Neil Simon On Playwriting VII

August 15, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

This will give you an indication of how little I thought my career would amount to. I thought The Odd Couple would probably be the end of my career, so it wouldn’t make any difference that I had used Felix Ungar in Come Blow Your Horn. It was a name that seemed to denote the prissiness of Felix, the perfect contrast to the name of Oscar. Oscar may not sound like a strong name, but it did to me—maybe because of the k sound in it . . . . k cuts through the theater. You say a k-word, and they can hear it.

I have this office. There are four or five rooms in it and no one is here but me. No secretary, no one, and I’ve never once in the many years that I’ve come here ever felt lonely or even alone. I come in and the room is filled with—as corny as it might sound—these characters I’m writing, who are waiting each day for me to arrive and give them life. I’ve also written on airplanes, in dentist’s offices, on subways. I think it’s true for many writers. You blank out whatever is in front of your eyes. That’s why you see writers staring off into space. They’re not looking at “nothing,” they’re visualizing what they’re thinking. I never visualize what a play will look like on stage, I visualize what it looks like in life. I visualize being in that room where the mother is confronting the father.

I wrote my early plays at the typewriter because it was what writers looked like in His Girl Friday . . . . But my back started to get so bad from bending over a typewriter eight hours a day . . . so I started to write in pads. Then a curious thing happened. I was in England and found that they have pads over there with longer pages and thinner spaces between the lines. I liked that because I could get much more on a single page. At a single glance I could see the rhythm of the speeches. If they’re on a smaller page with wide spaces you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. You have to keep turning . . . . Sometimes I write on both sides of the page, but I always leave myself lots of room to make notes and cross things out. I’ll write about three pages, then go to the typewriter and type that out. Then the next day I’ll read those three pages again and maybe not like them and go back to the notebook—write it out, make changes, and then retype it. The typing is boring for me, but I can’t use a word processor. It feels inhuman. It seems to me that every script comes out of a computer looking like it was written by the same person. My typewriter has its own characteristics, its own little foibles. Even there, I black out parts and write marginal notes. I’d like it to be neat, but I don’t like to send it to a professional typist because they invariably correct my purposely made grammatical errors. I try to write the way people speak, not the way people should speak.

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 VIII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

Today’s Gag

August 13, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.



Hip Shots

August 10, 2012


By Jim Sizemore

(Click images for larger versions.)

The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. This feature will appear most Fridays.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

Neil Simon On Playwriting VI

August 8, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

Very often you find that you’ve written past the end and you say, Wait a minute, it ended here. When I started to write Plaza Suite it was going to be a full three-act play. The first act was about a wife who rents the same suite she and her husband honeymooned in at the Plaza Hotel twenty-three years ago. In the course of the act the wife finds out that the husband is having an affair with his secretary and at the end of the act the husband walks out the door as champagne and hors d’oeuvres arrive. The waiter asks, Is he coming back? and the wife says, Funny you should ask that. I wrote that and said to myself, That’s the end of the play . . . . I purposely won’t think of the ending because I’m afraid if I know, even subliminally, it’ll sneak into the script and the audience will know where the play is going. As a matter of fact, I never know where the play is going in the second act.

I had an interesting problem when I was writing Rumors. I started off with just a basic premise: I wanted to do an elegant farce. I wrote it right up to the last two pages of the play, the denouement in which everything has to be explained—and I didn’t know what it was! I said to myself, Today’s the day I have to write the explanation. All right, just think it out. I couldn’t think it out. . . . . (But) I kept going until everything made sense. That method takes either insanity or egocentricity—or a great deal of confidence. It’s like building a bridge over water without knowing if there’s land on the other side. But I do have confidence that when I get to the end of the play, I will have gotten so deeply into the characters and the situation I’ll find the resolution.

Sometimes I’ll write something and say, Right now this doesn’t mean very much but I have a hunch that later on in the play it will mean something. The thing I always do is play back on things I set up without any intention in the beginning. The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes. Whenever I get in trouble in the second act, I go back to the first act. The answers always lie there. One of the lines people have most often accused me of working backwards from is Felix Ungar’s note to Oscar in The Odd Couple. In the second act, Oscar has reeled off the laundry list of complaints he has about Felix, including “the little letters you leave me.” Now, when Felix is leaving one of those notes, telling Oscar they’re all out of cornflakes, I said to myself, How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar. So I signed it “Mr. Ungar.” Then I tried “Felix Ungar.” Then I tried “F.U.” and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room. When Oscar says, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar,” it always gets this huge laugh.

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 VII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

Today’s Gag

August 6, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.


Ernie Pyle

August 3, 2012

The Death of Captain Waskow

By Ernie Pyle

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.

I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.

Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, “God damn it to hell anyway.” He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.

Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: “I’m sorry, old man.”

Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:

“I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.

Ernie Pyle was born August 3, 1900. This is the first line of his obituary in the New York Times, published April 19, 1945: GUAM, April, 18–Ernie Pyle died today on Ie Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about. The nationally known war correspondent was killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.

Neil Simon On Playwriting V

August 1, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I learned from watching Chaplin films that what’s most funny isn’t a single moment of laughter but the moments that come on top of it and on top of those. I learned it from the Laurel and Hardy films too. One of the funniest things I ever saw Laurel and Hardy do was try to undress in the upper berth of a train—together. It took ten minutes, getting the arms in the wrong sleeves and their feet caught in the net, one terrible moment leading to another. I thought, there could be no greater satisfaction for me than to do that to an audience.

You don’t know where the laughs are until you get in front of an audience. Most of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had I never knew were big laughs. Mike Nichols used to say to me, Take out all the little laughs because they hurt the big ones. Sometimes the little laughs aren’t even meant to be laughs. I mean them to further the play, the plot, the character, the story. They’re written unwittingly . . . strange word to pick. I cut them and the laugh pops up somewhere else.

It started very early in my life—eight, nine, ten years old—being funny around the other kids. You single out one kid on your block or in the school who understands what you’re saying. He’s the only one who laughs. The other kids only laugh when someone tells them a joke—two guys got on a truck . . . I’ve never done that in my life. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t like to hear someone say to me, Tell him that funny thing you said the other day . . . . Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it. I’ve expelled whatever it is I needed to exorcise, whether it’s humorous or painful. Generally, painful. Maybe the humor is to cover the pain up or maybe it’s a way to share the experience with someone.

Generally I’ve gone into analysis when my life was in turmoil. But I found after a while I was going when it wasn’t in turmoil. I was going to get a college education in human behavior. I was talking not only about myself; I was trying to understand my wife, my brother, my children, my family, anybody—including the analyst. I can’t put everything in the plays down to pure chance. I want them to reveal what makes people tick. I tend to analyze almost everything. I don’t think it started because I went through analysis. I’m just naturally that curious. The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart; I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works. Behavior is absolutely the most interesting thing I can write about. You put that behavior in conflict and you’re in business.

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 VI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.