George Bernard Shaw on Playwriting

September 18, 2013

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

images-4The formula for the well made play is so easy that I give it for the benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the fortune that awaits all successful manufacturers in this line. First, you “have an idea” for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery . . . . If the innocent wife, banished from her home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and, when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character, and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady’s, simultaneously announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife’s innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the writer has any sort of knack for his work. Comedy is more difficult, because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting the audience out of the theatre as best you can.

(Critics) cannot relish or understand a play that has grown naturally, just as they cannot admire the Venus of MIlo because she has neither a corset or high heeled shoes. They are like the peasants who are so accustomed to food reeking with garlic that when food is served to them without it they declare that it has no taste and is not food at all.

No writer of the first order needs the formula any more than a sound man needs a crutch. In his simplest mood, when he is only seeking to amuse, he does not manufacture a plot: he tells a story. He finds no difficulty in setting people on the stage to talk and act in an amusing, exciting or touching way. His characters have adventures and ideas which are interesting in themselves, and need not be fitted into the Chinese puzzle of a plot.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others 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.


Today’s Gag

May 27, 2013
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November 5, 2012
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October 29, 2012
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John Guare On Playwriting VII

May 30, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

Living in Nantucket got me in touch with the New England part of my past—my mother was from Lynn, Massachusetts, and my father’s family is from Gloucester, Massachusetts . . . .  My parents were born in the 1890s, and I wanted to imagine myself back in that time and write out of that. A pre-Freudian time. I wanted to make sense out of family myths—overheards and recriminations and family legends and half-understood events that happened before I was born in 1938. When my parents were battling at night, I’d hear my mother say to my father, Your grandfather might have been a slave driver, but you’re not turning me into one of his slaves. And I’d put my hands over my ears and stay under the covers. Years later, I wondered what they were talking about, what did that mean? That time in Nantucket awakened a lot of that lost past in me; I was very grateful because a whole new imaginative life began once I got to Nantucket . . . . I wrote Lydie Breeze first, but that’s chronologically the last. To explain the past of the characters, I wrote another play called Gardenia, which dealt with these people at the end of the Civil War. Then I wanted to write the magical time when these people all met during the war. That play is called Women and Water

On a plane coming back from London in 1972, I got in a panic because I had no new work and said to myself, Before this plane lands I’m going to have the first act of something. I don’t care what it is. I can’t land without having another play to work on. I wrote the first act, of Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I promised myself that I would never get in a situation again where a project ended and I had nothing to go on to. If it’s a success you’re stuck with a terrible thing: Oh my god, how am I going to repeat that? Or, if it’s a failure: How do I get back in the saddle again? I like to keep a number of projects going at the same time, so the day after opening I’ve got something in some mid-state to get to and not have to start from scratch.

I lived over by the river in Greenwich Village in the seventies. It was a creepy time because of a lot of murders going on there. One morning I went to a coffee shop up the street and saw four tough kids, aged eleven or twelve, sitting in the booth. Two boys. Two girls. The boys had their sleeves rolled up to show the enrapt girls their forearms covered with an awful lot of gold wristwatches. They leaned forward like conspirators, whispering, giggling, bragging. I couldn’t get close enough to hear the words. I went home and wrote down what I imagined they were saying. Later that week, I got knocked down by a speed bike. The cyclist, masked in goggles, screamed over me, You asshole! You broke the chain on my bike! The membrane between life and death seemed so tenuous that it’s hard to tell the difference. The collision must have unlocked some buried fantasy because I went home and wrote the play very quickly. It was narrated very merrily by a dead porn star; I wrote a lot of Broadway-style songs for her because they were fun to write.

Each play has its own rules.

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 VIII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting XIII

March 28, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(Senator) McCarthy (was) actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem. So I started to go back, not with the idea of writing a play (The Crucible), but to refresh my own mind because it was getting eerie. For example, (McCarthy)  holding up his hand with cards in it, saying, “I have in my hand the names of so-and-so.” Well, this was a standard tactic of seventeenth-century prosecutors confronting a witness who was reluctant or confused, or an audience in a church which was not quite convinced that this particular individual might be guilty . . . . He had nothing at all—he simply wanted to secure in the town’s mind the idea that he saw everything, that everyone was transparent to him. It was a way of inflicting guilt on everybody, and many people responded genuinely out of guilt; some would come and tell him some fantasy, or something that they had done or thought that was evil in their minds. I had in my play, for example, the old man who comes and reports that when his wife reads certain books, he can’t pray. He figures that the prosecutors would know the reason, that they can see through what to him was an opaque glass. Of course he ends up in a disaster because they prosecuted his wife. Many times completely naive testimony resulted in somebody being hanged.

I never used to, but I think now that, while I hadn’t taken over an ideology, I did absorb a certain viewpoint. That there is tragedy in the world but that the world must continue: one is a condition for the other. Jews can’t afford to revel too much in the tragic because it might overwhelm them. Consequently, in most Jewish writing there’s always the caution, “Don’t push it too far toward the abyss, because you’re liable to fall in.” I think it’s part of that psychology and it’s part of me, too. I have, so to speak, a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work.

I do have about five things started—short stories, a screenplay, et cetera. I’m in the process of collecting my short stories. But I tell myself, What am I doing. I should be doing a play. I have a calendar in my head. You see, the theater season starts in September, and I have always written plays in the summertime. Almost always—I did write View from the Bridge in the winter. So, quite frankly, I can’t say. I have some interesting beginnings, but I can’t see the end of any of them. It’s usually that way: I plan something for weeks or months and suddenly begin writing dialogue which begins in relation to what I had planned and veers off into something I hadn’t even thought about. I’m drawing down the lightning, I suppose. Somewhere in the blood you have a play, and you wait until it passes behind the eyes.

This is the last post in the Arthur Miller series. 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.


Today’s Gag

January 30, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

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