Today’s Quote

September 16, 2015

6a00e550199efb883301676665eed9970b-800wiA Theory of Hurricanes

“People help each other in catastrophes. But they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good. I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable—except during hurricanes. Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love. After the hurricane they took a good hard look at each other on a sunny Monday morning and got a divorce.”

Walker Percy in his 1977 novel, Lancelot.


Today’s Gag

January 15, 2015
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Today’s Quote

July 22, 2014

Hilary Mantel

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Memoir is not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that un-mediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record; this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.”

New York Times Book Review

May 19, 2013


John Guare On Playwriting IX

June 13, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

I deal with reviews by not reading reviews, and that’s a truth. My wife reads them and gives me the gist of them so I know what the quality of my life will be the next year. Get that teaching job.

In the theater, the playwright holds the copyright—actually owns the play and only leases the right to its use for a specific length of time to the producer. In the movies, the producer holds the copyright. The writer is always only a hired hand. In the movies, the writer is paid up front. In the theater, the writer takes his or her chances.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked only with people I admired. When the producers of Atlantic City balked at my being on the set every day, Louis Malle gave the classic answer: If you have someone here for the hair, why not somebody for the words? Writing for the movies is like working on a musical. You have to recognize and accept the collaborative aspects before you start. You have to recognize what work the camera will do, what work you must not do. You underwrite a scene in the movies. The camera will pick up textures of reality that in a play would be the business of words.

Theater poetry is not just highfalutin language . . . . Theater poetry is response to the large event, events that force the poetry. It took me a very long time to realize the mythic size of Ibsen, to see that the mechanics of plot in an Ibsen play function the same way that fate does in Greek tragedy. Truth does not exist merely in the actor feeling the heat of the teacup. Behavioral naturalism belongs to television acting and movie acting. Theater acting should be closer to Cyrano de Bergerac or Falstaff or Edmund the Bastard. Or Ethel Merman. It’s about finding truth on the large scale with the recognition of the actor as performer. In real life we’re all such performers. Naturalism wants to reduce us. Naturalism always seems to be the most unnatural thing.

A novelist writes a manuscript, gives it to the agent or the editor, who sends it back and forth until the publisher accepts it, and one day the author finds the book in stores. But a play—a playwright has not only that wonderful, brutal period of solitude writing the play, but then the day comes when you’re ready to show your work to the theater’s equivalent of a publisher, the producer, and the theater’s equivalent of an editor, the director. You begin working with the designers who will provide the visual entry that introduces the audience to the world you’ve made. You start casting and choosing actors—a process much like the painter choosing the necessary tubes of paint and what consistency and what color they should be. Ahh! With a new shade an entire world opens up.

Each play is a part of the one long play that is a playwright’s life. I know the way each play came out of the previous play. People don’t have radical shifts of consciousness in the course of their lifetimes. I can look at a play I wrote at two a.m. in 1963 the night before I went into the Air Force—The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year—and say, Isn’t that funny. I’m still dealing with the issues in that play—identity, faith, the desperation it takes people to get through their lives, the lunatic order we try to put on the chaos of life and, technically, how to get the play out of the kitchen sink and hurl it into the Niagara Falls of life.

This is the last installment of the John Guare series. 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.



John Guare On Playwriting II

April 25, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

In college I was editor of the literary magazine and wrote sensitive short stories overly inspired by Flaubert. Our English teacher actually knew Katherine Anne Porter; he showed her a short story I had written. She told him she would pay fifteen hundred dollars for the first sentence: “After Pinky vomited, Ingrid Aldamine sat up in bed.” She liked the rhythm. She didn’t mention anything about the rest. However, if I could write one sentence that an actual famous writer would comment on—wow! Those few crumbs were enough for me. But no more stories. I felt I was betraying a higher calling by writing mere short stories or novels. I believed plays to be on a higher and rarer plane. I still do. Novelists were only a couple of hundred years old. Playwrights were thousands of years old. If I was going to be a writer, it had to be plays.

