Bertolt Brecht on Playwriting III

October 23, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Brecht1Our own period,  which is transforming nature in so many and different ways, takes pleasure in understanding things so that we can intervene. There is a great deal to man, we say; so a great deal can be made out of him. He does not have to stay the way he is now, nor does he have to be seen only as he is now, but also as he might become. We must not start with him; we must start on him. This means, however, that I must not simply set myself in his place, but must set myself facing him, to represent us all. That is why the theatre must make what it shows seem strange.

It is an oversimplication if we make the actions fit the character and the character fit the actions; the inconsistencies which are to be found in the actions and characters of real people cannot be shown like that. The laws of motion of a society are not to be demonstrated by “perfect examples,” for “imperfection” (inconsistency) is an essential part both of motion and of the thing moved. it is only necessary—but absolutely necessary—that there should be something approaching experimental conditions; i.e., that a counter-experiment should now and then be conceivable. In short, this is a way of treating society as thought all its actions were performed as experiments.

The coherence of the character is in fact shown by the way in which its individual qualities conflict with one another.

Observation is a major part of acting. The actor observes his fellow-men with all his nerves and muscles, in an act of imitation which is at the same time a process of the mind. For pure imitation would only bring out what had been observed; and this is not enough, because the original says what it has to say with too subdued a voice. To achieve a character rather than a caricature, the actor looks at people as though they were playing him their actions, in other words as though they were advising him to give their actions careful consideration.

Without opinions and objectives one can represent nothing at all. Without knowledge one can show nothing; how could one know what would be worth knowing? Unless the actor is satisfied to be a parrot or a monkey he must master out period’s knowledge of human social life by himself joining in the war of the classes. Some people may feel this to be degrading, because they rank art, once the financial side has been settled, among the Highest Things; but mankind’s highest decisions are in fact fought out on earth, not in the heavens; in the “external” world, not inside people’s heads. Nobody can stand above the human race. Society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring classes. For art to be “unpolitical” means only that it should ally itself with the ruling group.

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 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.


Neil Simon On Playwriting IV

July 25, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

(T)here are various styles and attitudes towards comedy . . . . In Prisoner of Second Avenue you knew there were terrible things tormenting Peter Falk. He sat down on a sofa that had stacks of pillows, like every sofa in the world, and he took one pillow after the other and started throwing them angrily saying, “You pay eight hundred for a sofa and you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back! There is no joke there. Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me—saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. People come up to you after the show and say, I’ve always thought that, but I never knew anyone else thought it. It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.

I try never to think of jokes as jokes. I confess that in the early days, when I came from television, plays like Come Blow Your Horn would have lines you could lift out that would be funny in themselves. That to me would be a “joke,” which I would try to remove. In The Odd Couple Oscar had a line about Felix, “He’s so panicky he wears his seatbelt at a drive-in movie.” That could be a Bob Hope joke. I left it in because I couldn’t find anything to replace it.

Those quick lines, the one-liners attributed to me for so many years—I think they come purely out of character, rather than out of a joke. Walter Kerr once came to my aid by saying “to be or not to be” is a one-liner. If it’s a dramatic moment no one calls it a one-liner. If it gets a laugh, suddenly it’s a one-liner. I think one of the complaints of critics is that the people in my plays are funnier than they would be in life, but have you ever seen Medea? The characters are a lot more dramatic in that than they are in life.

What I try to do is make dialogue come purely out of character, so that one character could never say the lines that belong to another character. If it’s funny, it’s because I’m telling a story about characters in whom I may find a rich vein of humor. When I started writing plays I was warned by people like Lillian Hellman, “You do not mix comedy with drama.” But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play? The very first person I showed Come Blow Your Horn to was Herman Shumlin, the director of Hellman’s The Little Foxes. He said, I like the play, I like the people, but I don’t like the older brother. I said, What’s wrong with him? He said, Well, it’s a comedy. We have to like everybody. I said, In life do we have to like everybody? In the most painful scene in Lost in Yonkers, Bella, who is semiretarded, is trying to tell the family that the boy she wants to marry is also retarded. It’s a poignant situation and yet the information that slowly comes out—and the way the family is third-degreeing her—becomes hilarious because it’s mixed with someone else’s pain. I find that what is most poignant is often most funny.

