John Guare On Playwriting II

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

In college I was editor of the literary magazine and wrote sensitive short stories overly inspired by Flaubert. Our English teacher actually knew Katherine Anne Porter; he showed her a short story I had written. She told him she would pay fifteen hundred dollars for the first sentence: “After Pinky vomited, Ingrid Aldamine sat up in bed.” She liked the rhythm. She didn’t mention anything about the rest. However, if I could write one sentence that an actual famous writer would comment on—wow! Those few crumbs were enough for me. But no more stories. I felt I was betraying a higher calling by writing mere short stories or novels. I believed plays to be on a higher and rarer plane. I still do. Novelists were only a couple of hundred years old. Playwrights were thousands of years old. If I was going to be a writer, it had to be plays.

In 1949, I was eleven. My pal, Bobby, and I read a story in Life magazine about two boys spending their summer vacation making a movie of Tom Sawyer. We had no camera but Bobby had a garage. I immediately wrote three plays. Between shanghaiing kids on the block and rounding up puppets, we got together a cast. We then called Life magazine to alert them to this great story. The Time/Life, operator said hello. We have this great story of two boys spending their summer vacation . . . Again, Time/Life, to whom do you wish to speak? No, you see, these two boys . . . Click!

We lowered our sights and called the local Long Island paper: Two boys are putting on plays and—wait! We’re giving all the proceeds to the orphans of Long Beach! Oh yeah? they said. On the last day of our performances, a big black car pulled up to Bobby’s garage. A photographer took our pictures; they published a story about an eleven-year-old playwright. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a portable typewriter because I was a playwright; I still use it.

I’m the only person I know who benefited from the McCarthy period. In 1950 a play I read about, again in Life magazine (obviously my link to the world), opened on Broadway. It was called The Wisteria Trees. Joshua Logan had taken The Cherry Orchard and set it down South. What a good idea! It made me read The Cherry Orchard. What a great play! I knew about Tennessee Williams, again from a story in Life. I even saw the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire . . . . I started reading Chekhov’s plays and loved Three Sisters. I remembered what Joshua Logan had done with The Wisteria Trees. Hmmm. I typed out the first act of my play on my new official playwright’s typewriter—everytime those girls moaned for “Moscow,” I typed in “New Orleans,” hearing the aching, yearning voice of Kim Stanley, whom I knew from television in New York. That was playwriting. Neurotic, misunderstood Southerners trying to get to New Orleans.

It taught me about typing. I learned more about basic play structure poring over the original cast albums of shows . . . the brainstorm that the second song was usually the “want” song. And how in Guys and Dolls the need for a spot for the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York was technically no different than those three sisters yearning to get to Moscow. The need made the story. Creating the arc and completing it.

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.

Part three of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.

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