Today’s Quote

February 3, 2016

Chekhov2Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.”

Anton Chekhov (Click image to enlarge.)

Short-story writer and dramatist, 1860-1904.


Athol Fugard On Playwriting

October 31, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

By eighteen, by the time I went to university, I knew that somehow my life was going to be about putting words on paper. Originally I thought I was going to write the great South African novel, then poetry, and only when I was twenty-four or five did the thought of theater come into my head. That obviously relates to my meeting my wife Sheila, who, when I met her, was an out-of-work actress.

I can’t think of a single one of my plays that does not represent a coincidence between an external and an internal event. Something outside of me, outside even my own life, something I read in a newspaper or witness on the street, something I see or hear, fascinates me. I see it for its dramatic potential. That external event affords me the opportunity to deal with what has been building up inside me. For example, the writing of The Bloodknot. I remember the genesis of that, even though it happened twenty-five years ago. I am singularly prone to that most human of all diseases—guilt. I’ve had my fair measure of it. But the image that generated The Bloodknot had absolutely nothing to do with the racial situation in South Africa. The seminal moment was my returning home late one night and going into the room where my brother was sleeping. My brother is a white man like myself. I looked down at him, and saw in that sleeping body and face, all his pain. Life had been very hard on him, and it was just written on his flesh. It was a scalding moment for me. I was absolutely overcome by my sense of what time had done to what I remembered as a proud and powerful body. I saw the pain: that is the seminal image in The Bloodknot.

I was trying to examine . . . . the existential guilt that I feel when another person suffers, is victimized, and I can do nothing about it. South Africa afforded me the most perfect device for examining this guilt without going into the area of the absurd as Ionesco did by giving a man a rhinoceros’s horn.

I got to know an Afrikaner in Port Elizabeth who had been committed to the struggle for decency and dignity and human rights, but who was suddenly suspected of being a police informer. His name was Piet. Piet’s story gave me a chance to deal with the fact that you cannot simply dispose of the Afrikaner as the villain in the South African situation. If that’s the only sense you have of the Afrikaner in South Africa at this moment, your thinking is too naive, and you are never really going to understand what is happening in that country. You’ll never understand how we landed in the present situation or what’s going to come out of it. The terrible and challenging thing about the Afrikaner is his complexity: he is not just bad; there’s good as well. The case of Piet Bezuidenhout occurred at a time when I was ready to put an Afrikaner—not a hero, but a survivor—up on the stage. That was my internal provocation.

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 II of this Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting VII

August 15, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

This will give you an indication of how little I thought my career would amount to. I thought The Odd Couple would probably be the end of my career, so it wouldn’t make any difference that I had used Felix Ungar in Come Blow Your Horn. It was a name that seemed to denote the prissiness of Felix, the perfect contrast to the name of Oscar. Oscar may not sound like a strong name, but it did to me—maybe because of the k sound in it . . . . k cuts through the theater. You say a k-word, and they can hear it.

I have this office. There are four or five rooms in it and no one is here but me. No secretary, no one, and I’ve never once in the many years that I’ve come here ever felt lonely or even alone. I come in and the room is filled with—as corny as it might sound—these characters I’m writing, who are waiting each day for me to arrive and give them life. I’ve also written on airplanes, in dentist’s offices, on subways. I think it’s true for many writers. You blank out whatever is in front of your eyes. That’s why you see writers staring off into space. They’re not looking at “nothing,” they’re visualizing what they’re thinking. I never visualize what a play will look like on stage, I visualize what it looks like in life. I visualize being in that room where the mother is confronting the father.

I wrote my early plays at the typewriter because it was what writers looked like in His Girl Friday . . . . But my back started to get so bad from bending over a typewriter eight hours a day . . . so I started to write in pads. Then a curious thing happened. I was in England and found that they have pads over there with longer pages and thinner spaces between the lines. I liked that because I could get much more on a single page. At a single glance I could see the rhythm of the speeches. If they’re on a smaller page with wide spaces you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. You have to keep turning . . . . Sometimes I write on both sides of the page, but I always leave myself lots of room to make notes and cross things out. I’ll write about three pages, then go to the typewriter and type that out. Then the next day I’ll read those three pages again and maybe not like them and go back to the notebook—write it out, make changes, and then retype it. The typing is boring for me, but I can’t use a word processor. It feels inhuman. It seems to me that every script comes out of a computer looking like it was written by the same person. My typewriter has its own characteristics, its own little foibles. Even there, I black out parts and write marginal notes. I’d like it to be neat, but I don’t like to send it to a professional typist because they invariably correct my purposely made grammatical errors. I try to write the way people speak, not the way people should speak.

