Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron
Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use. He’s the litmus paper of the arts. He’s got to be, because if he isn’t working on the same wavelength as the audience, no one would know what in hell he was talking about.
There are some biological laws in the theater which can’t be violated . . . . You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed . . . . In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play . . . . Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time . . . because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder—and not very well-motivated at that.
In the thirties, and for the most part in the forties, you would have said that (O’Neill) was a finished figure. He was not a force any more. The Iceman Cometh and The Long Day’s Journey into Night, so popular a few years ago, would not have been successful when they were written . . . . A great deal depends upon when a play is produced. That’s why playwriting is such a fatal profession to take up. You can have everything, but if you don’t have that sense of timing, nothing happens. One thing I always respected about O’Neill was his insistence on his vision . . . . there was an image behind it of a possessed individual, who, for good or ill, was himself.
(O’Neill) had one virtue which is not technical, it’s what I call “drumming”; he repeats something up to and past the point where you say, “I know this, I’ve heard this ninety-three different ways,” and suddenly you realize you are being swept up in something that you thought you understood and he has drummed you over the horizon into a new perception. He doesn’t care if he’s repeating . . . . There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils. His virtue is that he insists on his climax, and not the one you would want to put there.
The Iceman Cometh opened, it happened, the same year that All My Sons opened . . . . That was in ’47, soon after the war. There was still in the air a certain hopefulness about the organization of the world. There was no depression in the United States. McCarthyism had not yet started. There was a kind of . . . one could almost speak of it as an atmosphere of goodwill, if such a term can be used in the twentieth century. Then a play comes along which posits a world really filled with disasters of one kind or another. A cul-de-sac is described, a bag with no way out. At that time it didn’t corroborate what people had experienced. It corroborated what they were going to experience, and pretty soon after, it became very timely. We moved into the bag that he had gotten into first!
Even after (The Iceman Cometh) was cut, the thing took four or five hours to play. The production was simply dreadful . . . . When I went to see that play not long after it opened, there must have been thirty people in the audience. I think there were a dozen people left by the end of the play. It was quite obviously a great piece of work which was being mangled on the stage.
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 XII will post next Wednesday.)