In 1949, I was eleven. My pal, Bobby, and I read a story in Life magazine about two boys spending their summer vacation making a movie of Tom Sawyer. We had no camera but Bobby had a garage. I immediately wrote three plays. Between shanghaiing kids on the block and rounding up puppets, we got together a cast. We then called Life magazine to alert them to this great story. The Time/Life, operator said hello. We have this great story of two boys spending their summer vacation . . . Again, Time/Life, to whom do you wish to speak? No, you see, these two boys . . . Click!

We lowered our sights and called the local Long Island paper: Two boys are putting on plays and—wait! We’re giving all the proceeds to the orphans of Long Beach! Oh yeah? they said. On the last day of our performances, a big black car pulled up to Bobby’s garage. A photographer took our pictures; they published a story about an eleven-year-old playwright. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a portable typewriter because I was a playwright; I still use it.

I’m the only person I know who benefited from the McCarthy period. In 1950 a play I read about, again in Life magazine (obviously my link to the world), opened on Broadway. It was called The Wisteria Trees. Joshua Logan had taken The Cherry Orchard and set it down South. What a good idea! It made me read The Cherry Orchard. What a great play! I knew about Tennessee Williams, again from a story in Life. I even saw the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire . . . . I started reading Chekhov’s plays and loved Three Sisters. I remembered what Joshua Logan had done with The Wisteria Trees. Hmmm. I typed out the first act of my play on my new official playwright’s typewriter—everytime those girls moaned for “Moscow,” I typed in “New Orleans,” hearing the aching, yearning voice of Kim Stanley, whom I knew from television in New York. That was playwriting. Neurotic, misunderstood Southerners trying to get to New Orleans.

It taught me about typing. I learned more about basic play structure poring over the original cast albums of shows . . . the brainstorm that the second song was usually the “want” song. And how in Guys and Dolls the need for a spot for the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York was technically no different than those three sisters yearning to get to Moscow. The need made the story. Creating the arc and completing it.

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 three of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting IV

January 25, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

The director of a play is nailed to words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.

I don’t think there is anything that approaches the theater. The sheer presence of a living person is always stronger than his image. But there’s no reason why TV shouldn’t be a terrific medium. The problem is that the audience watching TV shows is always separated. My feeling is that people in a group, en masse, watching something, react differently, and perhaps more profoundly, than they do when they’re alone in their living rooms. Yet it’s not a hurdle that couldn’t be jumped by the right kind of material. Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry—it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

We had twenty-eight and a half minutes to tell a whole story in a radio play, and you had to concentrate on the words because you couldn’t see anything. You were playing in a dark closet, in fact. So the economy of words in a good radio play was everything. It drove you more and more to realize what the power of a good sentence was, and the right phrase could save you a page you would otherwise be wasting. I was always sorry radio didn’t last long enough for contemporary poetic movements to take advantage of it, because it’s a natural medium for poets. It’s pure voice, pure words. Words and silence; a marvelous medium.

I often write speeches in verse, and then break them down. Much of Death of a Salesman was originally written in verse, and The Crucible was all written in verse, but I broke it up. I was frightened that the actors would take an attitude toward the material that would destroy its vitality. I didn’t want anyone standing up there making speeches. You see, we have no tradition of verse, and as soon as an American actor sees something printed like verse, he immediately puts one foot in front of the other—or else he mutters.

You see, in The Crucible I was completely freed by the period I was writing about—over three centuries ago. It was a different diction, a different age. I had great joy writing that, more than with almost any other play I’ve written. I learned about how writers felt in the past when they were dealing almost constantly with historical material. A dramatist writing history could finish a play Monday and start another Wednesday, and go right on. Because the stories are all prepared for him. Inventing the story is what takes all the time. It takes a year to invent the story. The historical dramatist doesn’t have to invent anything, except his language, and his characterizations . . . . basically if you’ve got the story, you’re a year ahead.

There’s no country I’ve been to where people, when you come into a room and sit down with them, so often ask you, “What do you do?” And, being American, many’s the time I’ve almost asked that question, then realized it’s good for my soul not to know. For a while! Just to let the evening wear on and see what I think of this person without knowing what he does and how successful he is, or what a failure. We’re ranking everybody every minute of the day.

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 V will post next Wednesday.)



Peter De Vries On Humorous Writing

June 8, 2011

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.

You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.

Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.

Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.

Nonsense is such a difficult art!

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.