Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9
Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo
If I don’t have anything to write about . . . I copy passages out of what I’m reading. The papers. A novel. Any writer is a sculptor who makes his own clay and then has to protect that clay in hopes of transformation.
In . . . journals I can happily be my own hero and victim. But when you translate that journal material into a play, you begin building a new world; and the I becomes just another citizen of that world to be treated with the same objective scrutiny, irony, and disdain. Besides, I don’t like autobiographical work where you can tell which character is the author because he or she is the most sensitive, the most misunderstood, the most sympathetic. Everybody including yourself should be fair game.
The typical trouble is with endings . . . . If you knew where you were going why would you bother writing? There’d be nothing to discover. I can still remember throwing up when I realized what the ending of House of Blue Leaves would be—that after the songwriter realized the true worth of his work he would have to kill his wife because she saw him as he was.
I love actors who are performers, who are clowns—meaning they are willing to make fools of themselves, to stride that brink of panic. I feel that Stanislavsky—at least the way he’s been interpreted through the Method in America—has been the enemy of performance; I’m not interested in that style of naturalism. How we escape naturalism always seems to be the key. Naturalism is great for television and the small screen. Theatrical reality happens on a much higher plane. People on a stage are enormous, there to drive us crazy.
I once asked Lanford Wilson (how he picked a director) and he said, Easy. I ask the potential director to tell me the story of my play, and if his story matches up with my story then perhaps we can work together.
In 1965 I got a job . . . as William Inge’s assistant on a new pre-Broadway play. I needed to learn how a play was physically put together by a professional playwright. I never even asked if Inge was any good, but he’d had success and had connected mightily with audiences in the past. Picnic. Bus Stop. If I didn’t like his work, the fault was mine. After the opening of the play, Family Things, Etc., later called Where’s Daddy?, the critic from the Boston paper had Inge on his TV show as a guest. He read Inge his review of the show with the camera on Inge’s face. The review was unbelievably cruel and unexpected. Inge . . . . never worked on the play again. He committed suicide two years later. I learned if one is going to be a playwright one must develop armor to deal with such horrific occupational hazzards.
Jean Kerr wrote Inge soliciting funds for a playwriting group. Inge replied, Isn’t helping new dramatists a little like helping people into hell?
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 IX of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.