Arthur Miller On Playwriting

January 4, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

In a short story, or any kind of prose, I still can’t escape the feeling of a certain arbitrary quality . . . . To me the great thing is to write a good play, and when I’m writing a short story it’s as though I’m saying to myself, Well, I’m only doing this because I’m not writing a play at the moment. There’s guilt connected with it . . . . I think I reserve for plays those things that take a kind of excruciating effort.

The first play I wrote was in Michigan in 1935. It was written on a spring vacation in six days. I was so young that I dared do such things, begin it and finish it in a week. I’d seen about two plays in my life, so I didn’t know how long an act was supposed to be, but across the hall there was a fellow who did the costumes for the University theater and he said, “Well, it’s roughly forty minutes.” . . . .  As it turned out, the acts were longer than that, but the sense of the timing was in me even from the beginning, and the play had a form right from the start.

Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.

I think the young playwrights I’ve had any chance to talk to are either ignorant of the past or they feel the old forms are too square, or too cohesive. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that the whole tragic arc of the drama has had any effect on them.

I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice.

There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it.

When I was about twelve, I think it was, my mother took me to a theater one afternoon. We lived in Harlem and in Harlem there were two or three theaters that ran all the time, and many women would drop in for all or part of the afternoon performances. All I remember was that there were people in the hold of a ship, the stage was rocking—they actually rocked the stage—and some cannibal on the ship had a time bomb. And they were all looking for the cannibal: It was thrilling.

If I had ever thought that I was writing (Death of a Salesman) about my father, I suppose I never could have done it . . . . Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me . . . . I’ve always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it’s Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.

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 II will post next Wednesday.)


Dramadoodle

July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.