Thornton Wilder On Playwriting II

October 12, 2011

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

(Continued from last Wednesday.)

Characterization in a novel is presented by the author’s dogmatic assertion that the personage was such, and by an analysis of the personage with generally an account of his or her past. Since, in the drama, this is replaced by the actual presence of the personage before us and since there is no occasion for the intervening all-knowing author to instruct us as to his or her inner nature, a far greater share is given in a play to 1) highly characteristic utterances and 2) concrete occasions in which the character defines itself under action and 3) a conscious preparation of the text whereby the actor may build upon the suggestions in the role according to his own abilities.

The dramatist’s principal interest being the movement of the story, he is willing to resign the more detailed aspects of characterization to the actor and is often rewarded beyond his expectation.

But a play presupposes a crowd. The reasons for this go deeper than 1) the economic necessity for the support of the play and 2) the fact that the temperament of actors is proverbially dependent on group attention. It rests on the fact that 1) the pretense, the fiction, on the stage would fall to pieces and absurdity without the support accorded to it by a crowd, and 2) the excitement induced by pretending a fragment of life is such that it partakes of ritual and festival, and requires a throng.

During the last rehearsals the phrase is often heard: “This play is hungry for an audience.”

Since the theatre is directed to a group-mind, a number of consequences follow: 1) A group-mind presupposes, if not a lowering of standards, a broadening of the fields of interest . . . 2) It is the presence of the group-mind that brings another requirement to the theatre — forward movement . . . Drama on the stage is inseparable from forward movement, from action . . . and an action that is more than a mere progress in argumentation and debate.

The theatre is a world of pretense. It lives by conventions: a convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, a permitted lie . . . The stage is fundamental pretense and it thrives on the acceptance of that fact and in the multiplication of additional pretenses. When it tries to assert that the personages in the action “really are,” really inhabit such and such rooms, really suffer such and such emotions, it loses rather than gains credibility.

The novel is a past reported in the present. On the stage it is always now. This confers upon the action an increased vitality which the novelist longs in vain to incorporate into his work . . . In the theatre we are not aware of the intervening storyteller. The speeches arise from the characters in an apparently pure spontaneity. A play is what takes place. A novel is what one person tells us took place.

Many dramatists have regretted (the) absence of the narrator from the stage, with his point of view, his powers of analyzing the behavior of the characters, his ability to interfere and supply further facts about the past, about simultaneous actions not visible on the stage, and above all his function of pointing the moral and emphasizing the significance of the action . . . But surely this absence constitutes an additional force to the form, as well as an additional tax upon the writer’s skill. It is the task of the dramatist so to co-ordinate his play, through the selection of episodes and speeches, that, though he is himself not visible, his point of view and his governing intention will impose themselves on the spectator’s attention, not as dogmatic assertion or motto, but as self-evident truth and inevitable deduction.

Its justification lies in the fact that the communication of ideas from one mind to another inevitably reaches the point where exposition passes into illustration, into parable, metaphor, allegory, and myth.

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.

Thornton Wilder On Playwriting

October 5, 2011

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

Four fundamental conditions of the drama separate it from the other arts. Each of these conditions has its advantages and disadvantages, each requires a particular aptitude from the dramatist, and from each there are a number of instructive consequences to be derived. These conditions are:

1) The theatre is an art which reposes upon the art of many collaborators;

2) It is addressed to the group-mind;

3) It is based upon a pretense and its very nature calls out a multiplication of pretenses;

4) Its action takes place in a perpetual present time.

The dramatist through working in the theatre gradually learns not merely to take account of the presence of the collaborators, but to derive advantage from them; and he learns, above all, to organize the play in such a way that its strength lies not in appearances beyond his control, but in the succession of events and in the unfolding of an idea, in narration.

The gathered audience sits in a darkened room, one end of which is lighted. The nature of the transaction at which it is gazing is a succession of events illustrating a general idea — the stirring of the idea; the gradual feeding out of information; the shock and countershock of circumstances; the flow of action; the interruption of action; the moments of allusion to earlier events; the preparation of surprise, dread, or delight — all that is the author’s and his alone.

It is just because the theatre is an art of many collaborators, with the constant danger of grave misinterpretation, that the dramatist learns to turn his attention to the laws of narration, its logic and its deep necessity of presenting a unifying idea stronger than its mere collection of happenings. The dramatist must be by instinct a storyteller.

There is something mysterious about the endowment of the story teller . . . It springs, not, as some have said, from an aversion to general ideas, but from an instinctive coupling of idea and illustration; the idea for a born storyteller, can only be expressed imbedded in its circumstantial illustration . . . introduced into his work by the presence of his collaborators . . . The chief of these collaborators are the actors.

The actor’s gift is a combination of three separate faculties . . .

1) An observant and analyzing eye for all modes of behavior about us, for dress and manner, and for the signs of thought and emotion in one’s self and in others.

2) The strength of imagination and memory whereby the actor may, at the indication in the author’s text, explore his store of observation and represent the details of appearance and the intensity of the emotions — joy, fear, surprise, grief, love, and hatred, and through imagination extend them to intenser degrees and to differing characterizations.

3) A physical co-ordination whereby the force of these inner realizations may be communicated to voice, face, and body.

A dramatist prepares the characterization of his personages in such a way that it will take advantage of the actor’s gift.

(To Be continued next Wednesday.)

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.


July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.