Arthur Miller On Playwriting IX

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I’m in the process of collecting my short stories. But I tell myself, What am I doing. I should be doing a play. . . . I have some interesting beginnings, but I can’t see the end of any of them. It’s usually that way: I plan something for weeks or months and suddenly begin writing dialogue which begins in relation to what I had planned and veers off into something I hadn’t even thought about. I’m drawing down the lightning, I suppose.

(T)he closer you get to any kind of political action among young people, the more they demand that the action have a certain fidelity to human nature, and that pomposity, and posing, and role-taking not be allowed to strip the movement of its veracity. What they suspect most is gesturing, you know, just making gestures, which are either futile, or self-serving, or merely conscientious. The intense personal-relations concentration of the fifties seems now to have been joined to a political consciousness, which is terrific.

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. . . . I lived through the McCarthy time, when one saw personalities shifting and changing before one’s eyes, as a direct, obvious result of a political situation. . . . Such a pall of fright was laid upon us that it truly deflected the American mind. It’s part of a paranoia which we haven’t escaped yet.

(I)t’s got so we’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aeschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little piddling private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all “a story,” a myth for its own sake.

Look at Molière. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.

I couldn’t write a play like Death of a Salesman anymore. I couldn’t really write any of my plays now. Each is different, spaced sometimes two years apart, because each moment called for a different vocabulary and a different organization of the material. However, when you speak of a strict form, I believe in it for the theater. Otherwise you end up with anecdotes, not with plays. . . . The audience has been trained to eschew the organized climax because it’s corny, or because it violates the chaos which we all revere. But I think that’s going to disappear with the first play of a new kind which will once again pound the boards and shake people out of their seats with a deeply, intensely organized climax. It can only come from a strict form: you can’t get it except as the culmination of two hours of development.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part X will post next Wednesday.)

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