Neil Simon On Playwriting II

July 11, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

For years I’ve been trying to write the play of what happened to me and the seven writers who wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But I’ve never got past page twenty-two because there are seven conflicts rather than one main conflict . . . . I didn’t have somebody to be serious, to anchor it. I always have to find the anchor. I have to find the Greek chorus in the play, the character who either literally talks to the audience or talks to the audience in a sense . . . . More recently, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, I’ve been literally talking to the audience, through the character of Eugene, because it is the only way I can express the writer’s viewpoint.

The writer has inner thoughts and they are not always articulated on the stage—and I want the audience to be able to get inside his head. It’s what I did in Jake’s Women. In the first try out in San Diego the audience didn’t know enough about Jake because all he did was react to the women in his life, who were badgering him, trying to get him to open up. We didn’t know who Jake was. So I introduced the device of him talking to the audience. Then he became the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knew things I never thought I would reveal about Jake—and possibly about myself.

Steven Spielberg, who had gone to see Brighton Beach, got word to me, suggesting the next play should be about my days in the army. I was already thinking about that and I started to write Biloxi Blues, which became a play about Eugene’s rites of passage. I discovered something very important in the writing of Biloxi Blues. Eugene, who keeps a diary, writes in it his belief that Epstein is homosexual. When the other boys in the barracks read the diary and assume it’s true, Eugene feels terrible guilt. He’s realized the responsibility of putting something down on paper, because people tend to believe everything they read.

I’ve always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, This is what they say now. This is what they say next. Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn . . .  I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play . . . . I didn’t get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in . . . . They said, No, no, no. This is where I want to go. So, I started following them. In the second play, Barefoot in the Park, I outlined the first two acts . . . .  I never got through that outline either. In The Odd Couple, I outlined the first act. After a while I got tired of doing even that. I said, I want to be as surprised as anyone else.

If you’d like to read 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.

Part III of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Today’s Gag

January 24, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

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Smooching the Mooch

October 13, 2010

By Jake Jakubuwski


Frankie was a gigolo. Mamie was the lady who supported Frankie. Frankie was twenty years younger than Mamie and Mamie was my mother’s aunt. Being just a kid, I didn’t know that Frankie was a gigolo. In fact, at the time, I didn’t know what a gigolo was. I only knew that he and Aunt Mamie were “together” and that Frankie spent a lot of time “stepping-and-fetching” for Mamie.

Frankie also had a lot of time (and Mamie’s money) to spend at the corner bar, and to buy supplies so he could do his “work”—fancy brushes, expensive oil paint, rolls of canvas to cut to size and attach to wooden rectangles. According to her, Frankie was an “artiste,” and she was going to make him famous. All Frankie needed was encouragement and the right break—and zero worry about where his art materials, meals and booze came from. What I don’t recall in those early years were pictures that Frankie actually painted—never mind the number of  dusty stretched canvas’ in their bedroom smeared with random colors. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing noteworthy about any of them—but what does a 13-year old boy know about art, right?

On a personal level (too personal, in my mind), Frankie insisted that I call him “Uncle Frankie” and he had a nasty habit of getting soused (most days by noon, sooner on Sunday) and when well-lit he’s say: “Come here and give Uncle Frankie a kiss.” Yuck! First off, I didn’t feel good about giving smooches to mooches—uncle, or not. Secondly, Frankie always smelled of last night’s beer, stale cigarette smoke, and some sort of embalming fluid he absolutely swore was an exotic, enticing cologne (attractive to Mamie at least). Finally, for me, just entering puberty, the idea of kissing a guy was simply revolting. Don’t misunderstand—except for his yucky compulsion to kiss the only other male in the house, Frankie never put a hand on me or made an improper advance. In fact, Frankie was a real part of our family. After all, he shared the bedroom of the lady who contributed the most to the rent and other expenses incurred by my grandmother, another aunt, and my mother—when my mother was around. So that gave him some stature in the pecking order. Unfortunately, I was at the tail end of the line, which made me fair game for Frankie’s boozy expression of affection.

I don’t know how Mamie and Frankie got together. One day Frankie was unknown to me and the next I had a new “uncle.” For some time it had not been uncommon for me go to bed on a Friday night and wake up Saturday morning with a stranger sleeping next to me. Just another barfly that came home with the crowd and spent the night. By way of explanation, and to make their presence more palatable, they were often introduced as “Your Uncle Fred from over near Laurel.” I had more Uncles and aunts then any kid for miles around (although I never woke up with an aunt in my bed!). But Uncle Frankie, it turned out, came to stay and become my smooching nemesis. And he was the mooch who (according to the family wisdom) was the cause of Mamie’s impending bankruptcy and future residency in the County Poor House.

