Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
Very often you find that you’ve written past the end and you say, Wait a minute, it ended here. When I started to write Plaza Suite it was going to be a full three-act play. The first act was about a wife who rents the same suite she and her husband honeymooned in at the Plaza Hotel twenty-three years ago. In the course of the act the wife finds out that the husband is having an affair with his secretary and at the end of the act the husband walks out the door as champagne and hors d’oeuvres arrive. The waiter asks, Is he coming back? and the wife says, Funny you should ask that. I wrote that and said to myself, That’s the end of the play . . . . I purposely won’t think of the ending because I’m afraid if I know, even subliminally, it’ll sneak into the script and the audience will know where the play is going. As a matter of fact, I never know where the play is going in the second act.
I had an interesting problem when I was writing Rumors. I started off with just a basic premise: I wanted to do an elegant farce. I wrote it right up to the last two pages of the play, the denouement in which everything has to be explained—and I didn’t know what it was! I said to myself, Today’s the day I have to write the explanation. All right, just think it out. I couldn’t think it out. . . . . (But) I kept going until everything made sense. That method takes either insanity or egocentricity—or a great deal of confidence. It’s like building a bridge over water without knowing if there’s land on the other side. But I do have confidence that when I get to the end of the play, I will have gotten so deeply into the characters and the situation I’ll find the resolution.
Sometimes I’ll write something and say, Right now this doesn’t mean very much but I have a hunch that later on in the play it will mean something. The thing I always do is play back on things I set up without any intention in the beginning. The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes. Whenever I get in trouble in the second act, I go back to the first act. The answers always lie there. One of the lines people have most often accused me of working backwards from is Felix Ungar’s note to Oscar in The Odd Couple. In the second act, Oscar has reeled off the laundry list of complaints he has about Felix, including “the little letters you leave me.” Now, when Felix is leaving one of those notes, telling Oscar they’re all out of cornflakes, I said to myself, How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar. So I signed it “Mr. Ungar.” Then I tried “Felix Ungar.” Then I tried “F.U.” and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room. When Oscar says, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar,” it always gets this huge laugh.
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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.