Tennessee Williams On Playwriting

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, New York,  1983

It is amazing and frightening how completely one’s whole being  becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction as least one second before the old habitation collapses.

At each performance (of Camino Real, 1953) a number of people have stamped out of the auditorium, with little regard for those whom thay have had to crawl over, almost as if the building had caught on fire, and there have been sibilant noises on the way out and demands for money back if the cashier was foolish enough to remain in his box.

I can’t deny that I use a lot of those things called symbols but, being a self-defensive creature, I say that symbols are noting but the natural speech of drama . . . . a symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words . . . . symbols, when used respectfully, are the purest language of plays. Sometimes it would take page after tedious page of exposition to put across an idea that can be said with an object or a gesture on the lighted stage.

A cage represents security as well as confinement to a bird that has grown used to being in it; and when a theatrical work kicks over the traces with such apparent insouciance, security seems challenged and, instead of participating in its sense of freedom, one out of a certain number of playgoers will rush back out to the more accustomed implausibility of the street he lives on.

A play in a book is only the shadow of a play and not even a clear shadow of it. Those who did not like Camino Real on the stage will not be likely to form a higher opinion of it in print, for of all the works I have written, this one was meant most for the vulgarity of performance.

The color, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lighting in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper, nor thought and ideas of an author, those shabby things snatched off basement counters at Gimbel’s.

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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