David Mamet On Playwriting

December 14, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.

My mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism . . . . I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.

It’s action . . . That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

I never try to make it hard for the audience . . . Vakhtangov, who was a disciple of Stanislavsky, was asked at one point why his films were so successful, and he said, Because I never for one moment forget about the audience. I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist.

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early . . . . You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily.

I was a nonstudent. No interest . . . . Later on I realized that I enjoy accomplishing tasks. I get a big kick out of it because I never did it as a kid.

Being in Chicago was great . . . . We looked at New York as two things: one was, of course, the Big Apple and the other was the world’s biggest hick town. Because much of what we saw happening in New York was the equivalent of the Royal Nonesuch—you know, a bunch of people crawling around, barking, and calling it theater. But the version in Chicago was people went to the theater just like they went to the ballgame: they wanted to see a show. If it was a drama, it had to be dramatic, and if it was a comedy, it had to funny—period.

(I) was trying to figure out what the hell the mechanism of the play (The Cryptogram) was. And I had all this stuff about the kid not going to sleep, and it finally occurred to me, about the billionth draft, well, it’s about why can’t the kid sleep? It’s not that the kid can’t sleep, but why can’t the kid sleep? So the kid can’t sleep because he knows, subconsciously, that something’s unbalanced in the household. But then why is nobody paying attention to him? I thought, Aha! Well, this is perhaps the question of the play.

I’m not trying to persuade (the audience) of anything; it’s much more basic than that, it’s much more concrete . . . . Obviously, the point of the play is doing it for the audience—like the cook who wants to make that perfect soufflé, that perfect mousse, that perfect carbonara. Of course he isn’t going to do it if he doesn’t think someone’s going to eat it, but the point is to cook it perfectly, not to affect the eaters in a certain way. The thing exists of itself.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, 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 installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Friedrich Hebbel On Playwriting

November 9, 2011

By Friedrich Hebbel, 1813-1863, translated by Eric Bentley

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, New York, 1983

A genuine drama is comparable to one of those big buildings which have almost as many rooms and corridors below ground as above ground. People in general are aware only of the latter; the master builder of the former as well.

The devil take what nowadays passes for beautiful language! This language in drama is the conunterpart of “How beautifully put!” in conversation. Chintz, chintz and more chintz! It may glitter but it gives no heat.

Form is the expression of necessity. Best definition: Content presents the task; form, the solution.

Bad playwrights with good heads give us their scheme instead of characters and their system instead of passions.

In Shakespeare we find, amid the great wealth, the most miserly economy. In general a sign of the highest genius.

Dramatic deeds are not the ones that go straight ahead like bullets.

Drama shouldn’t present new stories but new relationships.

In the drama, what we see as bad we must also see as good.

All dramatic art has to do with impropriety and incomprehension, for what is more improper and uncomprehending than passion?

By shortening a play, you can lengthen it.

In drama no character should ever utter a thought; from the thought in a play come the speeches of all the characters.

The worst plays often start out like the best ones. The battle that’s most ignominiously lost starts out with thunder and lightning just like the one that will be most gloriously won.

Let the What in drama be known and throw no shadows; but not the How.

We know that a man must die; we don’t know what fever he will die of.

The bad conscience of mankind invented tragedy.

Ideas are to drama what counterpoint is to music: nothing in themselves but the sine qua non for everything.

Every genuine comic figure must resemble the hunchback who’s in love with himself.

In modern French plays, morality is the orange in the dead pigs mouth.

You can’t  have a play without ideas, any more than a living man without air. But does it follow that, because there’s earth, fire, air, and water in a man, he is nothing but a receptacle for these four elements?

Monologues: pure  respirations of the soul.

To present the necessary in the form of the accidental: that is the whole secret of dramatic style.

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.


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting

July 13, 2011

Adapted from: Is ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ a Shaggy Dog Story?

By Angeline Goreau, The New York Times, August 9, 19982

“Hound” is timeless in the truly pejorative sense . . . incapable of change. It doesn’t lend itself to deep scrutiny. It’s an entertainment, just like a mechanical toy. It waves a flag, squeaks and turns a turtle and carries on. It’s a logical structure with a vein of parody going through it. There’s no reason to write a play like that. It’s an enjoyment. And that is what it is. One hopes it will work out all right, because in the nature of theater there’s this interesting transition between the text and the event. The ball can be dropped in many different ways. Or not dropped.

I don’t trust writer’s who wax confidently about what they do and why they do it. In writing plays, I find that the problems — if that’s what they are — are very mundane, and in a way surface. The wellspring of a play is often curiously uninteresting — it derives from insubstantial stray images and ideas, What it doesn’t arise from at all, I don’t think, is anything like a complete sense of the whole. You know, What am I going to try to achieve here? What is it going to be about underneath?

I seldom worry about underneath. Even when I’m aware that there is an underneath. I tend to try and suppress it further under, because theater is a wonderfully, refreshingly simple event. It’s a storytelling event. The story holds or it doesn’t . . .  The same would be true of a short story or a novel.