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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting III

July 18, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

The writing of the play is the . . . . frightening part because you walk into a forest without a knife, without a compass. But if your instincts are good, if you have a sense of geography, you find that you’re clearing a path and getting to the right place. If the miracle happens, you come out at the very place you wanted to. But very often you have to go back to the beginning of the forest and start walking through it again, saying, I went that way. It was a dead end. You cross out, cross over. You meet new friends along the way, people you never thought you’d meet. It takes you into a world you hadn’t planned on going to when you started the play. The play may have started out to be a comedy, and suddenly you get into a place of such depth that it surprises you. As one critic aptly said, I wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs about the family I wished I’d had instead of the family I did have.

Sometimes I start laughing—and I’ve had moments in this office when I’ve burst into tears . . . . The moment had triggered a memory or a feeling that was deeply hidden. That’s catharsis. It’s one of the main reasons I write the plays. It’s like analysis without going to the analyst. The play becomes your analysis.

I thought it seemed odd to leave the Eugene saga finished after two plays. Three is a trilogy—I don’t even know what two plays are called. So, I decided to write the third one, and the idea came immediately. It was back to the war theme again, only these were domestic wars. The boys were having guilts and doubts about leaving home for a career writing comedy. Against this played the war between the parents. I also brought in the character of the socialist grandfather who was constantly telling the boys, You can’t just write jokes and make people laugh. Against this came Blanche from the first play, Brighton Beach, trying to get the grandfather to move to Florida to take care of his aging, ill wife. To me, setting people in conflict with each other is like what those Chinese jugglers do, spinning one plate, then another, then another. I wanted to keep as many plates spinning as I could.

(T)he play may be based on incidents that happened in my life—but they’re not written the way they happened. Broadway Bound comes closest to being really autobiographical. I didn’t pull any punches with that one. My mother and father were gone when I wrote it, so I did tell about the fights and what it was like for me as a kid hearing them. I didn’t realize until someone said after the first reading that the play was really a love letter to my mother!

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 IV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting II

July 11, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

For years I’ve been trying to write the play of what happened to me and the seven writers who wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But I’ve never got past page twenty-two because there are seven conflicts rather than one main conflict . . . . I didn’t have somebody to be serious, to anchor it. I always have to find the anchor. I have to find the Greek chorus in the play, the character who either literally talks to the audience or talks to the audience in a sense . . . . More recently, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, I’ve been literally talking to the audience, through the character of Eugene, because it is the only way I can express the writer’s viewpoint.

The writer has inner thoughts and they are not always articulated on the stage—and I want the audience to be able to get inside his head. It’s what I did in Jake’s Women. In the first try out in San Diego the audience didn’t know enough about Jake because all he did was react to the women in his life, who were badgering him, trying to get him to open up. We didn’t know who Jake was. So I introduced the device of him talking to the audience. Then he became the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knew things I never thought I would reveal about Jake—and possibly about myself.

Steven Spielberg, who had gone to see Brighton Beach, got word to me, suggesting the next play should be about my days in the army. I was already thinking about that and I started to write Biloxi Blues, which became a play about Eugene’s rites of passage. I discovered something very important in the writing of Biloxi Blues. Eugene, who keeps a diary, writes in it his belief that Epstein is homosexual. When the other boys in the barracks read the diary and assume it’s true, Eugene feels terrible guilt. He’s realized the responsibility of putting something down on paper, because people tend to believe everything they read.

I’ve always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, This is what they say now. This is what they say next. Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn . . .  I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play . . . . I didn’t get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in . . . . They said, No, no, no. This is where I want to go. So, I started following them. In the second play, Barefoot in the Park, I outlined the first two acts . . . .  I never got through that outline either. In The Odd Couple, I outlined the first act. After a while I got tired of doing even that. I said, I want to be as surprised as anyone else.

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 III of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting

July 4, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

As many plays as I’ve written—twenty-seven, twenty-eight—I can’t recollect a moment when I’ve said, This would make a good play. I never sit down and write bits and pieces of dialogue. What I might do is make a few notes on who’s in the play, the characters I want, where it takes place, and the general idea of it. I don’t make any outlines at all. I just like to plunge in. I’ll start right from page one because I want to hear how the people speak. Are they interesting enough for me? Have I captured them? It goes piece by piece, brick by brick. I don’t know that I have a play until I’ve reached thirty, thirty-five pages.

