Athol Fugard On Playwriting, III

November 14, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

My faith in human nature, in the capacity to change, grows with every year. My faith in the essential goodness of life increases. Yet my faith in politics has withered.

For fifteen years I kept thinking to myself, when am I going to get around to writing about those two extraordinary men, Sam and Willie, who were literally my closest, and virtually my only, friends for a period of my childhood. Suddenly one day I put a white boy, Hallie, in with them. There it was. I had it. I was locked in to the tensions, the polarity, the dynamic. I had the chance and the courage to deal with something that I had never dealt with in my life. The particular moment was the spitting event—Hallie spits in the black man’s face. Before that I was convinced I’d created the necessary dynamic simply by putting Hallie in there with Sam and Willie, and that I could write the play without resorting to anything like the vulgarity of spitting on stage. I thought I could deal with all my problems, my guilts, and wash my dirty linen in a place of public entertainment without having to resort to that. But I just couldn’t avoid it. The moment came: I wrote, “Hallie spits in Willie’s face.”

(T)here’s a vulgar aspect to the craft. Even when you’re dealing with the most private, intensely personal moment of pain, if you do it well enough, if you handle it correctly, you immediately pat yourself on the back . . . I might as well be honest about it.

An extraordinary sculptress, Helen Martins, lived in the little village in the Karroo where my house is. For twenty-two years of her life, starting at the age of fifty, she handed herself over to an incredible creative energy. She sculpted away, single-mindedly, with a total obsession. Then, mysteriously, her creativity dried up and she committed suicide. From time to time I’d say to myself, Come on, deal with it. You’re a writer; this is extraordinary. But I kept pushing her aside. Then her story became such an urgent reality inside me, I needed to examine it. The Road to Mecca focuses on the possibility that creative energy can exhaust itself, probably the most frightening reality an artist can face. Every artist lives in total fear of that—I know I do. I kept wondering whether, with an act of terrible prescience, in describing the end of Helen Martins’s creative energy, I was in fact writing my own epitaph.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates — and many more —  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 Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.


Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

PostCd

“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


Turning Green

April 21, 2009

31bus

By Susan Middaugh

I believe in taking public transportation to work instead of driving.
As a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and the Mountain Club of Maryland, I’d like to say my primary motive is energy conservation. It’s not. I want to save money on gas and parking and to extend the life of Takeshi, my Japanese car, whose odometer has passed the 180,000-mile mark.

There are other advantages I hadn’t anticipated. I love walking down the hill in the morning from my house to the bus stop. Being outside in the fresh air fills my spirit in a way that driving with the windows rolled up or down fails to do. The exercise is healthy and the world seems bigger, with a greater sense of possibility.

The 45-minute bus ride is found time, great for reading the newspaper, daydreaming, or unwinding after a day’s work. Traveling in a 30 mile an hour zone through city streets instead of bebopping down the highway at 65 mph helps me slow down my life, a good thing.

I’ve also made new acquaintances at the bus stop that I never would have met behind the wheel of my car. One of them, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and a camouflage jacket, asked the driver to wait one day when I was late. My new young friend, Eric, who is in high school, is looking for a part-time job. Forrest, a former nurse, tells me about his interest in archeology. An African-American woman in her 40s describes her life after a stroke. Such conversations help me feel connected to other people in my community.

There have also been some surprises. On a crowded city bus, I’ve seen men of different ages offer their seats to women of other races, women who are old, pregnant, or juggling strollers and young children. These moments of civility have restored my faith in human nature.

Drawbacks to riding instead of driving? Sure. On a good day, riding the bus takes three times longer than it does for me to drive the eight miles to my office. Walking to and from my stop can add up to 40 minutes to my daily commute. If the driver is late, a one-way trip can become a journey. If the bus is early, as sometimes happens, this grandmother runs for it or waits for the next one. If I were punching a clock or had to be at a daycare center by a set time, the unpredictability could be a problem.

Walking up the hill to my house each evening can also be a chore, especially if it’s hot or raining or I’m tired. As a distraction, I listen for the tinkle of wind chimes on my neighbors’ porches, breathe in the cooking smells that float into the street, and wonder what the people in my town are having for dinner.

Overall, I feel fortunate to have a choice of transportation. On days when I want to bag the bus, I drive a few miles to light rail….for the same price. Either way, I feel like I’m turning green, staying fit and saving money.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a business writer in Baltimore who writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Oh, and she’s also a very good dancer.