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.



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.


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 X

September 5, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

Felix in The Odd Couple isn’t a watcher—or a doer. He’s stuck. He’s reached a certain point in his life and developed no further. Most of my characters are people who are stuck and can’t move. The grandmother in Lost in Yonkers has been stuck for the last seventy years. The mother in Broadway Bound—she’s really stuck.

I never think of the plays as being hits when I write them. Well, I thought Rumors, of all plays, would be a really good commercial comedy if I wrote it well. I thought The Odd Couple was a black comedy. I never thought it was going to be popular, ever.

I thought The Sunshine Boys wouldn’t be a popular play, but it was very well received. Chapter Two was another one I doubted, because when you touch on a character’s guilt, you touch on the audience’s guilt, and that makes them uncomfortable. Yet the play turned out to be very successful because it was a universal theme. Lost in Yonkers is an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays. What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian—two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.

I wrote The Good Doctor soon after I learned my wife had a year and a half to live . . . . I was reading Chekhov’s short stories and decided, just for practice, to translate one of them into my own language, my own humor. I knew it was a diversion. After a performance, a woman grabbed me in the foyer and said, This is not Neil Simon!

God’s Favorite is an absurdist black comedy about Job that was written as an outcry of anger against Joan’s death. My belief in God had vanished when this beautiful young girl was dying . . . . so, I wrote . . . a black comedy and it did help me get through that period. Sometimes you write a play just for the sake of working at it.

With Lost in Yonkers I suddenly heard from critics who said, This is a new voice for Neil Simon. We want you to go deeper and deeper into this area. At the same time other critics complained . . . . It’s not as funny as the old plays. They wanted Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. I could have spent my whole life writing the Barefoot in the Parks and Odd Couples, which I certainly don’t denigrate, because I love them—but where would I have gone with my life? I would have been standing still, grinding out the same story time after time after time.

What I’ve done, I think, is take the best of me and the best of my observations and try to deepen them to reform them and reflesh them. At some point along the way you discover what it is you do best.

Recently I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett’s biography. When he was about forty-four years old, he said he wanted to write monologue. It was his way of expressing himself to the world. He was shy too. In a sense, I think many of my plays are dramatized monologues. It’s like sitting around the fire and telling you the story of my life.

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 XI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting VII

August 15, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

This will give you an indication of how little I thought my career would amount to. I thought The Odd Couple would probably be the end of my career, so it wouldn’t make any difference that I had used Felix Ungar in Come Blow Your Horn. It was a name that seemed to denote the prissiness of Felix, the perfect contrast to the name of Oscar. Oscar may not sound like a strong name, but it did to me—maybe because of the k sound in it . . . . k cuts through the theater. You say a k-word, and they can hear it.

I have this office. There are four or five rooms in it and no one is here but me. No secretary, no one, and I’ve never once in the many years that I’ve come here ever felt lonely or even alone. I come in and the room is filled with—as corny as it might sound—these characters I’m writing, who are waiting each day for me to arrive and give them life. I’ve also written on airplanes, in dentist’s offices, on subways. I think it’s true for many writers. You blank out whatever is in front of your eyes. That’s why you see writers staring off into space. They’re not looking at “nothing,” they’re visualizing what they’re thinking. I never visualize what a play will look like on stage, I visualize what it looks like in life. I visualize being in that room where the mother is confronting the father.

I wrote my early plays at the typewriter because it was what writers looked like in His Girl Friday . . . . But my back started to get so bad from bending over a typewriter eight hours a day . . . so I started to write in pads. Then a curious thing happened. I was in England and found that they have pads over there with longer pages and thinner spaces between the lines. I liked that because I could get much more on a single page. At a single glance I could see the rhythm of the speeches. If they’re on a smaller page with wide spaces you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. You have to keep turning . . . . Sometimes I write on both sides of the page, but I always leave myself lots of room to make notes and cross things out. I’ll write about three pages, then go to the typewriter and type that out. Then the next day I’ll read those three pages again and maybe not like them and go back to the notebook—write it out, make changes, and then retype it. The typing is boring for me, but I can’t use a word processor. It feels inhuman. It seems to me that every script comes out of a computer looking like it was written by the same person. My typewriter has its own characteristics, its own little foibles. Even there, I black out parts and write marginal notes. I’d like it to be neat, but I don’t like to send it to a professional typist because they invariably correct my purposely made grammatical errors. I try to write the way people speak, not the way people should speak.

