Today’s Poems

September 14, 2014
Gavin_EwartGavin Ewart, 1916-1995

The Black Box

As well as these poor poems
I am writing some wonderful ones.
They are all being filed separately,
nobody sees them.
When I die they will be buried
in a big black tin box.
In fifty years’ time
they must be dug up,
for so my will provides.
This is to confound the critics
and teach everybody
a valuable lesson.

‘It’s Hard to Dislike Ewart’

—New Review critic

I always try to dislike my poets,
it’s  good for them, they get so uppity otherwise,
going around thinking they’re little geniuses—
but sometimes I find it hard. They’re so pathetic
in their efforts to be liked.
When we’re all out walking on the cliffs
it’s always pulling my coat with ‘Sir! Oh, Sir!’
and ‘May I walk with you, Sir?’—
I sort them out harshly with my stick.
If I push a few over the edge, that only
encourages the others. In the places of preferment
there is room for just so many.
The rest must simply lump it.
There’s too much sucking up and trying to be clever.
They must all learn they’ll never get round me
Merit has nothing to do with it. There’s no way
to pull the wool over my eyes, no way,
no way . . .
By Gavin Ewart
—The Oxford Book of Comic Verse
Edited by John Gross

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.

Neil Simon On Playwriting XV

October 10, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

Walter Kerr gave me one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever had. In the first line of his review of The Star-Spangled Girl, he said, “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway.” That was exactly what had happened.

A week prior to the opening of the play you know if it’s going to work or not .  . . . (T)he opening night of Little Me, Bob Fosse and I were standing in the back of the theater. The producers had allowed a black-tie audience to come from a dinner to the theater. They’d eaten, they’d had drinks, they all knew each other—that’s the worst audience you can get. About three-quarters of the way through the first act, a man got up, so drunk he could hardly walk, and staggered up the aisle looking for the men’s room. As he passed Bob and me he said, This is the worst piece of crap I’ve seen since My Fair Lady! Go figure out what that means.

Billy Wilder, whom I respect enormously, once confided in me that drama’s a lot easier than comedy. He found some of the brilliant dramas he wrote, like Sunset Boulevard, much easier to write than the comedies. Comedies are relentless, especially a farce like Some Like It Hot. Rumors was the most difficult play I ever wrote because not only did every moment of that play have to further the story, complicate it and keep the characters in motion—literal motion, swinging in and out of doors— but the audience had to laugh at every attempt at humor. You don’t have five minutes where two people can sit on a sofa and just say, What am I doing with my life, Jack? Am I crazy? Why don’t I get out of this? You can do that in a drama. You can’t do it in a farce.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went to the theater a lot. There was always a Tennessee Williams play to see or a great English play. It was such an education. I learned more from bad plays than from good ones. Good plays are a mystery. You don’t know what it is that the playwright did right. More often than not you see where a work fails. One of the things I found interesting was that a lot of comedy came from drunks on the stage. If a character was drunk he was funny. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to write characters that are as funny as drunks but are not drunk. In other words, bring out the outrageousness of them and the only way you can do that is to put them in such a tight corner that they have to say what’s really on their minds. That’s where the humor comes from.

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 XVI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

Neil Simon On Playwriting III

July 18, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

The writing of the play is the . . . . frightening part because you walk into a forest without a knife, without a compass. But if your instincts are good, if you have a sense of geography, you find that you’re clearing a path and getting to the right place. If the miracle happens, you come out at the very place you wanted to. But very often you have to go back to the beginning of the forest and start walking through it again, saying, I went that way. It was a dead end. You cross out, cross over. You meet new friends along the way, people you never thought you’d meet. It takes you into a world you hadn’t planned on going to when you started the play. The play may have started out to be a comedy, and suddenly you get into a place of such depth that it surprises you. As one critic aptly said, I wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs about the family I wished I’d had instead of the family I did have.

