David Rabe On Playwriting

Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright

The New York Times, May 26, 1985

I grew up seeing movies, and there was a point where I consciously engaged the question of whether there was a larger opportunity to be free as a writer in the theater or in film. And without any experience in either, it struck me that the theater was more open. But I think now, as I’ve gone on, it’s deeper than that. I don’t know quite what the relationship is, but it’s very, very deep in me, the theater.

See, I think that in the real theatrical tradition that split (between comedy and drama) doesn’t exist as strongly as people think it does. It’s an invention of Aristotle rather than of dramatists. I mean, certainly in a lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies, there are very funny, lively moments.

I’m not a big fan of Aristotle. I think he really did everybody a lot of harm. He interposed himself between the creative act and the the thing itself. The whole formula Aristotle devised serves censorship more than it serves creativity. It serves inhibition, and it stops more writers than it guides . . . I mean, there’s no such thing as an Aristotelian tragedy; he never wrote one. He defines something he didn’t do.

My impulse has been to try to put as much variety of emotion as possible into a play. You know, like a carnival or a roller-coaster ride. To me, the more one play can hold, the better.

The laughs I get are the ones I’m hoping for, for the most part. It’s making the turn without getting resentment from the audience that’s the hard part. If you’ve overdone the comedy part, they just want to keep laughing.

“Hurlyburly” is very tricky for me to talk about, because the turn is abrupter than I think it has to be. The play is long, but it was longer, and there was ground for the turns that is not present.

In the beginning — with “Pavlo Hummel” — I wrote until I had a draft, and I didn’t go to anything else. Once I had a draft, then I started writing “Sticks and Bones.” When I had a draft of that, I went back to the other one. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to put them away more or do a note or a few lines or a page and then come back and maybe work an intense period of time. “Hurleyburly” was like that. I had a note for about six years. It was literally three or four lines. And then I got kicked into starting it, and when I started it, I stayed on it for about three or four months to write the first draft. “Streamers” was built the other way. I wrote a 25-page sort of one-act play. It was actually the first thing I wrote when I got out of the Army. It was sort of the movement of the first act of of the play, only much shorter and without the sergeants. And then that was that, and I put it away. Then, about three or four years later, I rewrote it. It was about 50 pages, and it took about three or four days. And then I’d put it away again. I never thought about it a bit — I just didn’t do anything to it. Anyway it took a total of seven years from the beginning. Suddenly I sat down and in about three or four days rewrote the whole play. And it was a full-length play now. I don’t know how I knew — there’s no way to measure that.

I go through a thing in plays where the play shocks me. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where there wasn’t a moment when I said, “Oh, I don’t want to write this,” or “Is that me?” Where’s it coming from? I  think my conscious mind is not as intelligent as my unconscious. My conscious mind is very much interested in controlling everything and making it more orderly — making it orderly in a familiar way. Then the unconscious can come up with something original. The only way I can do anything that’s worthwhile is by not getting too far ahead of myself. When I first started writing, if I didn’t know what the next sentence was, I couldn’t allow myself to write the first sentence, so you never got started. But the truth is, you have to say so what, so if you make a mistake you throw it out. It’s just paper.

I think keeping at it, on some level, is no more different from getting started. It’s the feeling that that’s what you’re going to do and have to do. I see a play as a psyche sort of thrashing in the world. And each audience member should identify with the main character and follow it through, man or woman. I mean, if I go see “Medea,” I’d better identify with Medea. I have to write whatever shows up, that’s the way it is.

I find that, in the early part of rehearsal, I’m very quiet, and as time goes on I have more and more to say. If an actor does something I don’t understand . . . then I’m very upset. On the other hand, there are the times when they do a thing that’s so wonderful, that I never dreamed of. And that’s true of directors, too, that suddenly they bring something you just never thought of.

I have the feeling that the theater, since the late 1800’s, has been overridden by the idea of a form called “realism,” which I think has truly run its course.

I think the time has come when people will understand that “the well-made” play was developed out of other ideas, out of Darwin and Newton. I mean, the well-made play is an idea based on how Newton said the universe worked — like a big clock. It said theater was a pictorial, scientific, objective form, so it invented the fourth wall. And it invented realistic behavior. If you had a real elephant on stage, then that was great. It was trying, I think, to be movies.

Until theater can offer an audience something that film can’t it’s going to struggle. It’s robbed itself of some of its major devices. The things that it has to offer are heightened language and soliloquies and that contact with the audience that the “fourth wall” makes unacceptable. It has somehow to reclaim this stuff, I believe.

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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