Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

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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