I promised myself that I would never get in a situation again where a project ended and I had nothing to go on to. If it’s a success you’re stuck with a terrible thing: Oh my god, how am I going to repeat that? Or, if it’s a failure: How do I get back in the saddle again? I like to keep a number of projects going at the same time, so the day after opening I’ve got something in some mid-state to get to and not have to start from scratch.

I lived over by the river in Greenwich Village in the seventies. It was a creepy time because of a lot of murders going on there. One morning I went to a coffee shop up the street and saw four tough kids, aged eleven or twelve, sitting in the booth. Two boys. Two girls. The boys had their sleeves rolled up to show the enrapt girls their forearms covered with an awful lot of gold wristwatches. They leaned forward like conspirators, whispering, giggling, bragging. I couldn’t get close enough to hear the words. I went home and wrote down what I imagined they were saying. Later that week, I got knocked down by a speed bike. The cyclist, masked in goggles, screamed over me, You asshole! You broke the chain on my bike! The membrane between life and death seemed so tenuous that it’s hard to tell the difference. The collision must have unlocked some buried fantasy because I went home and wrote the play very quickly. It was narrated very merrily by a dead porn star; I wrote a lot of Broadway-style songs for her because they were fun to write.

Each play has its own rules.

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 VIII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.

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