Today’s Quote

August 26, 2014

Bertolt Brecht

BrechtExil“The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall . . . the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him . . . The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically, by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding.”

—Brecht on Theatre

The Development of an Aesthetic

Edited and translated by John Willett, 1964

Playwrights on Playwriting

February 8, 2014

Henrik Ibsen

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Henrik-IbsenThere are two kinds of spiritual law, two kinds of conscience, one in man and another, altogether different, in woman. They do not understand each other; but in practical life the woman is judged by man’s law, as though she were not a woman but a man.

The wife in the play (A Doll’s House) ends by having no idea of what is right or wrong; natural feeling on the one hand and belief in authority on the other have altogether bewildered her.

A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.

These modern women, ill-used as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated according to their gifts, prevented from following their calling, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in temper—it is these who furnish the mothers of the new generation. What will be the result?

The fault lies in that all mankind has failed. If a man claims to live and develop in a human way, it is megalomania. All mankind, and especially the Christian part of it, suffers from megalomania.

Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. I always proceed from the individual; the stage setting, the dramatic ensemble, all of that comes naturally and does not cause me any worry, as soon as I am certain of the individual in every aspect of his humanity. But I have to have his exterior in mind also, down to the last button, how he stands and walks, how he conducts himself, what his voice sounds like. Then I do not let him go until his fate is fulfilled.

As a rule, I make three drafts of my dramas which differ very much from each other in characterization, not in action. When I proceed to the first sketch of the material I feel as though I had the degree of acquaintance with my characters that one acquires on a railway journey; one has met and chatted about this or that. With the next draft I see everything more clearly, I know characters just about as one would know them after a few weeks’ stay in a spa; I have learned the fundamental traits in their characters as well as their little peculiarities; yet it is not impossible that I might make an error in some essential matter. In the last draft, finally, I stand at the limit of knowledge; I know my people from close and long association—they are my intimate friends, who will not disappoint me in any way; in the manner in which I see them now, I shall always see them.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, 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.

Playwrights On Playwriting

January 22, 2014

Friedrich Dürrenmatt On Playwriting II

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Duerrenmatt2Doubtless the unities of time, place, and action which Aristotle . . . derived from Greek tragedy constitute the ideal of drama. From a logical and hence also aesthetic point of view, this thesis is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that the question arises if it does not set up the framework once and for all within which each dramatist must work.  Aristotle’s three unities demand the greatest precision, the greatest economy, and the greatest simplicity in the handling of the dramatic material. The unities of time, place, and action ought to be a basic dictate put to the dramatist by literary scholarship, and the only reason scholarship does not hold the artist to them is that Aristotle’s unities have not been obeyed by anyone for ages. Nor can they be obeyed, for reasons which best illustrate the relationship of the art of writing plays to the theories about the art.

No matter how abstract an aesthetic law may appear to be, the work of art from which it was derived is contained in that law. If I want to set about writing a dramatic  action which is to unfold and run its course in the same place inside of two hours, for instance, then this action must have a history behind it, and that  history is the story which took place before the stage action commenced, a story  which alone makes the action on the stage possible. Thus the history behind Hamlet is, of course, the murder of his father; the drama lies in the discovery of that murder. As a rule, too, the stage action is much shorter in time than the event depicted; it often starts out right in the middle of the event, or indeed toward the end of it. Before Sophocles’ tragedy could begin, Oedipus had to have killed his father and married his mother. The stage action condenses an event to the extent to which Aristotle’s unites are fulfilled; the closer a playwright adheres to the three unities the more important is the background history of the action.

The one-act play obeys the unities still, even though under a different condition. The plot is dominated by a situation instead of by history, and thus unity is once again achieved.

Comedy—insofar as it is not just satire of a particular society as in Moliére—supposes an unformed world, a world being made and turned upside down . . . . Tragedy overcomes distance; it can make myths originating in times immemorial seem like the present to the Athenians. But comedy creates  distance; the attempt of the Athenians to gain a foothold in Sicily is translated by comedy into the birds undertaking to create their own empire before which the gods and men will have to capitulate. How comedy works can be seen in the primitive kind of joke, in the dirty story, which, though it is of very dubious value, I bring up only because it is the best illustration of what I mean by creating distance. The subject of the dirty story is the purely sexual, and, because it is purely sexual,  it is formless and without objective distance. To achieve form the purely sexual is transmuted . . . into the dirty joke. Therefore this type of joke is a kind of original comedy, a transposition of the sexual onto the plain of the comical . . . . Thus the dirty story demonstrates that the comical exists in forming what is formless, in creating order out of chaos.

