Arthur Miller On Playwriting XIII

March 28, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(Senator) McCarthy (was) actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem. So I started to go back, not with the idea of writing a play (The Crucible), but to refresh my own mind because it was getting eerie. For example, (McCarthy)  holding up his hand with cards in it, saying, “I have in my hand the names of so-and-so.” Well, this was a standard tactic of seventeenth-century prosecutors confronting a witness who was reluctant or confused, or an audience in a church which was not quite convinced that this particular individual might be guilty . . . . He had nothing at all—he simply wanted to secure in the town’s mind the idea that he saw everything, that everyone was transparent to him. It was a way of inflicting guilt on everybody, and many people responded genuinely out of guilt; some would come and tell him some fantasy, or something that they had done or thought that was evil in their minds. I had in my play, for example, the old man who comes and reports that when his wife reads certain books, he can’t pray. He figures that the prosecutors would know the reason, that they can see through what to him was an opaque glass. Of course he ends up in a disaster because they prosecuted his wife. Many times completely naive testimony resulted in somebody being hanged.

I never used to, but I think now that, while I hadn’t taken over an ideology, I did absorb a certain viewpoint. That there is tragedy in the world but that the world must continue: one is a condition for the other. Jews can’t afford to revel too much in the tragic because it might overwhelm them. Consequently, in most Jewish writing there’s always the caution, “Don’t push it too far toward the abyss, because you’re liable to fall in.” I think it’s part of that psychology and it’s part of me, too. I have, so to speak, a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work.

I do have about five things started—short stories, a screenplay, et cetera. 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 a calendar in my head. You see, the theater season starts in September, and I have always written plays in the summertime. Almost always—I did write View from the Bridge in the winter. So, quite frankly, I can’t say. 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. Somewhere in the blood you have a play, and you wait until it passes behind the eyes.

This is the last post in the Arthur Miller series. 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.


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting II

November 30, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

My mother was walking down the street and she ran into the receptionist from the June Taylor School of Dance, where I went as a child. The receptionist asked, How’s Wendy? My mother said, Well, I don’t know. She’s not going to law school, she’s not dating a lawyer; now she’s writing plays. She’s cuckoo.

I thought writing a full-length play was something I didn’t want to do and didn’t know how to do. It seemed old fogyish. But I was on a committee to evaluate the Yale School of Drama, and there was this young woman, a directing student, who told me that what she wanted to do was explode text. I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, There goes The Sea Gull! I thought, Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it. I thought, I would just like to try to do this. If in fact playwriting is like stained glass, if it becomes more and more this obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to do that craft.

When you write in an episodic mode, you know that the scene will be over. The hardest part, what’s really boring, is getting people on and off the stage. You can’t just bring the lights down and bring them up again. Someone has to say, I’m leaving now . . . . That’s very hard to do. I always think structurally. But for The Sisters Rosensweig it was very hard going. In that play there are four scenes in the first act and three in the second. I should have combined the first two scenes.

I was very sad when The Sisters Rosensweig opened the first time. People like Merv and Gorgeous are fun to write; they’re nice to have in your apartment. They’re really good company. So when you discover those people, they’re talking and you’re not talking anymore. I remember the day I wrote the line for Gorgeous about Benjamin Disraeli being a Jewish philanthropist: I started laughing because I thought, That’s Gorgeous, there you go. The character, not my sister. If you stay with the actual people in your real life, it won’t work. It’s too constraining.

I learn things from watching and listening to people. I’m not much of a reader; I’m slightly dyslexic. Take Merv—he is someone I knew when I was eight years old . . . I remember going to someone’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn with my mother and young niece. And you know when they take the Torah out? My mother said to Samantha, Quick, kiss the Torah before the rabbi takes it out for cookies and lunch. It was such a crazy image to me.

My plays start with a feeling. The Sisters Rosensweig started when I was living in London writing The Heidi Chronicles. I thought about Americans abroad, and somebody said to me, You’re terribly Jewish, just like my brother-in-law. It was that same feeling I had at Mount Holyoke, a little bit uncomfortable with myself. Like wherever I went I was always wearing a tiara with chinchilla.

I always think of new plays when I’m finishing one . . . . This is a darker play than The Sisters Rosensweig. My plays tend to skip a generation; this one is closer to The Heidi Chronicles, though it is also darker than that play.

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. (This is the second of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part three will post next Wednesday.)


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting

November 23, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

The problem with writing plays is that everyone has an opinion. And you don’t want those opinions. What would my mother say: Oh, it’s nice Wendy, and I notice the mother is dead? I really didn’t want any of them to see it until the opening, but my sister Sandy kept saying she wanted to come, so finally I said, You can come but you can’t call me tomorrow and make any comments, because if you call me and don’t say anything, I’ll know you think it’s bad. So no comment, either way. She saw it and sent me flowers the next day. They came with a note that said, No Commitment. I realized that either the florist had made this Freudian slip or he was the florist to some Upper West Side bachelor who regularly sends out “no commitment” flowers.

When I was in second grade, I made up a play that I was in; I told my mother that I was in this play and the lie got larger and larger. Finally, arbitrarily, I said my play is on tomorrow, and she got me a velvet dress and made my hair in ringlets, and off I went to school. And she came to school and there was no play. She covered for me and said, I must be confused; it must be another one of my children. Then she came home and told me I was a fibber. She must have yelled at me because to this day I have trouble with fibbing

When I see the play, I feel I’m seeing a Broadway play in 1958, or what I wish those plays had been. I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this but where are the girls? The Sisters Rosensweig  is like those plays—the curtain goes up and there’s one set, and the play is well-made, you know, beginning, middle, and end. It takes place over a weekend, the stars get applause, the stars get exit applause, they each tell their stories, it arcs in the second act, all of that. It was much harder to write than any of my other plays.

In a way, The Sisters Rosensweig seems a combination of Isn’t It Romantic and Uncommon Women. But those other plays are episodic and this was a deliberate decision not to be episodic. Also, I decided not to write another play about my generation. Even though it has autobiographical materials, the focus of the play is not me. I wanted to do all those things and also evoke a fondness for plays that I love, including Chekhov.

A friend of mine was dating a rabbi, so I went to speak at his temple. We were talking about Jewish women and self-image, and I said that I never thought of myself as undesirable or unattractive, frankly, until I turned twelve and began watching these movies in which none of the men ever fell in love with anybody who looked remotely like me. No one was ever Jewish, no one was hardly ever brunette. I never thought of that before, but in retrospect it really makes me angry.

Women who are a bit older can believe in something and also see it ironically. And younger women who once thought that to be a feminist you had to be antimarriage, have no sense of humor, and have hairy legs, are changing . . . . Feminism has affected me more in my writing than in a specifically political way. Sitting down to write a play that has three parts for women over forty, I think, is political.

For a woman to be heroic she doesn’t have to save the planet. My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy, and I have always thought, No, you don’t understand: this is in fact a political act. The Sisters Rosensweig had the largest advance in Broadway history, therefore nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it’s about women.

It’s interesting that the two most successful straight plays the year Sisters Rosensweig came out were mine and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a play about three women over forty and an epic about a gay fantasia. Even five years before, that wouldn’t have happened.

My plays are my art and not just self-revelation. Creating a well-made play means you have to round the edges so they fit into the form. Also, the plays are deliberately comedic. Humor masks a lot of anger, and it’s a means of breaking up others’ pretenses and of not being pretentious yourself.

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. (This is the first of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part two will post next Wednesday.)