Thornton Wilder On Playwriting II

October 12, 2011

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

(Continued from last Wednesday.)

Characterization in a novel is presented by the author’s dogmatic assertion that the personage was such, and by an analysis of the personage with generally an account of his or her past. Since, in the drama, this is replaced by the actual presence of the personage before us and since there is no occasion for the intervening all-knowing author to instruct us as to his or her inner nature, a far greater share is given in a play to 1) highly characteristic utterances and 2) concrete occasions in which the character defines itself under action and 3) a conscious preparation of the text whereby the actor may build upon the suggestions in the role according to his own abilities.

The dramatist’s principal interest being the movement of the story, he is willing to resign the more detailed aspects of characterization to the actor and is often rewarded beyond his expectation.

But a play presupposes a crowd. The reasons for this go deeper than 1) the economic necessity for the support of the play and 2) the fact that the temperament of actors is proverbially dependent on group attention. It rests on the fact that 1) the pretense, the fiction, on the stage would fall to pieces and absurdity without the support accorded to it by a crowd, and 2) the excitement induced by pretending a fragment of life is such that it partakes of ritual and festival, and requires a throng.

During the last rehearsals the phrase is often heard: “This play is hungry for an audience.”

Since the theatre is directed to a group-mind, a number of consequences follow: 1) A group-mind presupposes, if not a lowering of standards, a broadening of the fields of interest . . . 2) It is the presence of the group-mind that brings another requirement to the theatre — forward movement . . . Drama on the stage is inseparable from forward movement, from action . . . and an action that is more than a mere progress in argumentation and debate.

The theatre is a world of pretense. It lives by conventions: a convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, a permitted lie . . . The stage is fundamental pretense and it thrives on the acceptance of that fact and in the multiplication of additional pretenses. When it tries to assert that the personages in the action “really are,” really inhabit such and such rooms, really suffer such and such emotions, it loses rather than gains credibility.

The novel is a past reported in the present. On the stage it is always now. This confers upon the action an increased vitality which the novelist longs in vain to incorporate into his work . . . In the theatre we are not aware of the intervening storyteller. The speeches arise from the characters in an apparently pure spontaneity. A play is what takes place. A novel is what one person tells us took place.

Many dramatists have regretted (the) absence of the narrator from the stage, with his point of view, his powers of analyzing the behavior of the characters, his ability to interfere and supply further facts about the past, about simultaneous actions not visible on the stage, and above all his function of pointing the moral and emphasizing the significance of the action . . . But surely this absence constitutes an additional force to the form, as well as an additional tax upon the writer’s skill. It is the task of the dramatist so to co-ordinate his play, through the selection of episodes and speeches, that, though he is himself not visible, his point of view and his governing intention will impose themselves on the spectator’s attention, not as dogmatic assertion or motto, but as self-evident truth and inevitable deduction.

Its justification lies in the fact that the communication of ideas from one mind to another inevitably reaches the point where exposition passes into illustration, into parable, metaphor, allegory, and myth.

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.


Thornton Wilder On Playwriting

October 5, 2011

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

Four fundamental conditions of the drama separate it from the other arts. Each of these conditions has its advantages and disadvantages, each requires a particular aptitude from the dramatist, and from each there are a number of instructive consequences to be derived. These conditions are:

1) The theatre is an art which reposes upon the art of many collaborators;

2) It is addressed to the group-mind;

3) It is based upon a pretense and its very nature calls out a multiplication of pretenses;

4) Its action takes place in a perpetual present time.

The dramatist through working in the theatre gradually learns not merely to take account of the presence of the collaborators, but to derive advantage from them; and he learns, above all, to organize the play in such a way that its strength lies not in appearances beyond his control, but in the succession of events and in the unfolding of an idea, in narration.

The gathered audience sits in a darkened room, one end of which is lighted. The nature of the transaction at which it is gazing is a succession of events illustrating a general idea — the stirring of the idea; the gradual feeding out of information; the shock and countershock of circumstances; the flow of action; the interruption of action; the moments of allusion to earlier events; the preparation of surprise, dread, or delight — all that is the author’s and his alone.

It is just because the theatre is an art of many collaborators, with the constant danger of grave misinterpretation, that the dramatist learns to turn his attention to the laws of narration, its logic and its deep necessity of presenting a unifying idea stronger than its mere collection of happenings. The dramatist must be by instinct a storyteller.

There is something mysterious about the endowment of the story teller . . . It springs, not, as some have said, from an aversion to general ideas, but from an instinctive coupling of idea and illustration; the idea for a born storyteller, can only be expressed imbedded in its circumstantial illustration . . . introduced into his work by the presence of his collaborators . . . The chief of these collaborators are the actors.

The actor’s gift is a combination of three separate faculties . . .

