Arthur Miller On Playwriting IX

February 29, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I’m in the process of collecting my short stories. But I tell myself, What am I doing. I should be doing a play. . . . I have some interesting beginnings, but I can’t see the end of any of them. It’s usually that way: I plan something for weeks or months and suddenly begin writing dialogue which begins in relation to what I had planned and veers off into something I hadn’t even thought about. I’m drawing down the lightning, I suppose.

(T)he closer you get to any kind of political action among young people, the more they demand that the action have a certain fidelity to human nature, and that pomposity, and posing, and role-taking not be allowed to strip the movement of its veracity. What they suspect most is gesturing, you know, just making gestures, which are either futile, or self-serving, or merely conscientious. The intense personal-relations concentration of the fifties seems now to have been joined to a political consciousness, which is terrific.

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. . . . I lived through the McCarthy time, when one saw personalities shifting and changing before one’s eyes, as a direct, obvious result of a political situation. . . . Such a pall of fright was laid upon us that it truly deflected the American mind. It’s part of a paranoia which we haven’t escaped yet.

(I)t’s got so we’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aeschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little piddling private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all “a story,” a myth for its own sake.

Look at Molière. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.

I couldn’t write a play like Death of a Salesman anymore. I couldn’t really write any of my plays now. Each is different, spaced sometimes two years apart, because each moment called for a different vocabulary and a different organization of the material. However, when you speak of a strict form, I believe in it for the theater. Otherwise you end up with anecdotes, not with plays. . . . The audience has been trained to eschew the organized climax because it’s corny, or because it violates the chaos which we all revere. But I think that’s going to disappear with the first play of a new kind which will once again pound the boards and shake people out of their seats with a deeply, intensely organized climax. It can only come from a strict form: you can’t get it except as the culmination of two hours of development.

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 X will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting VI

February 8, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

For 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. There was a certain naïveté in the reportage. They could destroy plays which dealt on a level of sensibility that was beyond them. But by and large, you got a playback on what you put in. 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. The theater as theater—as a place where people go to be swept up in some new experience—seems to antagonize them. 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.

Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use. He’s the litmus paper of the arts. He’s got to be, because if he isn’t working on the same wavelength as the audience, no one would know what in hell he was talking about. He is a kind of psychic journalist, even when he’s great; consequently, for him the total atmosphere is more important in this art than it is probably in any other.

There are some biological laws in the theater which can’t be violated. It should not be made into an activated chess game. You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed. The larger the better. It’s the law of the theater. In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play. Fourteen thousand people! And nobody can tell me that those people were all readers of the New York Review of Books! Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people. I think for much the same reasons—because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder—and not very well-motivated at that.

(Eugene O’Neill) had one virtue which is not technical, it’s what I call “drumming”; he repeats something up to and past the point where you say, “I know this, I’ve heard this ninety-three different ways,” and suddenly you realize you are being swept up in something that you thought you understood and he has drummed you over the horizon into a new perception. He doesn’t care if he’s repeating. It’s part of his insensitivity. He’s a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils. His virtue is that he insists on his climax, and not the one you would want to put there. His failing is that so many of his plays are so distorted that one no longer knows on what level to receive them. His people are not symbolic; his lines are certainly not verse; the prose is not realistic—his is the never-never land of a quasi-Strindberg writer. But where he’s wonderful, it’s superb.

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 VII will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting V

February 1, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. You live in the world even though you only vote once in a while. It determines the extensions of your personality. I lived through the McCarthy time, when one saw personalities shifting and changing before one’s eyes, as a direct, obvious result of a political situation. And had it gone on, we would have gotten a whole new American personality—which in part we have.

How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little piddling private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all “a story,” a myth for its own sake.

You can’t conceive of (Molière) except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.

I don’t think one can repeat old forms as such, because they express most densely a moment of time. For example, I couldn’t write a play like Death of a Salesman anymore. I couldn’t really write any of my plays now. Each is different, spaced sometimes two years apart, because each moment called for a different vocabulary and a different organization of the material . . . . We’re in an era of anecdotes, in my opinion, which is going to pass any minute. The audience has been trained to eschew the organized climax because it’s corny, or because it violates the chaos which we all revere. But I think that’s going to disappear with the first play of a new kind which will once again pound the boards and shake people out of their seats with a deeply, intensely organized climax. It can only come from a strict form: you can’t get it except as the culmination of two hours of development.

(B)efore I wrote my first successful play, I wrote, oh, I don’t know, maybe 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.

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 VI will post next Wednesday.)