April 17, 2013

The Genius of Paul Rhymer, III

By Jim Sizemore

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. For a good place to start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”

Here’s a quote from Jean Shepherd, writing in his forward to Vic and Sade: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer. “Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people.” Paul Rhymer certainly uses subtle dialogue techniques to point out the gulf that exists between the genders—Sade’s loyalty to her sister’s boring letters, for example, and Vick’s lack of appreciation for same, or their different takes on something as commonplace as table manners. In a 1938 script, the game of baseball serves to point out that men and women will often come at some things from opposite directions. Here’s a bit of that script. (Note that at several points both Sade and Rush refer to Vic as “Gov,” his family nickname.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s late afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the kitchen we find Mrs. Victor Gook and her son, Mr. Rush Gook. This latter individual has just entered from out of doors and at the moment is lightly tossing his cap underneath the sink. Listen:

SADE: All right; go pick that up.

RUSH: I plan to leave again pretty soon.

SADE: Go pick it up. Call that civilized?—a monstrous big high school boy throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen? We got hooks.

Sade’s line, “throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen?” is a malaprop—a jumbling of words which at first doesn’t seem to make sense but still somehow does—and very much in character for her. After a bit more protesting, Rush goes to hang his hat on a nail in the cellarway. In the lines that follow, notice Rhymer’s meticulous attention to visual detail.

RUSH (moving off): Certainly been a fine day outside.

SADE: Hasn’t it though?

RUSH (still moving off): Around noon it was just plain hot.

SADE: Uh-huh. Mr. Gumpox came through the alley an’ I noticed he had his coat folded up an’ layin’ beside him on the seat of the garbage wagon.

RUSH (off a way): Mom, I don’t see any hook. They’re all full of overalls an’ aprons an’ junk.

SADE: You’ll find a place if ya look. There’s squillions of nails there. Hey, what’s your father an’ Mr. Drummond doin’ so much talkin’ about?

RUSH: Where are they?

SADE: Garbage box. Just wavin’ their arms around.

RUSH (returning): They weren’t’ there when I come past just now.

SADE: prob’ly walked home together an’ stopped by the garbage box to finish their talk.

RUSH (almost up): If they’re talking about baseball they never will finish.

SADE: Why do they get so excited? Person’d think one had stole the other’s pocketbook or bumped into his automobile or something.

RUSH: Yeah.

SADE: Baseball’s only a game ain’t it? (short pause) Guess the argument’s all over. Here comes Gov toward the house.

RUSH: He acts like Mr. Drummond got the best of him. See the little quick steps he takes an’ the way his face is?

SADE (giggles): Uh-huh. (raises voice) Hello there, mister.

VIC (cheerily enough): Hi, everybody. How’s tricks? (to Sade, as door closes) Paper come yet?

SADE: I doubt it. Boy very seldom shows up this early. What were you an’ Mr. Drummond havin’ such a to-do about? Never saw so much arm wavin’ in my life.

VIC: The arm wavin’ you saw through the window will in no wise unbalance the equilibrium of the world. Life will go on as before.

SADE: No, but a person watchin’ would get the idea you fellas were about to have a fight.

VIC: That may come to pass one of these days. (to himself) The big boob.

SADE: Are you mad at him?

VIC: I wouldn’t condescend to get mad at a creature so handicapped. Mr. Drummond is short the normal quota of brains. Mr. Drummond moves helplessly in a fog of stupidity. Mr. Drummond, in short, is a half wit.

Let’s pause here to fully appreciate Rhymer’s humorous rendering of Vic’s fit of pique, savoring how the angry discourse builds through several stages to its curt climax, the succinct punch word “halfwit.” That word would not have the power it does without the three lines that precede it. This is Paul Rhymer demonstrating the importance of the “set-up” in creating a humorous effect. And no stage directions are required; Vic’s high-toned anger comes through clearly in Rhymer’s word choices. We rejoin the script just in time to enjoy more of Vic’s deconstruction of Mr. Drummond’s intelligence—or lack thereof. (Click on above image to read the caption.)

SADE (giggles): Did you tell him that?

VIC: I intimated as much—an’ more—only I couched my barbs with such subtlety they went over his head like soft summer clouds.

RUSH: Baseball, huh, Gov?

VIC: How’s that?

RUSH: You an’ him were discussin’ baseball?

VIC: One could hardly refer to it as a discussion. I’d vouchsafe a thoughtful opinion an’ Drummond’d come back with a splatter of meaningless words boorishly strung together.