1) An observant and analyzing eye for all modes of behavior about us, for dress and manner, and for the signs of thought and emotion in one’s self and in others.

2) The strength of imagination and memory whereby the actor may, at the indication in the author’s text, explore his store of observation and represent the details of appearance and the intensity of the emotions — joy, fear, surprise, grief, love, and hatred, and through imagination extend them to intenser degrees and to differing characterizations.

3) A physical co-ordination whereby the force of these inner realizations may be communicated to voice, face, and body.

A dramatist prepares the characterization of his personages in such a way that it will take advantage of the actor’s gift.

(To Be continued next Wednesday.)

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 V

June 1, 2011

Adapted from: Sam Shepard, Story Teller

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, November 13, 1994

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.

For one thing, (theater) allows you to explore language, which film doesn’t. Film is anti-language . . . Theater combines everything for me, anyway . . . It’s like you pick up a saxophone and you play a saxophone and that’s it. It’s a partnership. I feel at home with it . . . All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very close to music.

It’s a funny thing about freedom with actors. You invite them into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question of how far you let them go into that territory before you start shaping it. I’m a firm believer that so-called blocking doesn’t come out of the director. If the actor has any kind of chops at all, he’s going to find his way around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors around the stage like a general is not my idea of a director.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over a long time is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about storytelling. You know, in the 60’s everybody was down on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure. There was a huge breakaway with those European writers like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel . . . I think you need to include all these notions that at one time you rejected as being part of the established order of things. There’s no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in the foot.

The odd thing to me is I think all of those relationships are inside other relationships. Two friends can have a father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those things aren’t necessarily expressed by external character. There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man, and that’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie. I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that coming from? That’s the mystery. That’s what’s so fascinating.

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.


Do You Love Me Or What?

November 6, 2008

Scene From A Failed Play

There are times when failure is more interesting than success, especially to the person who created the mess—which in this case is me. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have been produced in the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, but the one I like best—the one that I think is the most original and accomplished—is one of the two that were rejected. The following is a scene from that play.

SETTING: A modern living groom.

CHARACTERS: ALUNA, female; SKILLET, male; and PASSIE, female; all three attractive thirty-something’s.

ALUNA ENTERS with PASSIE close behind. ALUNA pauses to pick up a gift-wrapped package from the coffee table. She opens it and looks at the contents with mild disgust, then drops it in a wastebasket. PASSIE arranges herself on the sofa as ALUNA straightens the magazines on the coffee table, then she goes to the door and peers through the peephole. After a beat ALUNA turns to face PASSIE and speaks.

ALUNA: Damn—you’re still out there!

PASSIE (nods and smiles): Yep.

ALUNA (again looking through the peephole): You’re hugging the wall, trying to blend in with the paint. This lens makes you look all distorted—thin on top, fat in the middle, thin again at your legs and feet. (ALUNA turns to face PASSIE, continuing): And your face is red and puffy like you’ve been crying.

PASSIE (formal): I expect that’s because I’m concerned about the nature of your interest in my husband.

ALUNA: Your husband? Where did you get him—at the Husband Store in the mall? Was he on sale?

PASSIE (quiet, mean): Bitch. Slut. Maggot.

ALUNA: When it comes to men, all I get is the eccentric, half-baked, pussy-whipped, mother-dominated—and/or married.

PASSIE: Lust is all it is, just animal lust.

ALUNA (laughs): That’s the best fucking reason there is—pun intended. (pause) Can’t help it if a man follows me home, wants and needs what I have. Not my fault the guy only has one brain cell with my name on it.

PASSIE: You lure him. Lure him! (pause) Skillet was raw when I found him, like something that’s been dug out of the ground, some root that when it’s refined you have something wonderful—coffee perhaps, some narcotic even—but first you have to grind it up.

ALUNA: Look, he’s a grown man—mind of his own. I know he’s not mine, but he ain’t yours, either. He’s nobody’s, right? Fair game. Nobody owns nobody.

PASSIE: He’s innocent, like a baby animal in the zoo. No history. (pause, then continuing in dreamy baby-talk) He’s my pumpkin, squeezums, honey cuddles—my duckie, my poopsie. (continuing, adult voice) At night, waking from a deep dream, he’s beside me. Lying there, I nourish him. We drift in and out of sleep. A film of moisture covers our naked flesh. (pause) There’s nothing original in that. We are ancient, repetitive. We could be any two out of millions, billions—even trillions. (pause, defensive) Hey, I don’t kid myself—I know that being a mother is one big vanity, but so what?

SKILLET ENTERS dressed only in trim boxer shorts. He’s carrying a video camera and the women ignore him as he tapes the following action:

PASSIE (continuing): I’m upholding traditional values here—sanctity of the family unit—that sort of thing. It’s my job. Some have to breed, or then what? Zero-population growth—curtains for the human race, right? (pointed, sarcastic) Not every woman is up to it, right?

