Neil Simon On Playwriting X

September 5, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

Felix in The Odd Couple isn’t a watcher—or a doer. He’s stuck. He’s reached a certain point in his life and developed no further. Most of my characters are people who are stuck and can’t move. The grandmother in Lost in Yonkers has been stuck for the last seventy years. The mother in Broadway Bound—she’s really stuck.

I never think of the plays as being hits when I write them. Well, I thought Rumors, of all plays, would be a really good commercial comedy if I wrote it well. I thought The Odd Couple was a black comedy. I never thought it was going to be popular, ever.

I thought The Sunshine Boys wouldn’t be a popular play, but it was very well received. Chapter Two was another one I doubted, because when you touch on a character’s guilt, you touch on the audience’s guilt, and that makes them uncomfortable. Yet the play turned out to be very successful because it was a universal theme. Lost in Yonkers is an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays. What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian—two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.

I wrote The Good Doctor soon after I learned my wife had a year and a half to live . . . . I was reading Chekhov’s short stories and decided, just for practice, to translate one of them into my own language, my own humor. I knew it was a diversion. After a performance, a woman grabbed me in the foyer and said, This is not Neil Simon!

God’s Favorite is an absurdist black comedy about Job that was written as an outcry of anger against Joan’s death. My belief in God had vanished when this beautiful young girl was dying . . . . so, I wrote . . . a black comedy and it did help me get through that period. Sometimes you write a play just for the sake of working at it.

With Lost in Yonkers I suddenly heard from critics who said, This is a new voice for Neil Simon. We want you to go deeper and deeper into this area. At the same time other critics complained . . . . It’s not as funny as the old plays. They wanted Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. I could have spent my whole life writing the Barefoot in the Parks and Odd Couples, which I certainly don’t denigrate, because I love them—but where would I have gone with my life? I would have been standing still, grinding out the same story time after time after time.

What I’ve done, I think, is take the best of me and the best of my observations and try to deepen them to reform them and reflesh them. At some point along the way you discover what it is you do best.

Recently I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett’s biography. When he was about forty-four years old, he said he wanted to write monologue. It was his way of expressing himself to the world. He was shy too. In a sense, I think many of my plays are dramatized monologues. It’s like sitting around the fire and telling you the story of my life.

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 XI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


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.


Dialogue Doodle

August 11, 2010

Dr. Phil Sez . . .

There’s a guy I see just about every day on my morning walk. I like to think of him as “Dr. Phil.” Phil usually says “good morning” and then lunches into an extended monologue about what ails him. Today, his spiel began thus:

Dr. Phil: Felt so bad this morning I almost didn’t come.

Me: But here you are, Phil.

Dr. Phil (ignoring my cheerful comment): Then I took a huge crap and felt better—easy two days worth. (Pause.) So that must have been what it was, that buildup of crap.

On another occasion Phil greeted me and then proceeded to relate a vivid story about his feet:

Dr. Phil: So I wake this morning and stand up and my feet are all swole up and blood-red. (Pause.) Then I touch ’em and they turn green.

This colorful anecdote was delivered without a trace of irony—Phil has no idea how funny he is—so all I could think to say was: “Damn, Phil.” Then I smiled and kept walking. I knew that if I asked him to explain he’d have my ear for at least ten minutes, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t top his opening lines.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Monologue

July 14, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay (the last of three) about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade,” was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. (For a start I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”)

Paul Rhymer’s knack for writing dialogue is nowhere more evident than when he has one of his characters deliver a telephone monologue. Sometimes it’s Vic on the phone curtly dealing with a salesperson or a wrong number, or Rush gabbing with Bluetooth Johnson, Nicer Scott, or another of his buddies from school or the neighborhood. Most often, though, the telephone monologue falls to Sade, usually when she’s home alone taking a break from her domestic duties. The monologue I’ve chosen as representative is from an undated script, most likely from the early 1940s, since Sade’s amiable Uncle Fletcher is featured. Uncle Fletcher joined the show as an on-mike character around that time and here makes one of his slapstick entrances. When he enters, in the company of Rush, Sade’s telephone monologue, or “solo,” is transformed into a trio. Actually it’s a quartet if you count “Ruthie,” on the other end of the line.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s early afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the living room we find Mr. Victor Gook all by herself. Mrs. Gook is at the telephone conversing with her close friend and confidante Mrs. Frederick Stembottom. Listen:

SADE (to phone): I didn’t take you away from anything, did I, lady? Well, ish, I haven’t really got anything to say now that I’ve called you. (giggles) Yes . . . well, what happened I went like a house a-fire all morning long and done nine million jobs around the house and then got dinner and pitched in on my upstairs the minute the boys left for the office an’ school, and finally did quit and wash and put on a clean apron and then discovered I’d been on the go so much I couldn’t settle down. (laughs) You know how that is lady. Person gets theirself all keyed up and they hafta slow down gradual or the boiler explodes. (laughs) Yes . . . so I telephoned you. Hey, maybe that’s not very complimentary. (loud lady laugh) No, but you appreciate how I mean, Ruthie. Sure. Yes, isn’t it a quiet afternoon. One of them hushedy-hushedy afternoons where a person sits and listens to pins dropping. Little bit ago I was out on the back porch shaking my mop and ‘way off in the distance somewhere I heard some fella say giddap to his horse and I bet twenty-five cents he was clear away over on Chestnut Street and that’s eight hundred miles from here if it’s an inch. Yeah . . . you run inta real still afternoons every so often. Like Sunday kinda. I was sayin’ to . . . say, lady, hang on a second, I think I heard my kitchen door. (calls) Hello? Groceries? You, Irving?

RUSH (off): Hi, Mom.

FLETCHER (off): Afternoon, Sadie honey.

SADE (calls, in some surprise): Well—hello. (to phone) Uncle Fletcher and Rush just walked in, Ruthie. I can’t imagine what Rush’s doing home from school. (crash in the kitchen) Oh, my goodness. (calls) What happened?

FLETCHER (cheerfully, off) Fell down.

SADE (calls sharply) Who fell down?

RUSH (off, cheerfully): We both fell down.

SADE (not loud): Oh, for mercy’s sake. (to phone) What, Ruthie? No, we don’t need to hang up. There’s no reason why we hafta cut our conversation short just because . . . huh?

RUSH (approaching): Uncle Fletcher tripped on his shoelace, Mom.

FLETCHER (approaching, cheerfully): No broken bones, Sadie, Honey, no broken bones.

SADE (to phone): Well whatever you say, lady. Seems like a shame though. I take you away from whatever you’re doing and just because my family busts in we hafta cut short our . . . (giggles) . . . well, ish.

RUSH (coming up): Principal called a special teachers’ meeting, Mom.

FLETCHER (coming up): Using the telephone, are you, Sadie?

SADE (to phone) No, you needn’t bother to call back, Ruthie.

FLETCHER (gently): Mama’s using the telephone, Rush. I’d stop my titters, whimpers, and guffaws.

RUSH (amused): O. K.

FLETCHER (sententiously) When the older folks is using the telephone it’s always best to let up on the titters, whimpers and guffaws.

RUSH (chuckling): I’m letting up on ’em.

FLETCHER: You’re a good boy.

SADE (to phone): Well, all righty, Ruthie, whatever you say. Dandy. Fine.

FLETCHER (to Rush, sententiously) There was a little boy in Detroit Michigan neglected to let up on his titters, whimpers and guffaws while Momma was using the telephone and he disappeared and all they ever found was one of his tiny patent leather booties, the tassel singed at the bottom.

RUSH (chuckles): I’ll remember that.

FLETCHER (gently): Yes—it teaches us a lesson.

SADE (to phone): All righty then, Ruthie lady, we’ll leave it like that. You bet. All righty, Ruthie. You betty, lady. Goodbye. (hangs up)

The Last Word
Even before Uncle Fletcher and Rush enter, Sade’s monologue—through Rhymer’s word choices and emphasis, including pauses, giggles and laughs—becomes a dialogue. It really is a solo, of course, but written so skillfully that we can almost hear her duet with Ruthie on the other end of the line. Rhymer, by his example—assuming we’re interested enough to pay attention—is teaching us how to write humorous dialogue even when what he presents appears, at first, to be a monologue. As with the example above, all his lessons are subtle. If we want what he has to teach us, we have to dig it out. After all, Rhymer’s purpose in “Vic and Sade” is not to conduct a writing craft class, he simply want’s to entertain us. But sometimes it does seem that he also intends to instruct us directly, as in the following excerpt from a 1939 script. As we join the Gook family in the little house halfway up in the next block this time, Sade is explaining to Vic that she has been asked by Mr. Gumpox, the garbage man, to circulate a petition in the neighborhood. Seems he’s unhappy with his rate of pay and will consider staying on the job only if Sade can get six hundred signatures, which he assumes will influence the city to give him a raise. (Click on image above to read the caption.)

SADE: Let’s see. I think I can remember most of that petition. “We, the undersigned, being in sane mind an’ sound body, do hereby command, request, an’ implore that Francis Gumpox be retained by the city. As homeowners with a passionate love for a beautiful town in which to live we feel that this community could never stand to lose the services of Francis Gumpox, who knows and loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (laughs): Oh, for gosh sakes, does that guy . . .

SADE: Wait a second, I left out a word. “Who knows and loves garbage disposal like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): Thunder.

SADE (giggles): The other word sounds funny . . . “knows an’ loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): It all sounds funny.

END