SADE: I was just askin’ Rush, Vic, how grown-up men can work theirself into a frenzy about such stuff.

VIC: Am I worked into a frenzy?

SADE: You acted like you were worked up into something out by the garbage box just now. You an’ Mr. Drummond both.

VIC: What did Master Rush reply when you quizzed him?

SADE (giggles): He said he didn’t know.

VIC: That would be his rejoinder when quizzed on any topic, I believe.

RUSH (chuckles): Aw, c’mon, Gov, don’t take it out on me.

SADE (to VIC): No, but really. If there was a baseball eleven in this town an’ your brother was in it or somebody an’ a fella run down your brother an’ his baseball eleven, I could halfway see why you might let yourself be upset. But these baseball elevens in Chicago an’ around. What do you care?

VIC: Baseball, Sade, is a strong American institution.

SADE: is it?

VIC: Baseball is a wholesome vent for excess nervous energy.

SADE (giggles): Prob’ly is if you’re fullback on the team or somethin’. But all you an’ Mr. Drummond can do is talk about it. I always think of baseball as a game Rush an’ the kids play over in Tatman’s vacant lot. Can’t understand why grown-up men should lose sleep because New York beats Pontiac.

Here Paul Rhymer is using Sade as the “wise fool,” a humorous device popular since before Shakespeare. By making her willfully ignorant of baseball, her seemingly innocent questions skillfully point out the absurdity of Vic and Mr. Drummond’s intense emotional investment in what is, in her eyes, only a child’s pastime. The script goes on for three more pages with Vic offering the high-minded argument that he and Mr. Drummond are passionately interested in baseball because it is a “science.” But we soon discover that their fight out by the garbage box was really over a childish disagreement about who would get to wear the pitcher’s glove if and when they scheduled a regular game of catch to “unwind” after work. Rhymer gives Sade the last word.

SADE: You mean to tell me that two great big men with offices an’ families can jump at each other’s throat over a thing like that—who gets to be pitcher?

VIC (stubborn): Sure.

SADE: Is that baseball, Rush?

RUSH (chuckles): Uh-huh.

SADE: Is that science?

This is an edited re-post from July 7, 2008
Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

Neil Simon On Playwriting VIII

August 22, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

I never thought I spoke the lines until my family told me I did. They said they could walk by and tell if it was going well or not by the rhythm of it. I guess I want to see if I’m repeating words and, because I write primarily for the stage, I want to make sure the words won’t be tripping badly over some tongues.

When I wrote the Sergeant Bilko show my father asked me naively, Do you just write Sergeant Bilko’s lines or do you write the other lines too? When you write a play, maybe even a novel, you become everybody. It may seem like I only write the lines spoken by the character who is like Neil Simon, but in Lost in Yonkers I’m also the grandmother—and Bella. And to do that you have to become that person. That’s the adventure, the joy, the release that allows you to escape from your own boundaries. To be Grandma every other line for a couple of pages takes you into another being. It’s interesting how many people ask, Was this your grandmother? I say, No, I didn’t have a grandmother like that, and they say, Then how do you know her? I know what she sounds like. I know what she feels like. The boys describe it when they say, When you kiss her it’s like kissing a cold prune. I describe her in a stage direction as being a very tall, buxom woman. But she doesn’t necessarily have to be tall and buxom. She just has to appear that way to the boys. You can’t really use that as physical description, but it will convey something to the actress.

(W)hen Come Blow Your Horn was playing, the theater doorman, a black man in his sixties, was standing in the back of the theater, laughing his head off. I went over to him after the play and asked, Why were you laughing so much? He said, That’s my family up there. I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world. I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars. It’s also what I’m most comfortable with. I am a middle-class person, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. I try now and then to get away from the family play, but it amazes me that I’ve spent the last thirty-one years writing plays primarily about either my family or families very close to it. Maybe the answer is that at some point along the way you discover what it is you do best and writing about the family unit and its extensions is what I do best.

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 IX 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.

John Guare On Playwriting V

May 16, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A playwright is a writer who only has ninety-nine pieces of paper to tell his tale. You’ve got to get your story told in approximately two hours. If it’s too long you have to learn how to cut without destroying the intention of your work . . . . Theater is the place where you learn all your lessons in a crowd. Imagine a novelist watching five hundred people simultaneously reading a draft of a novel and then making adjustments based on their immediate responses. Also, you had better know the audience with whom you want to draw up the contract. Peter Brook gave a seminar at La Mama and someone asked him what the prime aesthetic problem was in the theater. He said, Oh, that’s easy. When once you’ve discovered the laugh, it’s how do you keep the laugh.

