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.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting

January 4, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

In a short story, or any kind of prose, I still can’t escape the feeling of a certain arbitrary quality . . . . To me the great thing is to write a good play, and when I’m writing a short story it’s as though I’m saying to myself, Well, I’m only doing this because I’m not writing a play at the moment. There’s guilt connected with it . . . . I think I reserve for plays those things that take a kind of excruciating effort.

The first play I wrote was in Michigan in 1935. It was written on a spring vacation in six days. I was so young that I dared do such things, begin it and finish it in a week. I’d seen about two plays in my life, so I didn’t know how long an act was supposed to be, but across the hall there was a fellow who did the costumes for the University theater and he said, “Well, it’s roughly forty minutes.” . . . .  As it turned out, the acts were longer than that, but the sense of the timing was in me even from the beginning, and the play had a form right from the start.

Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.

I think the young playwrights I’ve had any chance to talk to are either ignorant of the past or they feel the old forms are too square, or too cohesive. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that the whole tragic arc of the drama has had any effect on them.

I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice.

There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it.

When I was about twelve, I think it was, my mother took me to a theater one afternoon. We lived in Harlem and in Harlem there were two or three theaters that ran all the time, and many women would drop in for all or part of the afternoon performances. All I remember was that there were people in the hold of a ship, the stage was rocking—they actually rocked the stage—and some cannibal on the ship had a time bomb. And they were all looking for the cannibal: It was thrilling.

If I had ever thought that I was writing (Death of a Salesman) about my father, I suppose I never could have done it . . . . Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me . . . . I’ve always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it’s Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.

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 II will post next Wednesday.)


Theresa Rebeck On Playwriting

October 26, 2011

Adapted from: Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2009

Here’s a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows. Here’s another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before. Here’s another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.

I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as “Waiting for Godot,” “Uncle Vanya” or “King Lear,” none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don’t think that making fun of plot, or acting like we’re all somehow “above” structure is such a good idea.

Is this really a problem? Yes. I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. “All that structure, all that story,” he growled, pouring himself more wine. “What a nightmare.”

Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don’t need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.

Sometimes people ask me where my plays come from. Where do you get your ideas? I honestly don’t know where they come from, but I do know that if you start with a few characters who need something simple from each other, pretty soon you will find that what they need is not so simple, and that the play itself needs something larger as well. The writing reveals its deeper subject. The characters reveal themselves as they act on each other in time. Time, innately, has a structure. And a lot of really smart writers who came before me understood how to make art imitate life and reveal those deeper truths in beautiful ways.

It is also completely understood that it is totally fair to steal from those guys. We are in dialogue with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Moliere and Beckett too, and a well-told story, something they all celebrated, is nothing to sneer at.

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.