Sometimes I start laughing—and I’ve had moments in this office when I’ve burst into tears . . . . The moment had triggered a memory or a feeling that was deeply hidden. That’s catharsis. It’s one of the main reasons I write the plays. It’s like analysis without going to the analyst. The play becomes your analysis.

I thought it seemed odd to leave the Eugene saga finished after two plays. Three is a trilogy—I don’t even know what two plays are called. So, I decided to write the third one, and the idea came immediately. It was back to the war theme again, only these were domestic wars. The boys were having guilts and doubts about leaving home for a career writing comedy. Against this played the war between the parents. I also brought in the character of the socialist grandfather who was constantly telling the boys, You can’t just write jokes and make people laugh. Against this came Blanche from the first play, Brighton Beach, trying to get the grandfather to move to Florida to take care of his aging, ill wife. To me, setting people in conflict with each other is like what those Chinese jugglers do, spinning one plate, then another, then another. I wanted to keep as many plates spinning as I could.

(T)he play may be based on incidents that happened in my life—but they’re not written the way they happened. Broadway Bound comes closest to being really autobiographical. I didn’t pull any punches with that one. My mother and father were gone when I wrote it, so I did tell about the fights and what it was like for me as a kid hearing them. I didn’t realize until someone said after the first reading that the play was really a love letter to my mother!

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 IV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

John Guare On Playwriting IX

June 13, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

I deal with reviews by not reading reviews, and that’s a truth. My wife reads them and gives me the gist of them so I know what the quality of my life will be the next year. Get that teaching job.

In the theater, the playwright holds the copyright—actually owns the play and only leases the right to its use for a specific length of time to the producer. In the movies, the producer holds the copyright. The writer is always only a hired hand. In the movies, the writer is paid up front. In the theater, the writer takes his or her chances.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked only with people I admired. When the producers of Atlantic City balked at my being on the set every day, Louis Malle gave the classic answer: If you have someone here for the hair, why not somebody for the words? Writing for the movies is like working on a musical. You have to recognize and accept the collaborative aspects before you start. You have to recognize what work the camera will do, what work you must not do. You underwrite a scene in the movies. The camera will pick up textures of reality that in a play would be the business of words.

Theater poetry is not just highfalutin language . . . . Theater poetry is response to the large event, events that force the poetry. It took me a very long time to realize the mythic size of Ibsen, to see that the mechanics of plot in an Ibsen play function the same way that fate does in Greek tragedy. Truth does not exist merely in the actor feeling the heat of the teacup. Behavioral naturalism belongs to television acting and movie acting. Theater acting should be closer to Cyrano de Bergerac or Falstaff or Edmund the Bastard. Or Ethel Merman. It’s about finding truth on the large scale with the recognition of the actor as performer. In real life we’re all such performers. Naturalism wants to reduce us. Naturalism always seems to be the most unnatural thing.

A novelist writes a manuscript, gives it to the agent or the editor, who sends it back and forth until the publisher accepts it, and one day the author finds the book in stores. But a play—a playwright has not only that wonderful, brutal period of solitude writing the play, but then the day comes when you’re ready to show your work to the theater’s equivalent of a publisher, the producer, and the theater’s equivalent of an editor, the director. You begin working with the designers who will provide the visual entry that introduces the audience to the world you’ve made. You start casting and choosing actors—a process much like the painter choosing the necessary tubes of paint and what consistency and what color they should be. Ahh! With a new shade an entire world opens up.

Each play is a part of the one long play that is a playwright’s life. I know the way each play came out of the previous play. People don’t have radical shifts of consciousness in the course of their lifetimes. I can look at a play I wrote at two a.m. in 1963 the night before I went into the Air Force—The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year—and say, Isn’t that funny. I’m still dealing with the issues in that play—identity, faith, the desperation it takes people to get through their lives, the lunatic order we try to put on the chaos of life and, technically, how to get the play out of the kitchen sink and hurl it into the Niagara Falls of life.

This is the last installment of the John Guare series. 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.

