John Osborne On Playwriting

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

Part of my job is to try and keep people interested in their seats for about two and a half hours; it is a very difficult thing to do, and I am proud of having been even fairly successful at it.

They go to the theatre because the guvnor’s wife went on Monday night and said it was a jolly good show. I simply want to point out that my job has not been an easy one to learn, merely because I have had what looks like an easy success. I shall go on learning as long as there is a theatre standing in England, but I didn’t learn the job from the Daily Mail or the Spectator.

I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterward.

Timing is an artistic problem. It is the prime theatrical problem. You can learn it, but it cannot be taught. It must be felt.

If you are any good at all at what you set out to do, you know whether it is good and rely on no one to tell you so.

It is not true to say that a play does not “come alive” until it is actually in performance. Of course it comes alive — to the man who has written it, just as those three symphonies must have come alive to Mozart . . .

At every performance of any of my plays, there are always some of these deluded pedants, sitting there impatiently, waiting for the plugs to come singing in during natural breaks in the action. If the texture is too complex, they complain that too much is going on for them to follow. There they sit, these fashionable turnips, the death’s head of imagination and feeling, longing for the interval and its over-projected drawls of ignorance. Like the B.B.C. critics, they either have no ear at all, or they can never listen to themselves.

All art is organized evasion. You respond to Lear or Max Miller — or you don’t. I can’t teach the paralyzed to move their limbs. Shakespeare didn’t describe symptons or offer explanations. Neither did Chekhov.

But there are other questions to be asked — how do people live inside (their) houses? What is their relationship with one another, and with their children, with their neighbors and the people across the street, or on the floor above? What are the things that are important to them, that make them care, give them hope and anxiety? What kind of language do they use to one another? What is the meaning of the work they do? Where does the pain lie? What are their expectations? What moves them, brings them together, makes them speak out? Where is the weakness, the loneliness? Where are the things that are unrealized? Where is the strength? Experiment means asking questions, and these are all the questions of socialism.

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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