I don’t remember the last time Uncle Frankie asked me for a kiss, or what finally happened to him. I had heard that as Mamie’s money began running out, he did too. Then, I heard he was in a detox unit. Six or eight years ago someone told me he had died. Mamie died nearly penniless in a two-room apartment in Eastport—just outside of Annapolis, Maryland. Over her bed hung a painting by Frankie—bold lines in primary colors and smears and splotches of the same tints. As an adult, I still couldn’t see the “art” in his work. But, as I say, what do I know? In any case, the painting wound up curbside awaiting a truck to take it to the dump. It seems to me that even the trash scavengers wouldn’t take the time to salvage the frame. I guess, when it came to art, they were as uninformed as me.

Several years later, My mother and two aunts were sitting around talking about Mamie and Frankie—those two had always been a favorite family topic—and the consensus was that it was Frankie’s fault Mamie died destitute, or nearly so. Translation: “There should have been some left for us!” My mother castigated that “damned gigolo” for taking everything Mamie had and giving her nothing in return.

I piped up and said: “But he did! He gave her hope. He gave her love and stability, at least for a while. He provided an older woman with whatever it was that she needed at the time. And in return Mamie gave Frankie a life-style he couldn’t manage on his own.” I wasn’t trying to defend Uncle Frankie so much as to just point out that it really does “take two to tango.” And Frankie and Mamie did—at least in the early years—really, truly do some fancy dancing!

So, finally, I’m now very happy to give him a little smooch for all that . . .

Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (To locate more of Jake’s short pieces about growing up in the South Baltimore area, copy and paste—or type—his name into this blog’s sidebar window and tap “search.”)


Today’s Gag

September 13, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Dialogue Doodle

August 25, 2010

A Life Lesson ?

The other evening, as we passed a young couple strolling in a local park, my companion and I overheard the following bit of conversation, herewith reported more or less verbatim:

Waspish-American Male: I cannot believe that I lived a whole month with Kentucky people! (Pause.) Very different culture . . .

Asian-American Female: Kentucky people! You actually went to China with Kentucky people!?

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

June 14, 2010

To purchase reprint and/or other rights for this cartoon, buy a framed print, or have it reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, etc., visit the CartoonStock website by clicking the sidebar link.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Photo Quote

December 12, 2009

“Photography is nothing—it’s life that interests me.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908–2004

Magnum Photos

Dialogue Doodle

November 26, 2009

The following bit of dialogue was part of a conversation (political debate?) I overheard recently at a local diner. The brief fragment that I caught, while standing and waiting for my lunch buddy to show up, involved the recent publication of a very popular book by an unsuccessful candidate for high office. My friend arrived and we were seated several booths away from the young couple in question, but as we ate I could still hear their voices, now coming through as only a soft rumble. From the tone I surmised that the Young Woman continued to dominate, as she had in the snippet that I had earlier overheard. Here it is:

Young Man: What I can’t understand is why the press gives that jerk so much attention.

Young Woman: Well, let’s say that Katie Couric and all those other news hounds  had ignored her — how would you have known that she’s a jerk?

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Football Fans—Bah!

September 13, 2008

Over a beer the other evening, my friend Mort said that football players are the third most boring people in the U. S. of A. He awarded the second slot to sportscasters, then went on to say that the fans are the biggest bores of all. Mort tends to make silly lists like that when he’s drinking. Give the man a few brews and he’ll go off the deep end every time.

We were in our favorite neighborhood bar just around the corner from his house, enjoying a cold one and playing darts. Mort, like always, was winning. The funny thing is the more he drinks the better he shoots, and the more he wins the more outrageous his opinions become. Most of his conversational bombshells don’t bother me because I know how he is. I know he likes to drop them just to see what sort of reaction he’ll get—to see me flinch—so I usually let his outlandish statements just lie there. But this time I got upset; the crack about football fans was downright mean. So I came back at him with, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

Mort took the time to score his first bull’s eye before he turned to me and said, “Have you ever listened to one of those pests talk once the pre-season games begin—or even during the draft?

“Mort, I’m a fan myself.”