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 VIII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting VI

August 8, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

Very often you find that you’ve written past the end and you say, Wait a minute, it ended here. When I started to write Plaza Suite it was going to be a full three-act play. The first act was about a wife who rents the same suite she and her husband honeymooned in at the Plaza Hotel twenty-three years ago. In the course of the act the wife finds out that the husband is having an affair with his secretary and at the end of the act the husband walks out the door as champagne and hors d’oeuvres arrive. The waiter asks, Is he coming back? and the wife says, Funny you should ask that. I wrote that and said to myself, That’s the end of the play . . . . I purposely won’t think of the ending because I’m afraid if I know, even subliminally, it’ll sneak into the script and the audience will know where the play is going. As a matter of fact, I never know where the play is going in the second act.

I had an interesting problem when I was writing Rumors. I started off with just a basic premise: I wanted to do an elegant farce. I wrote it right up to the last two pages of the play, the denouement in which everything has to be explained—and I didn’t know what it was! I said to myself, Today’s the day I have to write the explanation. All right, just think it out. I couldn’t think it out. . . . . (But) I kept going until everything made sense. That method takes either insanity or egocentricity—or a great deal of confidence. It’s like building a bridge over water without knowing if there’s land on the other side. But I do have confidence that when I get to the end of the play, I will have gotten so deeply into the characters and the situation I’ll find the resolution.

Sometimes I’ll write something and say, Right now this doesn’t mean very much but I have a hunch that later on in the play it will mean something. The thing I always do is play back on things I set up without any intention in the beginning. The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes. Whenever I get in trouble in the second act, I go back to the first act. The answers always lie there. One of the lines people have most often accused me of working backwards from is Felix Ungar’s note to Oscar in The Odd Couple. In the second act, Oscar has reeled off the laundry list of complaints he has about Felix, including “the little letters you leave me.” Now, when Felix is leaving one of those notes, telling Oscar they’re all out of cornflakes, I said to myself, How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar. So I signed it “Mr. Ungar.” Then I tried “Felix Ungar.” Then I tried “F.U.” and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room. When Oscar says, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar,” it always gets this huge laugh.

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 VII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting II

July 11, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

For years I’ve been trying to write the play of what happened to me and the seven writers who wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But I’ve never got past page twenty-two because there are seven conflicts rather than one main conflict . . . . I didn’t have somebody to be serious, to anchor it. I always have to find the anchor. I have to find the Greek chorus in the play, the character who either literally talks to the audience or talks to the audience in a sense . . . . More recently, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, I’ve been literally talking to the audience, through the character of Eugene, because it is the only way I can express the writer’s viewpoint.

The writer has inner thoughts and they are not always articulated on the stage—and I want the audience to be able to get inside his head. It’s what I did in Jake’s Women. In the first try out in San Diego the audience didn’t know enough about Jake because all he did was react to the women in his life, who were badgering him, trying to get him to open up. We didn’t know who Jake was. So I introduced the device of him talking to the audience. Then he became the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knew things I never thought I would reveal about Jake—and possibly about myself.

Steven Spielberg, who had gone to see Brighton Beach, got word to me, suggesting the next play should be about my days in the army. I was already thinking about that and I started to write Biloxi Blues, which became a play about Eugene’s rites of passage. I discovered something very important in the writing of Biloxi Blues. Eugene, who keeps a diary, writes in it his belief that Epstein is homosexual. When the other boys in the barracks read the diary and assume it’s true, Eugene feels terrible guilt. He’s realized the responsibility of putting something down on paper, because people tend to believe everything they read.

I’ve always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, This is what they say now. This is what they say next. Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn . . .  I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play . . . . I didn’t get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in . . . . They said, No, no, no. This is where I want to go. So, I started following them. In the second play, Barefoot in the Park, I outlined the first two acts . . . .  I never got through that outline either. In The Odd Couple, I outlined the first act. After a while I got tired of doing even that. I said, I want to be as surprised as anyone else.

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 III of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.