Athol Fugard On Playwriting IV

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

I think every writer has a special relationship with his most recent work. In my case that would be The Road to Mecca. Firstly, the process of writing it, creating it, the traumas or difficulties that you live through in order to get it written—those are close to you still. Also the most recent play says something about where you are in your life. It still needs a certain protection; it is very young. Its life has just been started, and you feel very paternal about it.

My most important tool is my notebook . . . . I jot down random images, thoughts, ideas, speculations, and a little bit of personal misery. It’s a five-finger exercise. Every one of my plays started off a long time before the actual writing took place as an image in those notebooks. There comes a point when one of these images from the past . . . . If it is the right moment, and if . . . there is a coincidence between the external and the internal, the things start happening. First I just free associate. It’s almost as if the seminal image has a certain magnetic power of its own that helps me focus on the things of daily living that relate to it. This is the first step. It usually results in an accumulation of ideas, scraps of dialogue, rough structures for scenes and a mass of paper. I can lift up that paper and feel its weight metaphorically and think, Yeah, there’s enough here now. Next it’s got to be ordered and organized. I never actually start to write a play . . . until I have completely structured the play. I have never started to write a play without knowing with total certainty what my final image is. Other writers work differently, I know. They say, Oh, the material did this to me, I got surprised, it sent me off in a different direction. That has never happened to me. While it may be a flaw, I am absolutely brutal about my disciplining of the material before I write the words page one and get to work.

It’s a very slow and painful process. I’m very conscious of how faltering the first few steps are, how much stalling and drowning in the blankness of paper there is. Nothing flows in my head. There have been occasions when I’ve found my head working away quite energetically with my hand a foot behind, watching in amazement. But there have never been sustained outpourings. If I’ve got three full pages done, longhand, that’s a good day. That’s a damn good day in fact. Sometimes there is nothing, or what I have written goes into the wastepaper basket. I tear up and throw away furiously when I write. I don’t accumulate a lot of paper. For something to stay on paper longer than two days it has to pass some very critical tests. I usually work through three drafts, longhand, in the course of writing a play; it takes about nine months.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates — and many more —  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 V of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.

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