Off Broadway was beginning—our version of Paris in the twenties. I saw remarkable plays at the Caffé Cino by Lanford Wilson and H. M. Katoukas, who walked around the Village with a parakeet tied to each finger of his hands. Ten parakeets flying all around him. The Caffé was run by a burly Sicilian, Joe Cino, who worked in a steam laundry from seven a.m. to four p.m., then went to his kingdom, his paradise, a café on Cornelia Street decorated with a crush of twinkling Christmas tree lights, religious statues, Kewpie dolls, and blowups of Jean Harlow and Maria Callas, a kind of insane storefront attic. I brought two plays to Cino. He said, Sorry we’re only doing plays by Aquarians. I sputtered that I was an Aquarius! He looked at my driver’s license. February 5. He weighed my plays in his beefy hands, then checked his astrological charts, and said, You go into rehearsal in two weeks, run for two weeks with a possibility of an extension for a third. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had been a Gemini.

Edward Albee earned himself eternal playwright sainthood. Out of the profits from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he and his producers took a lease on a theater on Van Dam Street, and every week for six months of the year from 1963 to 1969 they produced a new play. The plays were not reviewed. Audiences just showed up at the theater to see what was there. They were very exciting times. I once wrote a play called A Day for Surprises on a Thursday and it opened the next Monday.

I had the first act of House of Blue Leaves, and I played the lead—well, read it. I liked the people who were up there—Bobby Lewis, Alan Schneider, Jose Quintero, Lloyd Richards. I liked the sense of community and festivity. It was all very receptive and intelligent and hip. I found an audience it was great fun to write for. I had a place to write for. I learned about keeping at the business of doing new work in front of audiences, working with actors, learning the way they work, finding the kind of actors who understand the rhythms of your work. That’s all a theater company is really: a group of talented people who laugh at the same jokes. You have to learn about design. What kind of visuals your work needs to register. And the audience—you have to keep listening to the audience, not to see what they want, but rather to learn how to make them respond the way you want.

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 VI of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.

David Mamet On Playwriting II

December 21, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

I wrote this play called Bobby Gould in Hell . . . . Bobby Gould is consigned to Hell, and he has to be interviewed to find out how long he’s going to spend there. The Devil is called back from a fishing trip to interview Bobby Gould. And so the Devil is there, the Assistant Devil is there and Bobby Gould. And the Devil finally says to Bobby Gould, “You’re a very bad man.” And Bobby Gould says, “Nothing’s black and white.” And the Devil says, “Nothing’s black and white, nothing’s black and white—what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!” And (the director) had the assistant hold up a picture of a panda, kind of pan it a hundred and eighty degrees to the audience  . . . . That was the best moment I’ve ever seen in any of my plays.

I’ve actually been vehemently deluding myself, thinking that I have no set habits whatever. I know that I have very good habits of thought, and I’m trying to make them better. But as for where I go, what I do and who’s around when I work—those things are never important to me.

It’s really not an intellectual process . . . . but finally in playwriting, you’ve got to be able to write dialogue. And if you write enough of it and let it flow enough, you’ll probably come across something that will give you a key as to structure. I think the process of writing a play is working back and forth between the moment and the whole. The moment and the whole, the fluidity of the dialogue and the necessity of a strict construction. Letting one predominate for a while and coming back and fixing it so that eventually what you do, like a pastry chef, is frost your mistakes, if you can.

Pad and pencil. I want to see it, I want to see them all out in front of me, each one of the pencil adaptations, the pencil notations, and the pencil notations crossed out, and the pen on top of the pencil, and the pages . . . . Theoretically, one should be able to keep the whole play in one’s mind. The main thing is, I want to know that they’re there.

The most challenging dramatic form, for me, is the tragedy. I think I’m proudest of the craft in the tragedies I’ve written—The Cryptogram, Oleanna, American Buffalo, and The Woods. They are classically structured tragedies.

It’s kind of exhilarating not to have to cut to the bone constantly. Oh, well I can go over here for a moment. I can say what I think the guy was thinking or what the day looked like or what the bird was doing. If you do that as a playwright, you’re dead.