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 V of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting

July 4, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

As many plays as I’ve written—twenty-seven, twenty-eight—I can’t recollect a moment when I’ve said, This would make a good play. I never sit down and write bits and pieces of dialogue. What I might do is make a few notes on who’s in the play, the characters I want, where it takes place, and the general idea of it. I don’t make any outlines at all. I just like to plunge in. I’ll start right from page one because I want to hear how the people speak. Are they interesting enough for me? Have I captured them? It goes piece by piece, brick by brick. I don’t know that I have a play until I’ve reached thirty, thirty-five pages.

I think about thematic plays but I don’t believe I write them. Nothing really takes shape until I become specific about the character and the dilemma he’s in. Dilemma is the key word. It is always a dilemma, not a situation. To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the theme of the play is until I’ve written it and the critics tell me.

In Broadway Bound I wanted to show the anatomy of writing comedy—with the older brother teaching Eugene, which was the case with my brother Danny and me. Stan keeps asking Eugene for the essential ingredient in comedy and when Eugene can’t answer, Stan says, “Conflict!” When he asks for the other key ingredient, and Eugene can only come up with, “More conflict?” Stan says, “The key word is wants. In every comedy, even drama, somebody has to want something and want it bad. When somebody tries to stop him—that’s conflict.” By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind. All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself. You go by sequential activity. One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict. As Stan says, it’s got to be a very, very strong conflict, not one that allows the characters to say, Forget about this! I’m walking out. They’ve got to stay there and fight it out to the end.

I’ve got infinitely more plays in the drawer than have seen the lights of the stage. Most of them never come out of the drawer, but occasionally one will and it amazes me how long it has taken to germinate and blossom. The best example would be Brighton Beach Memoirs. I wrote the first thirty-five pages of the play and gave it to my children, Nancy and Ellen, and Marsha, my wife at the time. They read it and said, This is incredible. You’ve got to go on with it. I showed it to my producer, Manny Azenberg and to Gordon Davidson, and they said, This is going to be a great play. I knew the play was a turn in style for me, probing more deeply into myself, but maybe the pressure of the words great play scared me, so I put it away. Periodically, I would take it out and read it and I wouldn’t know how to do it. After nine years I took it out one day, read the thirty-five pages, picked up my pen and the pad I write on and finished the play in six weeks. I have the feeling that in the back of your mind there’s a little writer who writes while you’re doing other things, because I had no trouble at that point. Obviously, what had happened in the ensuing years in my life made clear to me what it should be about. Somewhere in the back of my head I grew up, I matured. I was ready to write that play.

Sometimes it helps to have some encouragement. Once I was having dinner with Mike Nichols and he asked, What are you doing? I said, I’m working on a play about two ex-vaudevillians who haven’t worked together or seen each other in eleven years and they get together to do an Ed Sullivan Show. He said, That sounds wonderful. Go back and finish it. So I did. It was as though a critic had already seen the play and said, I love it.

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 II of this Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


David Mamet On Playwriting III

December 28, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

Drama has to do with circumstance, tragedy has to do with individual choice. The precipitating element of a drama can be a person’s sexuality, their wealth, their disease . . . A tragedy can’t be about any of those things. That’s why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero—we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves. That’s why it’s easier for the audiences initially to form an affection for the drama rather than the tragedy.

Glengarry . . .  falls into a very specific American genre—the gang drama or the gang comedy . . . . These are slice-of-life plays investigating a milieu of society. A good example is Lower Depths, where the protagonist is elaborated into many parts. In a comedy of manners like Don Quixote, for example, we understand that the sidekick is just another aspect of the protagonist, just like everybody in our dreams is an aspect of us. A tragedy has to be the attempt of one specific person to obtain one specific goal, and when he either gets it or doesn’t get it, then we know the play is over, and we can go home and put out the baby-sitter.

People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me . . . . That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.

You know, also being a very proud son of a bitch, I always thought that the trick was to be able to do it on a bare stage, with nothing but one or two actors. If one could do it like that, then one has done something to keep the audience’s attention, make it pay off over an hour and a half, on a bare stage with nothing but two people talking.

