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.)