The means by which comedy creates distance is the conceit. Tragedy is without conceit. Hence there are few tragedies whose subjects were invented. By this I do not mean to imply that the ancient tragedians lacked inventive ideas of the sort that are written today, but the marvel of their art was that they had no need of these inventions, of conceits.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, 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.

Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting

September 23, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht7“Theatre” consists of this: in making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings, and doing so with a view to entertainment.

From the first it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people . . . It is this business which always gives it its particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have. We should not in any way be giving it a higher status if we were to turn it, e.g., into a purveyor of morality; it would on the contrary run the risk of becoming debased, and this would occcur just as soon as it failed to make its moral lesson enjoyable, and enjoyable to the senses at that—a principle, admittedly, by which morality can only gain. Not even instruction can be damanded of it; at any rate, no more utilitarian lesson than how to move pleasurably, whether in the physical or in the spiritual sphere. The theatre must in short remain something entirely superfluous, though this also means that it is the superfluous for which we live. Nothing needs less justification than pleasures.

(W)hat the ancients, following Aristotle, demanded of tragedy is nothing higher or lower than that it should entertain people. Theatre may be said to be derived from ritual, but that is only to say that it becomes theatre once the two have separated . . . . when people speak of higher and lower degrees of pleasure, art stares impassively back at them; for it wishes to fly high and low and to be left in peace, so long as it can give pleasure to people.

Incorrectness, or considerable improbability even, was hardly or not at all disturbing, so long as the incorrectness had a certain consistency and the improbability remained of a constant kind. All that mattered was the illusion of compelling momentum in the story told . . . narrative is the soul of drama.

 If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.

George Bernard Shaw on Playwriting

September 18, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

images-4The formula for the well made play is so easy that I give it for the benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the fortune that awaits all successful manufacturers in this line. First, you “have an idea” for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery . . . . If the innocent wife, banished from her home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and, when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character, and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady’s, simultaneously announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife’s innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the writer has any sort of knack for his work. Comedy is more difficult, because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting the audience out of the theatre as best you can.

(Critics) cannot relish or understand a play that has grown naturally, just as they cannot admire the Venus of MIlo because she has neither a corset or high heeled shoes. They are like the peasants who are so accustomed to food reeking with garlic that when food is served to them without it they declare that it has no taste and is not food at all.

No writer of the first order needs the formula any more than a sound man needs a crutch. In his simplest mood, when he is only seeking to amuse, he does not manufacture a plot: he tells a story. He finds no difficulty in setting people on the stage to talk and act in an amusing, exciting or touching way. His characters have adventures and ideas which are interesting in themselves, and need not be fitted into the Chinese puzzle of a plot.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.

John Galsworthy on Playwriting

September 4, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

GalsworthyA drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning.

In the whole range of the social fabric there are only two impartial persons, the scientist and the artist.

(S)et before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favor, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford. This . . . method requires a certain detachment; it requires a sympathy with, a love of, and a curiosity as to, things for their own sake; it requires a far view, together with patient industry, for no immediately practical result.

A good plot is that sure edifice which slowly rises out of the interplay of circumstance on temperament, and temperament on circumstance, within the enclosing atmosphere of an idea. A human being is the best plot there is; it may be impossible to see why he is a good plot, because the idea within which he has brought forth cannot be fully grasped; but it is plain that he is a good plot. He is organic. And so it must be with a good play.

Reason alone produces no good plots; they come by original sin, sure conception, and instinctive after-power of selecting what benefits the germ. A bad plot, on the other hand, is simply a row of stakes, with a character impaled on each—characters who would have liked to live, but came to untimely grief; who started bravely, but fell on these stakes, placed beforehand in a row, and were transfixed one by one, while their ghosts stride on, squeaking and gibbering, through the play.

(T)rue dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as it were, to expectation, and yet because they have already done other things.

