Irwin Shaw on Playwriting

Adapted from Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 4

Interviewed by George Plimpton and John Phillips

(M)y first job was writing Dick Tracy . . . . It was a radio show. I pushed Dick Tracy into situations and rescued him five times a week. It made me a living and gave me time to do my own writing.

(A)most every writer will tell you that events that happened to him before he started writing are the most valuable to him. Once he starts writing he seems to observe the world through a filter. I believe that’s true about writers: that the unconscious observation of things, a kind of absorbing of life that goes on before he becomes a writer, that is what is most useful to him. When he starts observing things professionally and taking notes and trying to remember, he may collect a lot more but he loses the spontaneous quality and the flow. He becomes too systematic. It’s his job to be, but he never gets anything as valuable as what he got unconsciously. He has become the observer rather than the actor. The best portrayal of the type that I know is the character of Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and then there’s Philip Quarles in Huxley’s Point Counter Point who wrote notes on his own reactions while his son was dying of meningitis

(F)ailure is inevitable for the writer. Any writer. I don’t care who he is, or how great he is, or what he’s written. Sooner or later he’s going to flop and everybody who admired him will try to write him off as a bum. He can’t help it. He’s bound to write something bad. Shakespeare wrote a few bad plays

I think the course of my writing during the thirties pretty well reflects what most of my generation was preoccupied with then. We began in the Depression, very dedicated and oppressed and doom-conscious. In the early thirties we were against a new war at any cost. We believed that simply by protesting against war we could avoid it. We kept saying to ourselves “we won’t fight again ever about anything.” My play (Bury the Dead) was produced in 1936 and the play that won the Pulitzer Prize for that year was Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, and that was a fierce attack on munitions makers.

(Theater is) the hardest of them all. Young novelists come a dime a dozen, but the playwright must be older, more experienced, and in more complete control of his craft. The scope of the novel is such that mistakes can be made, even serious mistakes, without impairing the value of the work. But the theater audience is hypercritical and the form of the play is extremely exacting, and one mistake and you’re through. I’ve had a hard time with the theater. I’ve always been anxious to write plays. I read all kinds of plays and books on the theater and books about how to write plays, but all I learned was that playwriting is something nobody can teach you.

I wrote five plays before Bury the Dead. They were all bad, and I didn’t show them to anybody. I had to write them to practice, and that’s the way I learned. Since Bury the Dead, I’ve written seven plays, all but The Gentle People flops. I like the theater as a form, but I’m not so sure about its being the right one for me. You never can tell what’s going to happen. My play The Gentle People was translated into French and produced in Paris last winter, thirteen years after it was done at home. It was perhaps the greatest theatrical success I’ve had. They called it Philippe et Jonas and the French appreciated it as I meant it to be: a combination fairy tale and joke. In New York it was accepted by critics and audiences alike as a head-on melodrama.

I have a fine play in mind I’ll write for them someday. The curtain slides up on a stage bare except for a machine gun facing the audience. Then after a pause in which the audience is given time to rustle their paper bags and their programs, wheeze and cough and settle in their seats, the actor enters. He’s a tall man dressed in evening clothes. He comes downstage to the footlights and, after a little bow, smiles charmingly at the audience, giving them more time to mumble and rustle and cough and whisper and settle in their seats. Then he walks upstage, adjusts the machine gun, and blasts them.

If you’d like to read 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.

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