Joyce Carol Oates On Playwriting

Adapted from: A Novelist Finds the Bare Bones of a Play

The New York Times, November 18, 1990

As soon as you begin the task of adaptation, you discover that it isn’t “adapting” but “transposing” you must do. The essential difference between prose fiction and drama, is that in prose fiction it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue, action, subterranean-subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized.

Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic experience. It is communal; its meeting ground is the point at which the sheerly (sic) imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashback, flash-forwards, digressions and analyses, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force-fields of emotion are almost visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it is in purely emotional terms.

Drama is our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of the mystery of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.

When I write for the theater, I write reaching out in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not at all to say that I am without a deep, abiding, and even stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound.

When I saw “The Triumph of the Spider Monkey,” it was no longer my play; “my” play consisted of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in proportion to how much I was surprised by it.

Except for “In Darkest America,” most of my plays have been adaptations of short stories. The linked monologues of “I Stand Before You Naked” . . . began as a form I call miniature narratives, in which character is reduced to an essence, and dramatized in the smallest possible period of time. I wanted to dissolve the distance between speaker and audience — between object (the other) and subject (this phenomenon of personality we call “I”).

In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are told not by us bu by way of us — “drama” is our realization of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously this involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can only happen when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.

In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over . . . Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there is no final, fully realized performance.

I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am not the playwright, nor even a quivering net of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.

Someone recently asked me, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My answer was a mildly puzzled, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”

I am the most agreeable of playwrights. To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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