Good dialogue . . . is character, marshaled so as continually to stimulate interest or excitement. The reason good dialogue is seldom found in plays is mearely that it is hard to write, for it requires not only a knowledge of what interests or excites, but such a feeling for character as brings misery to the dramatist’s heard when his creations speak as they should not speak—ashes to his mouth when they say things for the sake of saying them—disgust when they are “smart.”

From start to finish good dialogue is handmade, like good lace; clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated.

But good dialogue is also spiritual action.

The dramatist’s license . . . ends with his design. In conception alone he is free. He may take what character of group or characters he chooses, see them with what eyes, knit them with what idea, within the limits of  his temperament; but once taken, seen, and knitted, he is bound to treat them like a gentleman, with the tenderest consideration of their mainsprings. Take care of character; action and dialogue will take care of themselves!

The perfect dramatist rounds up his characters and facts within the ring-fence of a dominant idea which fulfills the craving of his spirit; having got them there, he suffers them to live their own lives.

A man may have many moods, he has but one spirit; and this spirit he communicates in some subtle, unconscious way to all his work. It waxes and wanes with the currents of his vitality, but no more alters than a chestnut changes into an oak.

(E)ach natural phrase spoken and each natural movement made  has not only to contribute toward the growth and perfection of a drama’s soul, but also to be a revelation, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, of essential traits of character. To put it another way, naturalistic art, when alive, indeed to be alive at all, is simply the art of manipulating a procession of most delicate symbols. Its service is the swaying and focusing of men’s feelings and thought in the various departments of human life.

The poetry which may and should exist in naturalistic drama, can only be that of perfect rightness of proportion, rhythm, shape—the poetry, in fact, that lies in all vital things.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.

William Butler Yeats on Playwriting

August 25, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Yeats-2What attracts me to drama is that it is, in the most obvious way, what all the arts are upon a last analysis . . . .  a moment of intense life.

The dramatist must picture life in action.

Our plays must be literature or written in the spirit of literature. The modern theatre has died away to what it is because the writers have thought of their audiences instead of their subject . . . . Then the imagination began to cool, the writer began to be less alive, to seek external aids, remembered situations, tricks of the the theatre, that had proved themselves again and again.

(T)he sincere play, the logical play . . . will always seem, when we hear it for the first time, undramatic, unexciting.

(The Doll’s House) is but a series of conversations terminated by an accident.

The utmost sincerity . . . give me . . . an imperfect pleasure if there is not a vivid and beautiful language.

(A)ll language but that of the poets and of the poor is already bedridden. We have, indeed, persiflage, the only speech of educated men that expresses a deliberate enjoyment of words; but persiflage is not a true language. It is impersonal; it is not in the midst but on the edge of life; it covers more character than it discovers; and yet, such as it is, all our comedies are made out of it.

What the ever-moving, delicately molded flesh is to human beauty, vivid musical words are to passion. Somebody has said that every nation begins with poetry and ends with algebra, and passion has always refused to express itself in algebraical terms.

Art delights in the exception, for it delights in the soul expressing itself according to its own laws and arranging the world about it in its own pattern, as sand strewn upon a drum will change itself into different patterns, according to the notes of music that are sung or played to it.

Men of letters have sometimes said that the characters of . . . a play must be typical. They mean that the character must be typical of something which exists in all men because the writer has found it in his own mind. It is one of the most inexplicable things about human nature that a writer, with a strange temperament, an Edgar Allan Poe, let us say, made what he is by conditions that never existed before, can create personages and lyric emotions, which startle us by being at once bizarre and an image of our own secret thoughts.

We do the people of history the honor of naming after them the creations of our own minds.

French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearean Drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, must as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight.

In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras, and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays . . . and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.

Athol Fugard On Playwriting, V

November 28, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

Some (of my) plays have gone through rehearsal and ended up on the stage without even so much as the punctuation having changed. Others have benefited substantially from the rehearsal process. Sometimes the actors have made me aware, in the course of the rehearsal process, of moments that needed fleshing out and points that hadn’t been made strongly enough.