Irwin Shaw on Playwriting

April 11, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 4

Interviewed by George Plimpton and John Phillips

(M)y first job was writing Dick Tracy . . . . It was a radio show. I pushed Dick Tracy into situations and rescued him five times a week. It made me a living and gave me time to do my own writing.

(A)most every writer will tell you that events that happened to him before he started writing are the most valuable to him. Once he starts writing he seems to observe the world through a filter. I believe that’s true about writers: that the unconscious observation of things, a kind of absorbing of life that goes on before he becomes a writer, that is what is most useful to him. When he starts observing things professionally and taking notes and trying to remember, he may collect a lot more but he loses the spontaneous quality and the flow. He becomes too systematic. It’s his job to be, but he never gets anything as valuable as what he got unconsciously. He has become the observer rather than the actor. The best portrayal of the type that I know is the character of Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and then there’s Philip Quarles in Huxley’s Point Counter Point who wrote notes on his own reactions while his son was dying of meningitis

(F)ailure is inevitable for the writer. Any writer. I don’t care who he is, or how great he is, or what he’s written. Sooner or later he’s going to flop and everybody who admired him will try to write him off as a bum. He can’t help it. He’s bound to write something bad. Shakespeare wrote a few bad plays

I think the course of my writing during the thirties pretty well reflects what most of my generation was preoccupied with then. We began in the Depression, very dedicated and oppressed and doom-conscious. In the early thirties we were against a new war at any cost. We believed that simply by protesting against war we could avoid it. We kept saying to ourselves “we won’t fight again ever about anything.” My play (Bury the Dead) was produced in 1936 and the play that won the Pulitzer Prize for that year was Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, and that was a fierce attack on munitions makers.

(Theater is) the hardest of them all. Young novelists come a dime a dozen, but the playwright must be older, more experienced, and in more complete control of his craft. The scope of the novel is such that mistakes can be made, even serious mistakes, without impairing the value of the work. But the theater audience is hypercritical and the form of the play is extremely exacting, and one mistake and you’re through. I’ve had a hard time with the theater. I’ve always been anxious to write plays. I read all kinds of plays and books on the theater and books about how to write plays, but all I learned was that playwriting is something nobody can teach you.

I wrote five plays before Bury the Dead. They were all bad, and I didn’t show them to anybody. I had to write them to practice, and that’s the way I learned. Since Bury the Dead, I’ve written seven plays, all but The Gentle People flops. I like the theater as a form, but I’m not so sure about its being the right one for me. You never can tell what’s going to happen. My play The Gentle People was translated into French and produced in Paris last winter, thirteen years after it was done at home. It was perhaps the greatest theatrical success I’ve had. They called it Philippe et Jonas and the French appreciated it as I meant it to be: a combination fairy tale and joke. In New York it was accepted by critics and audiences alike as a head-on melodrama.

I have a fine play in mind I’ll write for them someday. The curtain slides up on a stage bare except for a machine gun facing the audience. Then after a pause in which the audience is given time to rustle their paper bags and their programs, wheeze and cough and settle in their seats, the actor enters. He’s a tall man dressed in evening clothes. He comes downstage to the footlights and, after a little bow, smiles charmingly at the audience, giving them more time to mumble and rustle and cough and whisper and settle in their seats. Then he walks upstage, adjusts the machine gun, and blasts them.

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.

Arthur Miller On Playwriting X

March 7, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(B)efore I wrote my first successful play, I wrote . . . fourteen or fifteen other full-length plays and maybe thirty radio plays. The majority of them were nonrealistic plays. They were metaphorical plays, or symbolic plays; some of them were in verse, or in one case — writing about Montezuma — I turned out a grand historical tragedy, partly in verse, rather Elizabethan in form. Then I began to be known really by virtue of the single play I had ever tried to do in completely realistic Ibsen-like form, which was All My Sons. The fortunes of a writer! The others, like Salesman, which are a compound of expressionism and realism, or even A View from the Bridge, which is realism of a sort (though it’s broken up severely), are more typical of the bulk of the work I’ve done. After the Fall is really down the middle, it’s more like most of the work I’ve done than any other play — excepting that what has surfaced has been more realistic than in the others. It’s really an impressionistic kind of a work. I was trying to create a total by throwing many small pieces at the spectator.