“But you’re the exception that proves the rule. You’re intelligent—more-or less—but ninety-nine percent of football fans have never had an original thought in their heads. Everything they have to say about their favorite game is warmed-over sportscaster prattle they’ve gleaned from guys like John Madden. And the worst part is they can’t wait to inflict their secondhand insights on anyone within earshot.”

“It’s a free country, Mort. You don’t have to listen.” I tossed my first dart, which missed the board and stuck in the men’s room door.

“Wrong!” Mort said. “In my office after every game those dunderheads call a meeting near my desk to discuss its finer points. Loud. Over and over and over. I’m force-fed boring football stats and idiotic athletic clichés which have been lifted, word-for-word, from some sportscast, and delivered as Revealed Wisdom.”

“When that happens, Mort, just take a break. Go take a leak.”

“You kidding? It’s even worse in the bathroom. Football fans are stationed at every urinal and stall, ready to talk the ears off the trapped souls who at that moment have no choice in the matter. Others buttonhole innocent hand-washers at the sinks. It never occurs to those dimwits that just because you’re male, it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re interested in childish pro football drivel.”

“Really, Mort, you’re overstating the problem.” My second dart struck the target’s metal rim and fell to the floor. I ignored it. “What’s the harm of a little fan chatter? And anyway, it’s only—what, how many games are there in a complete season?” Right off I was sorry I had asked such a basic question and was glad when Mort didn’t notice, or just ignored me.

“Nothing’s wrong with it, if it were only once in a while. The fact is, though, football fans give equal weight to each game, and they discuss it all week long with an intensity usually reserved for an event like the Second Coming. Then the cycle starts again, from scratch. Same crap commentary week after week. The fan’s endless jock-jabber begins to wear really thin by the end of the season.”

Mort shot another bull’s eye. I could see where this game was going, but I got lucky and during my next series I scored a clean ten, which made me feel a little better; at least I wouldn’t be snookered. “Mort,” I said, “you just have a low boredom threshold.”

“Only when it comes to football talk. I get fed up starting with the first reports from training camp.” He fired a thirty-pointer, then said, “Look, buddy, I love the game of football—it’s just the boorish and boring fans I can’t stand. Most of ’em have the social graces of a chimpanzee and the I. Q. of a cucumber.”

“That’s a rash generalization, Mort. The fans I know are—”

He cut me off. “Just listen to ‘em. Like for instance that wild and crazy guy at every home game, the one who leads the team cheers. He’s there every Sunday, skunky-drunk, making a fool of himself and annoying everyone around him, and it’s not just because of his body odor.”

“Not everybody,” I said. “Some of us enjoy the way he really gets into the spirit of the game.” With my next series I managed to score 20 points on the first dart, but the other three somehow wound up in the wall. “Anyway,” I said, “that guy is a bad example of your average football fan.”

“Or a good one, depending on your point of view. The grown men are the worst, you know. They’re little boys in large bodies—with skulls as thick as a lineman’s thighs.”

By this point I was at a loss for words. I had to admit that a lot of Mort’s rant was spot on. The interminable discussion of obscure football facts, the endless repetition of certain trite phrases like “We can win it all if the team stays healthy,” and the childish bantering arguments that fans indulge in does get old fast, even for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like me. But I would never admit that to Mort. I pointed to the darts in his hand. “Your shot.”

Mort toed the line and leaned in toward the board. He slowly raised his right hand, a dart pinched between thumb and forefinger, squinted into the bar gloom, and said, “Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Football fans are really victims. They’re like those suckers that P. T. Barnum said are born every minute.” He flicked his wrist and let the dart fly straight for the bull’s eye—”thunk!” Mort took a deep breath, raised the second dart into firing position and said, “Their worst sin is allowing themselves to be manipulated by slick businessmen who, in order to stimulate ticket sales, regularly threaten to move the team to another city.” Flick—”thunk!”— another bull. Mort smiled, then took a sip of beer. “The team owner’s—those powerful rich guys scheming for more cash to feed their greed—they’re the real bores.”

Couldn’t argue with that. I decided to go to the men’s room rather than watch Mort throw his last dart. I had to, I couldn’t bear it any longer.

A version of this satirical fiction was originally published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on September 21, 1979. Back then it was about baseball fans; but now, since we’re into the football season, I decided to switch it for the blog rewrite. I’ve changed the game, but it doesn’t matter; rabid sports fans—the worst of them—exhibit the same extreme behavior anywhere there’s a ball to pitch, swat or punt. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.