ALUNA (sarcastic): Never trust a man raised by a woman.

PASSIE lunges and grabs ALUNA by the throat with both hands. They struggle and wind up on the floor, PASSIE’s knees pinning ALUNA’s arms. ALUNA squirms free and they now sit facing each other, glaring.

SKILLET continues taping for a beat but when it’s clear the fight is over he loses interest and EXITS.

ALUNA (fingering her throat): You . . . you tried to kill me! (pause, looks around ) Where’s my mirror? I’ll bet there’s marks. And they’re expecting me to show up at that damn party! (picks up mirror from end table and inspects her neck)

PASSIE (joining ALUNA on sofa, softer) I was a little angry, yes, but in complete control—didn’t mean to hurt you. (smiles) Enjoyed seeing the tip of your tongue, though, between your teeth. (pause) At least we got to know each other a bit better. (laughs) Should be friends, right?—with all we’ve got in common.

ALUNA (pointing to her neck): Look at this! Christ! (pause, then out to audience) Would you look at this?

PASSIE (shifting closer to ALUNA on the sofa): Want some tea?

ALUNA (surprised, shifts away): What?

PASSIE (after a beat, dreamy): There are people I couldn’t stand when I first met them, but now we’re friends. That happens. Loved some others and now they’re mortal enemies. You never know. (sweet smile) Who knows—maybe we’ll become fast friends. (pause) So, can I get you something? Coffee, tea or Coke? I’ve got milk. (she picks up a glass ashtray from the coffee table, distracted) We bought this on our honeymoon at Niagara Falls. (calls upstage) SKILLET! Come here and feel the ashtray! (hands ashtray to ALUNA) Feel it. (ALUNA inspects the ashtray as PASSIE continues): Nice, huh? All smooth and cold like that? Look at the bottom, what it says. (ALUNA turns the ashtray over and PASSIE continues, reciting): “Niagara Falls—Where Love Reigns.” Isn’t that sweet? Touch it to your cheek.

ALUNA (starts to the raise ashtray to her cheek, then checks herself): Just a damn minute—this is MY ashtray! (continues, pointing) MY coffee table! MY magazines! (gestures around living room) All of it! All of it! (points off) MY coffee and tea and milk in the goddamn kitchen!

PASSIE (takes an envelope from her purse and hands it to ALUNA): Snapshots. We’ve traveled all over, Skillet and me. Documented everything. (ALUNA looks at the pictures as PASSIE continues): Shots in front of every vertical object in the world, seems like—statues, fountains, cathedrals—

ALUNA (overlapping): Ha! Towers, smokestacks—a rocket on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy, and—

PASSIE (overlapping): You name it.

ALUNA (continuing): Mosques, the Washington Monu—

PASSIE (overlapping, digging in purse again): We lived in Florida for awhile. Everglades. Did a lot of stuff with gators down there. Got married up here and went down there so Skillet could meet my family of origin. (she pulls some items from her purse and hands them to ALUNA, continuing): Them’s decals from the states we traveled through—Virginia, the Carolinas’, Georgia—check ‘em out.

ALUNA (soft, humoring her): Sure. (she flips through the decals and hands them back, continuing): Nice.

PASSIE: Skillet was fun and full of surprises. He’s kiss me in unexpected places—moving conveyances, mostly. Elevators, helicopters, airport vans. We enjoyed many mutual experiences back in the day, like the time I woke up in a beach house in California, Cheese Whiz squirting from a can into my bellybutton.

ALUNA: Skillet?

PASSIE (sad, distracted): Some friend of his. Some naked woman. She smiled and kissed me. (pause, brighter): I collect state flags, too!

ALUNA (losing patience, mild sarcasm): Wonderful. You may need that memorabilia later—in case you forget who you are.

PASSIE: Exactly! That’s what it’s for. Or I’ll get a tattoo! For purposes of identification—name, rank and serial number on my arm or ankle, or . . . or . . . (trails off, then recovers with false bravado): You know, I’ve decided that unhappiness is inevitable.

ALUNA (soft): Happiness also.

PASSIE: Is that your story, you happy?

ALUNA: Hope to be, some day. Got my hopes up. (the phone rings and PASSIE leans over to answer it but ALUNA clamps her hand over it) This is MY goddamn phone!

PASSIE (freezes) But, but . . . it’s ringing!

ALUNA: So? Don’t have to respond when some stranger—god knows who—rings your goddamn bell.

ALUNA gets up from the sofa and begins to pace like a caged animal, looking at the phone with fear. It keeps ringing throughout the dialogue.

PASSIE: It’s a sin what you’re doing.