I saw one production (of After the Fall) which I thought was quite marvelous. That was the one Zeffirelli did in Italy. He understood that this was a play which reflected the world as one man saw it. Through the play the mounting awareness of this man was the issue, and as it approached agony the audience was to be enlarged in its consciousness of what was happening. The other productions that I’ve seen have all been really realistic in the worst sense. That is to say, they simply played the scenes without any attempt to allow the main character to develop this widened awareness. He has different reactions on page ten than he does on page one, but it takes an actor with a certain amount of brains to see that evolution. It isn’t enough to feel them. And as a director, Zeffirelli had an absolutely organic viewpoint toward it. The play is about someone desperately striving to obtain a viewpoint.

(F)or years theatrical criticism was carried on mainly by reporters. Reporters who, by and large, had no references in the aesthetic theories of the drama, except in the most rudimentary way. And off in a corner, somewhere, the professors, with no relation whatsoever to the newspaper critics, were regarding the drama from a so-called academic viewpoint — with its relentless standards of tragedy, and so forth. What the reporters had very often was a simple, primitive love of a good show. And if nothing else, you could tell whether that level of mind was genuinely interested or not . . . . They knew how to laugh, cry, at least a native kind of reaction, stamp their feet — they loved the theater. Since then, the reporter-critics have been largely displaced by academic critics or graduates of that school. Quite frankly, two-thirds of the time I don’t know what they really feel about the play. They seem to feel that the theater is an intrusion on literature . . . . I don’t think we can really do away with joy: the joy of being distracted altogether in the service of some aesthetic. That seems to be the general drift, but it won’t work: sooner or later the theater outwits everybody. Someone comes in who just loves to write, or to act, and who’ll sweep the audience, and the critics, with him.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of 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. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part XI will post next Wednesday.)

John Osborne On Playwriting

October 19, 2011

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

Part of my job is to try and keep people interested in their seats for about two and a half hours; it is a very difficult thing to do, and I am proud of having been even fairly successful at it.

They go to the theatre because the guvnor’s wife went on Monday night and said it was a jolly good show. I simply want to point out that my job has not been an easy one to learn, merely because I have had what looks like an easy success. I shall go on learning as long as there is a theatre standing in England, but I didn’t learn the job from the Daily Mail or the Spectator.

I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterward.

Timing is an artistic problem. It is the prime theatrical problem. You can learn it, but it cannot be taught. It must be felt.

If you are any good at all at what you set out to do, you know whether it is good and rely on no one to tell you so.

It is not true to say that a play does not “come alive” until it is actually in performance. Of course it comes alive — to the man who has written it, just as those three symphonies must have come alive to Mozart . . .

At every performance of any of my plays, there are always some of these deluded pedants, sitting there impatiently, waiting for the plugs to come singing in during natural breaks in the action. If the texture is too complex, they complain that too much is going on for them to follow. There they sit, these fashionable turnips, the death’s head of imagination and feeling, longing for the interval and its over-projected drawls of ignorance. Like the B.B.C. critics, they either have no ear at all, or they can never listen to themselves.

All art is organized evasion. You respond to Lear or Max Miller — or you don’t. I can’t teach the paralyzed to move their limbs. Shakespeare didn’t describe symptons or offer explanations. Neither did Chekhov.

But there are other questions to be asked — how do people live inside (their) houses? What is their relationship with one another, and with their children, with their neighbors and the people across the street, or on the floor above? What are the things that are important to them, that make them care, give them hope and anxiety? What kind of language do they use to one another? What is the meaning of the work they do? Where does the pain lie? What are their expectations? What moves them, brings them together, makes them speak out? Where is the weakness, the loneliness? Where are the things that are unrealized? Where is the strength? Experiment means asking questions, and these are all the questions of socialism.

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.