Anton Chekhov on Playwriting

August 13, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Chekov3Try to be original in your play and as clever as possible; but don’t be afraid to show yourself foolish; we must have freedom of thinking, and only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things. Don’t round things out, don’t polish — but be awkward and impudent. Brevity is the sister of talent.

The large number of revisions need not trouble you, for the more of a mosaic the work is, the better. The characters stand to gain by this. The play will be worthless if all the characters resemble you . . . . And who is interested in knowing my life or yours, my thoughts and your thoughts? Give people people, and not yourself.

Avoid “choice” diction. The language should be simple and forceful.

The first act may last as long as a whole hour, but the rest should not be more than twenty minutes each. The crux of the play is the third act, but it must not be so strong a climax as to kill the first act.

I like the “vaudeville.” It begins in a very original way . . . . In one-act things you must write nonsense — there lies their strength.

(T)here is an excessive hysteria in the language. (The character) must not use witticisms; but you make all of them fall into this habit; they keep playing on words, and that tires the attention a little; it is too flashy; the language of your characters is like a white silk dress on which the sun is always shining in full force and which it hurts the eyes to look at.

(I)t ought to be mentioned in the first or second act that she has attempted to poison herself; then, after that hint, the poisoning in the third act will not seem so startling and will be more in place. (He) talks too much; such characters ought to be shown bit by bit among others, for in any case such people are everywhere merely incidental — both in life and on the stage.

One usually dislikes a play while writing it, but afterward it grows on one. Let others judge and make decisions.

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.


Neil Simon On Playwriting XIII

September 26, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

The darkness in my plays reflects the way the world is now. The darkness in the plays, strangely enough, seems more beautiful to me. I think anything that is truthful has beauty in it. Life without the dark times is unrealistic. I don’t want to write unrealistically anymore.

I can’t write outside of my own experience. I’m not like Paddy Chayefsky who could go off and do six months of research and then write something extremely believable. I’d like to write about Michelangelo, but I don’t know Michelangelo. I don’t know what his life was like. I wish I could extend myself, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Resolution doesn’t mean a happy ending—which I’ve been accused of. I don’t think I write happy endings. Sometimes I have hopeful endings, sometimes optimistic ones. I try never to end the play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical.

When I was writing three-act plays, a producer told me the curtain should always come down on the beginning of the fourth act. A play should never really come to an end. The audience should leave saying, What’s going to happen to them now? . . . . I can’t write a play as dark and bleak and wonderful as A Streetcar Named Desire.

I spend more time on the titles of plays than on the names of the characters. What I’ve tried to do over the years is take an expression from life that has a double entendre in it, for example, the musical Promises, Promises, so that every time people speak the words it sounds like they’re talking about your play. Or The Odd Couple—people sometimes say “they’re sort of an odd couple.” If you mention an odd couple now, you think of the play . . . . Come Blow Your Horn comes from the nursery rhyme. Barefoot in the Park came from what the play was about. There’s a line in the play that comes from my life, when Joan used to say to me, Stop being a fuddy-duddy. Let’s go to Washington Square Park and walk barefoot in the grass. Chapter Two was, literally, the second chapter of my life, after my wife Joan died . . . . Prisoner of Second Avenue was a good title for a play about a man who loses his job and is left to live in that little apartment on Second Avenue while his wife goes to work. He has nothing to do but walk around the room ’til he knows exactly how many feet each side is—so he’s literally a prisoner . . . . The Star-Spangled Girl was a better title than a play. I liked Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It seemed familiar. It comes from Sophie Tucker’s slogan: last of the red hot mamas. Lost in Yonkers—I love the word Yonkers and I wanted to put the play in a specific place. I said to myself, What in Yonkers? These boys are lost, Bella is lost, this family is all lost . . . in Yonkers. Jake’s Women is literally about a man named Jake and three women.

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 XIV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare On Playwriting VIII

June 6, 2012

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.