Obviously when it comes to the question of telling stories about other people’s lives in a situation as political as South Africa, you get to be political. So political commitment isn’t really something I’ve had to look for; it was an automatic by-product of my being a storyteller—one who is going to try to tell stories truthfully and through them bear witness to the South African situation. Talking with young students at Yale recently, I was asked whether I agreed with a fellow South African writer . . . who said that all writers in that country had an obligation to make a political stand. I got angry about this because I don’t think any writer should presume to give orders to another. The place from which you take your orders is probably the most secret place you have. If you have a word like God in your vocabulary, then that is an area in which you and God deal with each other. So, no writer must ever presume to tell another writer what his or her political responsibilities are. It is a poet’s right in South Africa to write a poem that seemingly has no political resonance.

Some writers do nothing but talk about the objective moral obligations that artists must live up to. If you’re Brecht, you’re going to write as Brecht writes; you’re going to be as committed as Brecht. There may be pale imitations, but there will only be one Brecht. Every artist does as he needs to. There is a desperate tendency to try to legislate artists, to try to lay down rules for their obligations to society. Just leave artists alone. If you are a true artist, you will have a very finely tuned moral mechanism. If you’re a Georgia O’Keeffe, a Bertolt Brecht, or a Harold Pinter, you’ll do it your way.

Exile is a phenomenon I have watched with morbid curiosity over the years because it is a fate that has befallen a lot of my friends. It is something I have watched but not experienced. I do not consider myself to be in exile. I could play around with words and say that I consider myself an exile from the society that I believe South Africa should be, but that’s just being clever.

Art has a role. Art is at work in South Africa. But art works subterraneanly. It’s never the striking, superficial cause and effect people would like to see. Art goes underground into people’s dreams and surfaces months later in strange, unexpected actions. People bring a sort of instant-coffee expectation to art; they’d like the results to be immediate. It doesn’t work that way. I like that image of art dropping down through the various layers of the individual’s psyche, into dreams, stirring around there and then surfacing later in action.

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 VI of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.

Athol Fugard On Playwriting IV

November 21, 2012

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.

Neil Simon On Playwriting XIV

October 3, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

(I)n the early days, I worked principally with Mike Nichols. He was after me day and night: This scene isn’t good enough. Work on this. Fix this . . . . But, I always knew he was right. I wasn’t that experienced a playwright. The way I work now . . . . the conversation is generally short. (The director) might say, There’s something wrong with this scene. I’ll say, I know what you mean. Let me go home and work on it. I’m much less influenced by the director now than I was before. I depend on the director in terms of interpretation of the play.

(W)hat I try to do in terms of rewriting is always to benefit the character, not the actor. There’s something an actor sometimes says that drives me crazy: I would never do that. I say you’re not doing this, the character is. The one thing I almost always look for is the best actor not the funniest actor. I rarely, rarely cast a comedian in a play. The best comedian I ever had in a play was George C. Scott. He was funnier than anybody in the third act of Plaza Suite because he was playing King Lear. He knew the essence of comedy is not to play “funny.” I remember, at the first reading of Barefoot in the Park, the whole cast was laughing at every line in the play. When we finished the reading, Mike Nichols said, Now forget it’s a comedy. From here on we’re playing Hamlet.

Some . . . emphases change enormously in the rehearsal period, but I also have to worry about what’s going to be done in stock and amateur and European productions . . . The Prisoner of Second Avenue opens in the dark. All we see is a cigarette as Mel Edison comes in. The part was played by Peter Falk. He sat down on the sofa, took a puff of the cigarette, and in the dark we heard aaaahhhhhhh. I don’t know how you’re going to be able to spell that, but it’s got a lot of hs in it—a lot of them. It got a huge laugh because the audience heard two thousand years of suffering in that aaaahhhhhhh. When Peter left and other actors played the part, they would go ahh. There weren’t enough hs and the line wasn’t funny. People tell me that when they study my work in acting class, the teachers have to give them the sounds, the nuances, the way the lines are said. I guess Shakespeare can be said a thousand different ways, but in certain kinds of lines—for example, that run on Ho in Biloxi Blues—everything depends on the timing of it. I’ve always considered all of this a form of music. I wish I could write tempo directions, like allegro and adagio. That’s why I put dots between words or underline certain words, to try to convey the sense of music, dynamics, and rhythm.

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 XV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.