Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
The writing of the play is the . . . . frightening part because you walk into a forest without a knife, without a compass. But if your instincts are good, if you have a sense of geography, you find that you’re clearing a path and getting to the right place. If the miracle happens, you come out at the very place you wanted to. But very often you have to go back to the beginning of the forest and start walking through it again, saying, I went that way. It was a dead end. You cross out, cross over. You meet new friends along the way, people you never thought you’d meet. It takes you into a world you hadn’t planned on going to when you started the play. The play may have started out to be a comedy, and suddenly you get into a place of such depth that it surprises you. As one critic aptly said, I wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs about the family I wished I’d had instead of the family I did have.
Sometimes I start laughing—and I’ve had moments in this office when I’ve burst into tears . . . . The moment had triggered a memory or a feeling that was deeply hidden. That’s catharsis. It’s one of the main reasons I write the plays. It’s like analysis without going to the analyst. The play becomes your analysis.
I thought it seemed odd to leave the Eugene saga finished after two plays. Three is a trilogy—I don’t even know what two plays are called. So, I decided to write the third one, and the idea came immediately. It was back to the war theme again, only these were domestic wars. The boys were having guilts and doubts about leaving home for a career writing comedy. Against this played the war between the parents. I also brought in the character of the socialist grandfather who was constantly telling the boys, You can’t just write jokes and make people laugh. Against this came Blanche from the first play, Brighton Beach, trying to get the grandfather to move to Florida to take care of his aging, ill wife. To me, setting people in conflict with each other is like what those Chinese jugglers do, spinning one plate, then another, then another. I wanted to keep as many plates spinning as I could.
(T)he play may be based on incidents that happened in my life—but they’re not written the way they happened. Broadway Bound comes closest to being really autobiographical. I didn’t pull any punches with that one. My mother and father were gone when I wrote it, so I did tell about the fights and what it was like for me as a kid hearing them. I didn’t realize until someone said after the first reading that the play was really a love letter to my mother!
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 IV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.