Tom Stoppard On Playwriting

July 13, 2011

Adapted from: Is ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ a Shaggy Dog Story?

By Angeline Goreau, The New York Times, August 9, 19982

“Hound” is timeless in the truly pejorative sense . . . incapable of change. It doesn’t lend itself to deep scrutiny. It’s an entertainment, just like a mechanical toy. It waves a flag, squeaks and turns a turtle and carries on. It’s a logical structure with a vein of parody going through it. There’s no reason to write a play like that. It’s an enjoyment. And that is what it is. One hopes it will work out all right, because in the nature of theater there’s this interesting transition between the text and the event. The ball can be dropped in many different ways. Or not dropped.

I don’t trust writer’s who wax confidently about what they do and why they do it. In writing plays, I find that the problems — if that’s what they are — are very mundane, and in a way surface. The wellspring of a play is often curiously uninteresting — it derives from insubstantial stray images and ideas, What it doesn’t arise from at all, I don’t think, is anything like a complete sense of the whole. You know, What am I going to try to achieve here? What is it going to be about underneath?

I seldom worry about underneath. Even when I’m aware that there is an underneath. I tend to try and suppress it further under, because theater is a wonderfully, refreshingly simple event. It’s a storytelling event. The story holds or it doesn’t . . .  The same would be true of a short story or a novel.

The first idea I had was that I’d like to write a play in which the first scene turned out to have been written by a character in the second scene. That was all I started with. There is a strong — not autobiographical element — but a strong editorial element because the man spouts opinions generally which I subscribe to. So in that sense there’s a lot of me in it, more than in most plays, but only by virtue of the fact that the protagonist is a writer in London in 1980-odd.

“Hapgood” has a physicist in it, who talks about physics a bit. But I don’t think that actually is the problem. The intricacies of the spy plot are quite difficult. I think I’m not as good as John le Carré at doing that kind of story. But I find I’m talking about the play as though it failed in some way for me. In fact, I’m interested by it in so far as it succeeded.

One of the built-in ironies of being a playwright at all is that one is constantly trying to put into dramatic form questions and answers that require perhaps an essay, perhaps a book, but are too important and too subtle, really, to have to account for themselves within the limitations of what’s really happening in the theater, which is that the story is being told in dialogue.

(I use) this ill-suited medium (to account for) matters like morality or empire, or the authenticity of romantic love (with the reservation) that failure is almost built into a play if that is its true purpose, its true function. And so one avoids failure if one can, by denying that that is the function of the play. And one says that, no, that was merely an aspect or a sidelight of the play’s function and the primary function is to tell an entertaining story.

My primary delight, which is a good enough word for the fuel that one needs to do any work at all, is in using the language rather than the purpose to which language is put . . . and more than language, I would say theater — the way theater works, through disclosure and surprise.

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.


August Wilson On Playwriting

July 6, 2011

Adapted from: How to Write A Play Like August Wilson

The New York Times, March 10, 1991

When I discovered the word breakfast, and I discovered that it was two words, I think then I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I start — generally I have an idea of something I want to say — but I start with a line of dialogue. I have no idea half the time who’s speaking or what they’re saying. I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters. For instance, in writing the play “The Piano Lesson,” one of the characters, Bernice, says something to Boy Willie, her brother, and he talks about how “Sutter fell in the well.” Well, this is a surprise to me. I didn’t know that.

Then I say, “Well, who is Sutter?” You see, if you have a character in a play, the character who knows everything, then you won’t have any problem. Whenever you get stuck you ask them a question. I have learned that if you trust them and simply do not even think about what they’re saying, it doesn’t matter. They say things like “Sutter fell in the well.” You just write it down and make it all make sense later. So I use those characters a lot. Anything you want to know you ask the characters.

Part of my process is that I assemble all these things and later try to make sense out of them and sort of plug them in to what is my larger artistic agenda. That agenda is answering James Baldwin when he called for “a profound articulation of the black tradition,” which he defined as “that field of manners and ritual of intercourse that will sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.”

As for the characters, they are all invented. At the same time they are all made up out of myself, so they’re all me, different aspects of my personality, I guess. But I don’t say, “Oh, I know a guy like this. I’m going to write Joe.” Some people do that. I can’t do that. So I write different parts of myself and I try to invent or discover some other parts.

In terms of influence on my work, I have what I call my four B’s: Romare Bearden (the artist); Imamu Amiri Baraka, the writer; Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer; and the biggest B of all: the blues.

In my own work, what I hope to do is to “place” the tradition of black American culture, to demonstrate its ability to sustain us. We have a ground  that is specific, that is peculiarly ours, that we can stand on, which gives us a world view, to look at the world and to comment on it. I’m just trying to place the world of that culture on stage and to demonstrate its existence and maybe also indicate some directions toward which we as a people might possibly move.

In “The Piano Lesson,” where  you have a brother and sister arguing over a piano that is a family heirloom, and each with different ideas of ways to use it, the ending was a very difficult thing because I didn’t want to choose sides.

We had about five different endings to the play. But it was always the same ending: I wanted Boy Willie to demonstrate a willingness to battle with Sutter’s ghost, the ghost of the white man — that lingering idea of him as the master of slaves — which is still in black Americans’ lives and needs to be exorcised.