When you write stage directions—unless they’re absolutely essential for the understanding of the action of the play (He leaves. She shoots him.)—something else is going to happen when the actors and directors get them on the stage.

I like (film). I think it’s a fascinating medium. It’s so similar to the theater in many ways, and yet so very different. It’s great: it takes place with a huge number of people, which is fine; it’s very technical in ways that the theater isn’t; it calls for a lot of different ways of thinking, purely mechanical ways of thinking—that I find fascinating.

(If not a playwright) I think it’s very likely I would have been a criminal. It seems to me to be another profession that subsumes outsiders, or perhaps more to the point, accepts people with a not very well-formed ego and rewards the ability to improvise.

But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, 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. (This is the second installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)

David Mamet On Playwriting

December 14, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.

My mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism . . . . I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.

It’s action . . . That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

I never try to make it hard for the audience . . . Vakhtangov, who was a disciple of Stanislavsky, was asked at one point why his films were so successful, and he said, Because I never for one moment forget about the audience. I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist.

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early . . . . You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily.

I was a nonstudent. No interest . . . . Later on I realized that I enjoy accomplishing tasks. I get a big kick out of it because I never did it as a kid.

Being in Chicago was great . . . . We looked at New York as two things: one was, of course, the Big Apple and the other was the world’s biggest hick town. Because much of what we saw happening in New York was the equivalent of the Royal Nonesuch—you know, a bunch of people crawling around, barking, and calling it theater. But the version in Chicago was people went to the theater just like they went to the ballgame: they wanted to see a show. If it was a drama, it had to be dramatic, and if it was a comedy, it had to funny—period.

(I) was trying to figure out what the hell the mechanism of the play (The Cryptogram) was. And I had all this stuff about the kid not going to sleep, and it finally occurred to me, about the billionth draft, well, it’s about why can’t the kid sleep? It’s not that the kid can’t sleep, but why can’t the kid sleep? So the kid can’t sleep because he knows, subconsciously, that something’s unbalanced in the household. But then why is nobody paying attention to him? I thought, Aha! Well, this is perhaps the question of the play.

I’m not trying to persuade (the audience) of anything; it’s much more basic than that, it’s much more concrete . . . . Obviously, the point of the play is doing it for the audience—like the cook who wants to make that perfect soufflé, that perfect mousse, that perfect carbonara. Of course he isn’t going to do it if he doesn’t think someone’s going to eat it, but the point is to cook it perfectly, not to affect the eaters in a certain way. The thing exists of itself.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, 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. (This is the first installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)

Friedrich Hebbel On Playwriting

November 9, 2011

By Friedrich Hebbel, 1813-1863, translated by Eric Bentley

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

A genuine drama is comparable to one of those big buildings which have almost as many rooms and corridors below ground as above ground. People in general are aware only of the latter; the master builder of the former as well.

The devil take what nowadays passes for beautiful language! This language in drama is the conunterpart of “How beautifully put!” in conversation. Chintz, chintz and more chintz! It may glitter but it gives no heat.

Form is the expression of necessity. Best definition: Content presents the task; form, the solution.

Bad playwrights with good heads give us their scheme instead of characters and their system instead of passions.

In Shakespeare we find, amid the great wealth, the most miserly economy. In general a sign of the highest genius.

Dramatic deeds are not the ones that go straight ahead like bullets.

Drama shouldn’t present new stories but new relationships.

In the drama, what we see as bad we must also see as good.

All dramatic art has to do with impropriety and incomprehension, for what is more improper and uncomprehending than passion?

By shortening a play, you can lengthen it.

In drama no character should ever utter a thought; from the thought in a play come the speeches of all the characters.

The worst plays often start out like the best ones. The battle that’s most ignominiously lost starts out with thunder and lightning just like the one that will be most gloriously won.

Let the What in drama be known and throw no shadows; but not the How.

We know that a man must die; we don’t know what fever he will die of.

The bad conscience of mankind invented tragedy.

Ideas are to drama what counterpoint is to music: nothing in themselves but the sine qua non for everything.

Every genuine comic figure must resemble the hunchback who’s in love with himself.

In modern French plays, morality is the orange in the dead pigs mouth.

You can’t  have a play without ideas, any more than a living man without air. But does it follow that, because there’s earth, fire, air, and water in a man, he is nothing but a receptacle for these four elements?

Monologues: pure  respirations of the soul.

To present the necessary in the form of the accidental: that is the whole secret of dramatic style.

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.

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.