I think about thematic plays but I don’t believe I write them. Nothing really takes shape until I become specific about the character and the dilemma he’s in. Dilemma is the key word. It is always a dilemma, not a situation. To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the theme of the play is until I’ve written it and the critics tell me.

In Broadway Bound I wanted to show the anatomy of writing comedy—with the older brother teaching Eugene, which was the case with my brother Danny and me. Stan keeps asking Eugene for the essential ingredient in comedy and when Eugene can’t answer, Stan says, “Conflict!” When he asks for the other key ingredient, and Eugene can only come up with, “More conflict?” Stan says, “The key word is wants. In every comedy, even drama, somebody has to want something and want it bad. When somebody tries to stop him—that’s conflict.” By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind. All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself. You go by sequential activity. One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict. As Stan says, it’s got to be a very, very strong conflict, not one that allows the characters to say, Forget about this! I’m walking out. They’ve got to stay there and fight it out to the end.

I’ve got infinitely more plays in the drawer than have seen the lights of the stage. Most of them never come out of the drawer, but occasionally one will and it amazes me how long it has taken to germinate and blossom. The best example would be Brighton Beach Memoirs. I wrote the first thirty-five pages of the play and gave it to my children, Nancy and Ellen, and Marsha, my wife at the time. They read it and said, This is incredible. You’ve got to go on with it. I showed it to my producer, Manny Azenberg and to Gordon Davidson, and they said, This is going to be a great play. I knew the play was a turn in style for me, probing more deeply into myself, but maybe the pressure of the words great play scared me, so I put it away. Periodically, I would take it out and read it and I wouldn’t know how to do it. After nine years I took it out one day, read the thirty-five pages, picked up my pen and the pad I write on and finished the play in six weeks. I have the feeling that in the back of your mind there’s a little writer who writes while you’re doing other things, because I had no trouble at that point. Obviously, what had happened in the ensuing years in my life made clear to me what it should be about. Somewhere in the back of my head I grew up, I matured. I was ready to write that play.

Sometimes it helps to have some encouragement. Once I was having dinner with Mike Nichols and he asked, What are you doing? I said, I’m working on a play about two ex-vaudevillians who haven’t worked together or seen each other in eleven years and they get together to do an Ed Sullivan Show. He said, That sounds wonderful. Go back and finish it. So I did. It was as though a critic had already seen the play and said, I love 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 II of this Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare On Playwriting VIII

June 6, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

If I don’t have anything to write about . . . I copy passages out of what I’m reading. The papers. A novel. Any writer is a sculptor who makes his own clay and then has to protect that clay in hopes of transformation.

In . . . journals I can happily be my own hero and victim. But when you translate that journal material into a play, you begin building a new world; and the I becomes just another citizen of that world to be treated with the same objective scrutiny, irony, and disdain. Besides, I don’t like autobiographical work where you can tell which character is the author because he or she is the most sensitive, the most misunderstood, the most sympathetic. Everybody including yourself should be fair game.

The typical trouble is with endings . . . . If you knew where you were going why would you bother writing? There’d be nothing to discover. I can still remember throwing up when I realized what the ending of House of Blue Leaves would be—that after the songwriter realized the true worth of his work he would have to kill his wife because she saw him as he was.

I love actors who are performers, who are clowns—meaning they are willing to make fools of themselves, to stride that brink of panic. I feel that Stanislavsky—at least the way he’s been interpreted through the Method in America—has been the enemy of performance; I’m not interested in that style of naturalism. How we escape naturalism always seems to be the key. Naturalism is great for television and the small screen. Theatrical reality happens on a much higher plane. People on a stage are enormous, there to drive us crazy.

I once asked Lanford Wilson (how he picked a director) and he said, Easy. I ask the potential director to tell me the story of my play, and if his story matches up with my story then perhaps we can work together.

In 1965 I got a job . . . as William Inge’s assistant on a new pre-Broadway play. I needed to learn how a play was physically put together by a professional playwright. I never even asked if Inge was any good, but he’d had success and had connected mightily with audiences in the past. Picnic. Bus Stop. If I didn’t like his work, the fault was mine. After the opening of the play, Family Things, Etc., later called Where’s Daddy?, the critic from the Boston paper had Inge on his TV show as a guest. He read Inge his review of the show with the camera on Inge’s face. The review was unbelievably cruel and unexpected. Inge . . . . never worked on the play again. He committed suicide two years later. I learned if one is going to be a playwright one must develop armor to deal with such horrific occupational hazzards.

Jean Kerr wrote Inge soliciting funds for a playwriting group. Inge replied, Isn’t helping new dramatists a little like helping people into hell?

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 IX of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.