ALUNA: Fuck ‘em. They just want me for my luminosity. My goddam luminosity. They need the light. They invite me, they get the benefit. It’s a trick, a goddamn joke. (ALUNA paces for a beat or two more, then continues) Is it snowing out? (pause) If it is, they’re probably canceling the fucking party. (brighter) Hey, that’s it—don’t you think?

PASSIE: It’s summer.

ALUNA: Hurricane?

PASSIE (negative): Huh-uh.

ALUNA: Damn, damn, DAMN! (sad) Do you know what it’s like to enter a room of strangers and wonder who they think you think you are? That moment of dread? You don’t know how to act, what to say, so you stand off to one side, in a corner, back against the wall, watching. A cute guy on his way to the john tells you that you should be out in the middle of things, dancing, out there with the music and bright lights and all. (pause, angry) I hate that, him telling me that, because there’s sights to see and sounds to hear on the edge, also—alone—feelings to feel. (long pause, brighter) So he struts back out of the john, acting confident, but I know better. I know that Truth wears a mask. He’s got this damp spot on his pants leg, near the crotch. (pause) See, right there I know who he really is—just another man. So I relax, smile. He sees my smile and smiles back. ( pause, shrugs) That’s it—boy meets girl.

PASSIE: And you wind up here.

ALUNA: It was romantic. Cold spinach quiche for brunch. (giggles) Never saw the sunrise but I figure they must have had one.

PASSIE (assumes wrestling pose, hands clawing the air in front of her) You’re disgusting!

ALUNA (assumes a similar pose, sarcastic) If you wanna be virtuous, it helps if you’re ugly. (they circle for several beats, grabbing and slapping at each other)

PASSIE: Slut! Maggot! Degenerate witch!

ALUNA: Restraint is the enemy of instinct. (she stops, suddenly soothing) That’s just a line in the mind, you know—it can be crossed.

PASSIE: Bitch!

LIGHTS BANG OUT. End of scene.

The Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival assigns five readers to each new play, and they are required to fill out a four page critique to explain the pros and cons of the piece as they perceive them, and then conclude—based on their comments—whether or not the submission should be recommended for a staged reading, and a possible full production in the festival. On the last page of their critique, each reader is asked to summarize their overall opinion of the submitted play; the following are the final comments they made about Do You Love Me Or What?:

“The playwright’s idea has merit, but the piece is disjointed and confusing. Unfortunately, I feel it needs a complete rewrite. Perhaps it should be be expanded into a two act piece with the first act describing the relationship between the husband and wife in order to give insight into the conflicts the author is trying to present.”

“Good dialogue, credible situations, but the through line is not clear.”

“I’m sure the author feels he has written a very profound play. Unfortunately, I found it merely obscure.”

“I am going to score this play as ‘recommended with severe reservations,’ hoping it will be given a hearing with the playwright given the opportunity to prove me wrong.”

“With a bit of line trimming, could be a tour-de-force.”

I sort of understand their reactions, but on the other hand I did clearly say in my play notes that Do You Love Me Or What? was an attempt to tell a conventional triangular love story in an unusual way. I explained that it is a surrealist/absurdist comedy/drama in one act, and that the action takes place in “real” time, as it is perceived by the male character—it’s all in his head. In his confused mind he and the two female characters combine and change to become still other characters. Past, present and future are compressed. There is no exposition, no explanation of who the characters are—we know them only by their behavior. Everything is contained in the action, what the characters say and do. But their words alone cannot be trusted; the characters (and the writer) are all unreliable narrators. The play is pure action. If the audience goes away confused, that’s O. K., as long as they are also entertained. In my notes I said that I believe that confusion, combined with entertainment, will lead the audience to thoughtfulness, and in that way they will be collaborators in the creative process.

All well and good, but upon reading the play after all this time (I wrote it in 1999), I find myself agreeing with the critiques, at least for the most part. So I’m considering a major rewrite and—perhaps—a resubmission to the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Wish me luck.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Mort Cohen’s VP Doodle

July 19, 2008

After reading my July 18, 2008 request for doodles, Mort Cohen sent along the above caricature attached to an e-mail message. (Many thanks, Mort.) He says he was playing around in Photoshop, electronically doodling, trying to figure out different ways to color the image, and came up with this enhancement to our own Vice President Cheney. I think it’s a very good likeness and I’m also intrigued by the “fog” or “mist” of color from which the VP appears to be emerging. Since Mort doesn’t tell us what it is, we’re free to speculate. Does the fog/mist represent Truth, Beauty and the American Way, or is our VP wandering around in some sort of moral fog? It’s always fun when an artist gives us an opportunity to participate in his or her creative process. Mort didn’t nail it down so we get to collaborate; it’s our call. What do you think the blue mist is? Meanwhile, if you’d like to have your own doodle published on DoodMeister.com, send it to: jimscartoons@aol.com. Your submission will be my permission to post.