Neil Simon On Playwriting XIII

September 26, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

The darkness in my plays reflects the way the world is now. The darkness in the plays, strangely enough, seems more beautiful to me. I think anything that is truthful has beauty in it. Life without the dark times is unrealistic. I don’t want to write unrealistically anymore.

I can’t write outside of my own experience. I’m not like Paddy Chayefsky who could go off and do six months of research and then write something extremely believable. I’d like to write about Michelangelo, but I don’t know Michelangelo. I don’t know what his life was like. I wish I could extend myself, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Resolution doesn’t mean a happy ending—which I’ve been accused of. I don’t think I write happy endings. Sometimes I have hopeful endings, sometimes optimistic ones. I try never to end the play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical.

When I was writing three-act plays, a producer told me the curtain should always come down on the beginning of the fourth act. A play should never really come to an end. The audience should leave saying, What’s going to happen to them now? . . . . I can’t write a play as dark and bleak and wonderful as A Streetcar Named Desire.

I spend more time on the titles of plays than on the names of the characters. What I’ve tried to do over the years is take an expression from life that has a double entendre in it, for example, the musical Promises, Promises, so that every time people speak the words it sounds like they’re talking about your play. Or The Odd Couple—people sometimes say “they’re sort of an odd couple.” If you mention an odd couple now, you think of the play . . . . Come Blow Your Horn comes from the nursery rhyme. Barefoot in the Park came from what the play was about. There’s a line in the play that comes from my life, when Joan used to say to me, Stop being a fuddy-duddy. Let’s go to Washington Square Park and walk barefoot in the grass. Chapter Two was, literally, the second chapter of my life, after my wife Joan died . . . . Prisoner of Second Avenue was a good title for a play about a man who loses his job and is left to live in that little apartment on Second Avenue while his wife goes to work. He has nothing to do but walk around the room ’til he knows exactly how many feet each side is—so he’s literally a prisoner . . . . The Star-Spangled Girl was a better title than a play. I liked Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It seemed familiar. It comes from Sophie Tucker’s slogan: last of the red hot mamas. Lost in Yonkers—I love the word Yonkers and I wanted to put the play in a specific place. I said to myself, What in Yonkers? These boys are lost, Bella is lost, this family is all lost . . . in Yonkers. Jake’s Women is literally about a man named Jake and three women.

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 XIV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting VII

February 15, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I mean by the time you’ve written your third play or so you know which buttons to push; if you want an easy success there’s no problem that way once you’ve gotten a story. People are pretty primitive—they really want the thing to turn out all right. After all, for a century and a half King Lear was played in England with a happy ending. I wrote a radio play about the boy who wrote that version—William Ireland—who forged Shakespeare’s plays, and edited King Lear so that it conformed to a middle-class view of life . . . . He was an expert forger. He fixed up several of the other plays, but this one he really rewrote. He was seventeen years old. And they produced it—it was a big success—and Boswell thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and so did all the others.

You see, what happened in Italy with Zeffirelli was—I can describe it very simply: there was a stage made up of steel frames; it is as though one were looking into the back of a bellows camera—you know, concentric oblong steel frames receding toward a center. The sides of these steel frames were covered, just like a camera is, but the actors could enter through openings in these covers. They could appear or disappear on the stage at any depth. Furthermore, pneumatic lifts silently and invisibly raised the actors up, so that they could appear for ten seconds—then disappear. Or a table would be raised or a whole group of furniture, which the actors would then use. So that the whole image of all this happening inside a man’s head was there from the first second, and remained right through the play.

Well, I have always felt that concentration camps, though they’re a phenomenon of totalitarian states, are also the logical conclusion of contemporary life. If you complain of people being shot down in the streets, of the absence of communication or social responsibility, of the rise of everyday violence which people have become accustomed to, and the dehumanization of feelings, then the ultimate development on an organized social level is the concentration camp. Camps didn’t happen in Africa where people had no connection with the basic development of Western civilization. They happened in the heart of Europe, in a country, for example, which was probably less anti-Semitic than other countries, like France. The Dreyfus case did not happen in Germany. In this play the question is, what is there between people that is indestructible? The concentration camp is the final expression of human separateness and its ultimate consequence. It is organized abandonment . . . one of the prime themes of After the Fall.

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 VIII will post next Wednesday.)