The first idea I had was that I’d like to write a play in which the first scene turned out to have been written by a character in the second scene. That was all I started with. There is a strong — not autobiographical element — but a strong editorial element because the man spouts opinions generally which I subscribe to. So in that sense there’s a lot of me in it, more than in most plays, but only by virtue of the fact that the protagonist is a writer in London in 1980-odd.

“Hapgood” has a physicist in it, who talks about physics a bit. But I don’t think that actually is the problem. The intricacies of the spy plot are quite difficult. I think I’m not as good as John le Carré at doing that kind of story. But I find I’m talking about the play as though it failed in some way for me. In fact, I’m interested by it in so far as it succeeded.

One of the built-in ironies of being a playwright at all is that one is constantly trying to put into dramatic form questions and answers that require perhaps an essay, perhaps a book, but are too important and too subtle, really, to have to account for themselves within the limitations of what’s really happening in the theater, which is that the story is being told in dialogue.

(I use) this ill-suited medium (to account for) matters like morality or empire, or the authenticity of romantic love (with the reservation) that failure is almost built into a play if that is its true purpose, its true function. And so one avoids failure if one can, by denying that that is the function of the play. And one says that, no, that was merely an aspect or a sidelight of the play’s function and the primary function is to tell an entertaining story.

My primary delight, which is a good enough word for the fuel that one needs to do any work at all, is in using the language rather than the purpose to which language is put . . . and more than language, I would say theater — the way theater works, through disclosure and surprise.

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.


Joyce Carol Oates On Playwriting

June 29, 2011

Adapted from: A Novelist Finds the Bare Bones of a Play

The New York Times, November 18, 1990

As soon as you begin the task of adaptation, you discover that it isn’t “adapting” but “transposing” you must do. The essential difference between prose fiction and drama, is that in prose fiction it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue, action, subterranean-subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized.

Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic experience. It is communal; its meeting ground is the point at which the sheerly (sic) imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashback, flash-forwards, digressions and analyses, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force-fields of emotion are almost visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it is in purely emotional terms.

Drama is our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of the mystery of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.

When I write for the theater, I write reaching out in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not at all to say that I am without a deep, abiding, and even stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound.

When I saw “The Triumph of the Spider Monkey,” it was no longer my play; “my” play consisted of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in proportion to how much I was surprised by it.

Except for “In Darkest America,” most of my plays have been adaptations of short stories. The linked monologues of “I Stand Before You Naked” . . . began as a form I call miniature narratives, in which character is reduced to an essence, and dramatized in the smallest possible period of time. I wanted to dissolve the distance between speaker and audience — between object (the other) and subject (this phenomenon of personality we call “I”).

In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are told not by us bu by way of us — “drama” is our realization of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously this involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can only happen when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.

In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over . . . Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there is no final, fully realized performance.

I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am not the playwright, nor even a quivering net of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.

Someone recently asked me, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My answer was a mildly puzzled, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”

I am the most agreeable of playwrights. To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.

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.


Harold Pinter On Playwriting

June 15, 2011

Adapted from: From Demolition Man

By John Lahr, The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007

The author’s position is an odd one. The characters resist him; they are not easy to live with; they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent, you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind-man’s-bluff, hide-and-seek.

(Among people) I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but . . . it’s more like a quicksand. We are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?

To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we went in.

Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labelled and ready for export is dead . . . and meaningless.

You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.

(“The Homecoming,” opening words:) “What have you done with the scissors?” I didn’t know who was saying it. I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to — if he had said, “oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,” there would have been no play. But instead he says, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything. In the back of mind, I think I knew there was another brother going to come back. I think I saw them quite early in a big house, with the doors being taken down, leading to a stairway. I saw them moving in that space.

It (“The Homecoming”) is all to do with me in some way or another. You’re not consciously looking back to . . . the values, the threats. Not at all . . . But it’s a world related to you, otherwise you wouldn’t write it.

I’m well aware that I have been described in some quarters as being “enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding.” Well, I do have my moods, like everyone else.

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.


Sam Shepard On Playwriting V

June 1, 2011

Adapted from: Sam Shepard, Story Teller

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, November 13, 1994

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.

For one thing, (theater) allows you to explore language, which film doesn’t. Film is anti-language . . . Theater combines everything for me, anyway . . . It’s like you pick up a saxophone and you play a saxophone and that’s it. It’s a partnership. I feel at home with it . . . All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very close to music.

It’s a funny thing about freedom with actors. You invite them into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question of how far you let them go into that territory before you start shaping it. I’m a firm believer that so-called blocking doesn’t come out of the director. If the actor has any kind of chops at all, he’s going to find his way around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors around the stage like a general is not my idea of a director.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over a long time is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about storytelling. You know, in the 60’s everybody was down on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure. There was a huge breakaway with those European writers like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel . . . I think you need to include all these notions that at one time you rejected as being part of the established order of things. There’s no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in the foot.

The odd thing to me is I think all of those relationships are inside other relationships. Two friends can have a father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those things aren’t necessarily expressed by external character. There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man, and that’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie. I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that coming from? That’s the mystery. That’s what’s so fascinating.

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.


Today’s Gag

December 26, 2008
blog9Copyright © 2008  Jim Sizemore.

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