I knew I wanted to be in the theater, but I also knew I was a terrible actor. So I started, by dribs and drabs, forming a theater company that I could direct, because I figured it was something I could do . . . I didn’t really start writing till I was in my twenties. And I started because the company, the St. Nicholas Theatre, couldn’t pay any royalties—we didn’t have any money. I was very fortunate, coming from Chicago, because we had that tradition there of writing as a legitimate day-to-day skill, like bricklaying. You know, you need to build a house but you can’t afford it, or you need to build a garage but you can’t afford a bricklayer. Well, hell, figure out how to lay bricks. You need a script, well, hell, figure out how to write one. There was a great tradition flourishing in Chicago in the early seventies of the theater as an organic unit . . . . Everybody did everything. There was no mystery about it. One week one guy would be the director, the next week the woman would be the director and the guy would be acting, etcetera. So that was the community and the tradition that I came back to in the seventies in Chicago.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the last installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Friedrich Hebbel On Playwriting

November 9, 2011

By Friedrich Hebbel, 1813-1863, translated by Eric Bentley

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, New York, 1983

A genuine drama is comparable to one of those big buildings which have almost as many rooms and corridors below ground as above ground. People in general are aware only of the latter; the master builder of the former as well.

The devil take what nowadays passes for beautiful language! This language in drama is the conunterpart of “How beautifully put!” in conversation. Chintz, chintz and more chintz! It may glitter but it gives no heat.

Form is the expression of necessity. Best definition: Content presents the task; form, the solution.

Bad playwrights with good heads give us their scheme instead of characters and their system instead of passions.

In Shakespeare we find, amid the great wealth, the most miserly economy. In general a sign of the highest genius.

Dramatic deeds are not the ones that go straight ahead like bullets.

Drama shouldn’t present new stories but new relationships.

In the drama, what we see as bad we must also see as good.

All dramatic art has to do with impropriety and incomprehension, for what is more improper and uncomprehending than passion?

By shortening a play, you can lengthen it.

In drama no character should ever utter a thought; from the thought in a play come the speeches of all the characters.

The worst plays often start out like the best ones. The battle that’s most ignominiously lost starts out with thunder and lightning just like the one that will be most gloriously won.

Let the What in drama be known and throw no shadows; but not the How.

We know that a man must die; we don’t know what fever he will die of.

The bad conscience of mankind invented tragedy.

Ideas are to drama what counterpoint is to music: nothing in themselves but the sine qua non for everything.

Every genuine comic figure must resemble the hunchback who’s in love with himself.

In modern French plays, morality is the orange in the dead pigs mouth.

You can’t  have a play without ideas, any more than a living man without air. But does it follow that, because there’s earth, fire, air, and water in a man, he is nothing but a receptacle for these four elements?

Monologues: pure  respirations of the soul.

To present the necessary in the form of the accidental: that is the whole secret of dramatic style.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Edward Albee on Playwriting

July 27, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

The action is the subject of the play. When people ask me what my plays are about, I say, “Well, it’s about what happens from the beginning to the end.” Symbolism, metaphor, and meaning are not my concern — they should be inevitable results of the action, not something that is put in or layered on . . . I said that to someone a long time ago, when I had been asked once too often why I chose the names George and Martha (as in Washington), and so now I hear it coming back at me. Well, it’s a perfectly sensible explanation, if you think about it, but the point is that I made the implications up afterward. I also discovered after I wrote the play that it examines humanism and totalitarianism, but I would have failed utterly if, during the course of a performance, someone in the audience nudged their buddy and whispered, “Hey, this play examines humanism and totalitarianism.”

People have such different vocabularies and rhythms. Particularly rhythm: Rhythm almost by itself is the basis for regionalism in speaking style. But if you cover the names of the characters in an O’Neill play, you can’t tell who’s talking.

You hear a play, even when you read it on the page.

Dialogue, like music, consists of sound and silence.

Subtext . . . is everything about the life of your character which is not revealed in the play — and you create it because God knows when you’ll need to use it .

All creative people are schizophrenic. We see ourselves doing things at the same time that we are actually doing them. If you’re making love, you back off and see it as a play. It can be kind of unnerving at first — you wonder, “Can I get back?” Well, you can. It’s a healthy kind of schizophrenia.

If you limit yourself to what you know you can do, you’ll never grow. The very best plays, apart from the exceedingly rare absolute masterpieces, are wonderful failures.

When you sit down to write, you’re writing the first play ever written by anyone. At that point, clear everything out of your head, be alone, and hear your own voice.

Know the competition from the beginning of history (and) steal shrewdly. If you steal well, they’ll say you were “influenced.” If you do it badly, they’ll call it plagiarism. But it should never really be plagiarism, because the natural playwright, by some process of alchemy, will synthesize his influence into his own voice.

Never trust anyone who tells you, “That’s too complex, simplify that.” Listen if they tell you it’s unclear. But if they say it’s too complex, then you’ve probably got something good, and you should fight to keep it. They’re just trying to make it safe and easy.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.