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.


Joyce Carol Oates On Playwriting

June 29, 2011

Adapted from: A Novelist Finds the Bare Bones of a Play

The New York Times, November 18, 1990

As soon as you begin the task of adaptation, you discover that it isn’t “adapting” but “transposing” you must do. The essential difference between prose fiction and drama, is that in prose fiction it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue, action, subterranean-subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized.

Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic experience. It is communal; its meeting ground is the point at which the sheerly (sic) imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashback, flash-forwards, digressions and analyses, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force-fields of emotion are almost visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it is in purely emotional terms.

Drama is our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of the mystery of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.

When I write for the theater, I write reaching out in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not at all to say that I am without a deep, abiding, and even stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound.

When I saw “The Triumph of the Spider Monkey,” it was no longer my play; “my” play consisted of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in proportion to how much I was surprised by it.

Except for “In Darkest America,” most of my plays have been adaptations of short stories. The linked monologues of “I Stand Before You Naked” . . . began as a form I call miniature narratives, in which character is reduced to an essence, and dramatized in the smallest possible period of time. I wanted to dissolve the distance between speaker and audience — between object (the other) and subject (this phenomenon of personality we call “I”).

In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are told not by us bu by way of us — “drama” is our realization of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously this involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can only happen when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.

In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over . . . Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there is no final, fully realized performance.

I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am not the playwright, nor even a quivering net of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.

Someone recently asked me, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My answer was a mildly puzzled, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”

I am the most agreeable of playwrights. To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.

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.


Sam Shepard On Playwriting II

May 11, 2011

Adapted from: Rhythm & Truths

By Amy Lippman, American Theatre, April 1984

I think for me, every play has its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and tempo. That’s the fascination of it. It’s like people who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins to speak to them . . . . I think a play is like that. What you’re trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting. You’re trying to have a meeting with this thing that’s already taking place. So, I can’t really say that I have a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a middle and an end . . . . A play’s like music — ephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time. You never reach a final point with it.

It (myth) means a lot to me. One thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing down a very specific knowledge . . . . . The thing that’s powerful about a myth is that it’s the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time . . . . Well, hopefully in writing a play, you can snare emotions that aren’t just personal emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological emotions that you’re getting off your chest, but emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody . . . . If you’re only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy or something?

Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it; I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.

I think it’s more like music. If you play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays an instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to play music, it’s really interesting to see where that music goes between two musicians. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before. You see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set them in motion. It’s very interesting to follow this thing that they’re on. It’s a great adventure — it’s like getting on a wild horse.

If there’s no relationship on stage, there’s not going to be any in the theatre. But that has to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit down on stage as two actors, and we don’t have a relationship, what’s the point? A relationship’s both invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see it between actors. You can also see the absence of it. If it’s there, the audience is related immediately.

Well, I’ve always had a problem with endings  . . . But you have to stop at some point just to let people out of the theatre . . . . So True West doesn’t really have an ending; it has a confrontation. A resolution isn’t an ending; it’s a strangulation.

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.


Sam Shepard On Playwriting

April 27, 2011

Adapted from: Silent Tongues

By Carol Rosen, The Village Voice, August 4, 1992

I’m interested in effects only to the extent that they serve some purpose of emotional terrain. Developing a new style of theater is not something I’m interested in.

I don’t see where these distinctions lie, really, between so-called realism and super-realism and naturalism and surrealism and absurd-ism.

The ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self. Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed. Myth in its truest form has been demolished. It doesn’t exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don’t connect with anything. We’ve lost touch with the essence of myth.

I don’t think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals . . . . character is something that can’t be helped . . . like destiny. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared with character they’re not even in the same ballpark. . . . . Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

I guess when you start something, you always kind of have a half-baked notion about what you hope it to be. But it may not go in that direction at all. It may go somewhere completely different, which isn’t to say that you failed, it’s just that it turns and becomes something . . . But I think one of the thrills about writing is to remain open to all its possibilities, and not to try to put a bridle on it and squeeze it down into what your notion of it is. Not to say that you lose control, but I think you have to remain open.

Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O’Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying, well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he’s really talking the way he would be talking in real life. What the hell is that? Why doesn’t he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls, and then come back and sit down and . . . You know what I mean? . . . . And I think a lot back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

I don’t hang out with playwrights. I can’t say I dislike them, but for the most part theater doesn’t interest me. I like writing plays because they have so much movement, there’s so much possibility of movement, and language moves. But I’m not a theater buff. Most theater bores the hell out of me. But I do like the possibilities. I think of all the forms that we’ve got now, probably theater has more possibilities than anything else. Really. Of real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience.

Writers are isolated individuals, for good reason . . . . That’s what writing is, an act of isolation. You either accept it or you don’t. I don’t think there’s any complaining about it.

I hate endings. You have to end it somehow. I like beginnings. Middles are tough, but endings are just a pain in the ass. It’s very hard to end stuff . . . . Because the temptation always is a sense that you’re supposed to wrap it up somehow. You’re supposed to culminate it in something fruitful. And it always feels so phony when you try to wrap it all up.

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.