Click image to enlarge. This cartoon tip originally appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of The Cartoon!st, the newsletter of the National Cartoonists Society. All series images and texts are copyright © 2016 by the artist.
Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting
Edited by Toby Cole
The formula for the well made play is so easy that I give it for the benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the fortune that awaits all successful manufacturers in this line. First, you “have an idea” for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery . . . . If the innocent wife, banished from her home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and, when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character, and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady’s, simultaneously announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife’s innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the writer has any sort of knack for his work. Comedy is more difficult, because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting the audience out of the theatre as best you can.
(Critics) cannot relish or understand a play that has grown naturally, just as they cannot admire the Venus of MIlo because she has neither a corset or high heeled shoes. They are like the peasants who are so accustomed to food reeking with garlic that when food is served to them without it they declare that it has no taste and is not food at all.
No writer of the first order needs the formula any more than a sound man needs a crutch. In his simplest mood, when he is only seeking to amuse, he does not manufacture a plot: he tells a story. He finds no difficulty in setting people on the stage to talk and act in an amusing, exciting or touching way. His characters have adventures and ideas which are interesting in themselves, and need not be fitted into the Chinese puzzle of a plot.
If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.
Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8
Interviewed by Lloyd Richards
I think every writer has a special relationship with his most recent work. In my case that would be The Road to Mecca. Firstly, the process of writing it, creating it, the traumas or difficulties that you live through in order to get it written—those are close to you still. Also the most recent play says something about where you are in your life. It still needs a certain protection; it is very young. Its life has just been started, and you feel very paternal about it.
My most important tool is my notebook . . . . I jot down random images, thoughts, ideas, speculations, and a little bit of personal misery. It’s a five-finger exercise. Every one of my plays started off a long time before the actual writing took place as an image in those notebooks. There comes a point when one of these images from the past . . . . If it is the right moment, and if . . . there is a coincidence between the external and the internal, the things start happening. First I just free associate. It’s almost as if the seminal image has a certain magnetic power of its own that helps me focus on the things of daily living that relate to it. This is the first step. It usually results in an accumulation of ideas, scraps of dialogue, rough structures for scenes and a mass of paper. I can lift up that paper and feel its weight metaphorically and think, Yeah, there’s enough here now. Next it’s got to be ordered and organized. I never actually start to write a play . . . until I have completely structured the play. I have never started to write a play without knowing with total certainty what my final image is. Other writers work differently, I know. They say, Oh, the material did this to me, I got surprised, it sent me off in a different direction. That has never happened to me. While it may be a flaw, I am absolutely brutal about my disciplining of the material before I write the words page one and get to work.
It’s a very slow and painful process. I’m very conscious of how faltering the first few steps are, how much stalling and drowning in the blankness of paper there is. Nothing flows in my head. There have been occasions when I’ve found my head working away quite energetically with my hand a foot behind, watching in amazement. But there have never been sustained outpourings. If I’ve got three full pages done, longhand, that’s a good day. That’s a damn good day in fact. Sometimes there is nothing, or what I have written goes into the wastepaper basket. I tear up and throw away furiously when I write. I don’t accumulate a lot of paper. For something to stay on paper longer than two days it has to pass some very critical tests. I usually work through three drafts, longhand, in the course of writing a play; it takes about nine months.
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 V of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.
I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.
You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?
The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.
Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.
Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.
Nonsense is such a difficult art!
I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.
“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.
The following represents an e-mail exchange I had today with a fairly well-known “B-list” cartoonist and humorous illustrator about the “Marginalia #2” piece directly below this post. To save embarrassment (to him) I’ll use our initials to indicate which e-mail writer is which. RD began with a snarky one-word critique of my post:
RD: My feelings exactly. I love to doodle…as do all cartoonists..but “real” doodles come form the subconscious..often leading to creations of ideas you would never have had otherwise. I’m always amazed at what doodles can often lead to. Your doodles lack that spontaneity. I’m not being mean, I’m just trying to be honest. If you don’t want a response…don’t ask for it.
JS: The funny thing is I totally agree with you about what constitutes “real” doodling. What you don’t get is I’m just having fun with it by doing an “analytical” number on it. It’s satire. Lighten up.
The fact that I had to explain what I was up to indicates that my mild attempt at satire failed, or perhaps it was too clever by half and simply went over RD’s head. But the thing I still can’t understand is why he would go to the trouble to send a mean-spirited response to it in the first place. I don’t understand pettiness in any form. (There was a bit more to today’s exchange, but in the later stuff RD went completely off the doodle track and began to critique my gag cartoons in political terms as “right wing.” Having self-identified my whole adult life as a left-leaning hyper-progressive but fiscally conservative liberal, that’s where he really lost me.)
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.