John Guare On Playwriting III

May 2, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

Until I went to Catholic high school in Brooklyn. I took a long subway ride each day to Williamsburg, which was simultaneously an old Hasidic and a brand new Latino community. I learned how to conjugate Latin verbs and do Euclidean geometry standing up in a packed morning rush hour. The training of doing homework in a crowded subway is good preparation for working in the theater where rehearsal is the place you do your rewriting—nightmarishly public, even if it’s just the cast and crew. I also went to more and more plays. The best thing I ever saw was Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Tamburlaine the Great. I still haven’t seen anything like Anthony Quayle striding over a map of the world. A body hoisted to the top of the Winter Garden stage and down below a phalanx of archers shooting arrows into it. Marlowe was better than anybody.

(At Yale) I read every play in the library and talked about plays and wrote plays, ushered at the Shubert and learned how plays were rewritten and re-rehearsed; then I’d see them in New York and see how sometimes the rewriting had harmed them.

In a good playwriting course you learn which playwright you write like. And why you admire that writer.

If you can’t be arrogant in drama school, where can you be? You learn to approach, say, Chekhov as a peer. How does he deal with entrances and exits? You study how Chekhov gets somebody offstage; you see how he takes a simple exit in Uncle Vanya, in which Sonya leaves to ask permission to play the piano and builds to Sonya’s sudden return—“He says no.”—a heart-stopping moment that sums up a life.

I saw a college production of The Importance of Being Earnest at every performance, and so I wrote a play in emulation of Wilde. I wrote an additional act to Plough and the Stars because O’Casey didn’t go far enough. Shaw—Heartbreak House is the best. Williams’s Orpheus Descending opened in Washington my freshman year, and I went to the first performance. A latecomer fell noisily down the steep balcony stairs during the first act; I yelled out, It’s Orpheus descending! and everybody laughed. Oh, if only I could be European or Southern and not cursed with the nothingness of my surroundings!

O’Neill won a Nobel, so he was like a European. It’s hard to learn from somebody like O’Neill. He’s great in spite of his flaws. His genius has nothing to teach others except to keep writing all your life, and maybe at the end you’ll write a few masterpieces.

We can only learn one lesson from Shakespeare and that’s that there are no stage directions. It never says, Juliet (in a melancholy yet noble, quixotic way). The emotions and the intentions must be firmly embedded right in the lines.

I was very taken with Auden and Isherwood’s Ascent of F6 because it took place scaling a mountain. I only knew plays in living rooms. I hated our living room. Through reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and reading about him, I learned about his friend on the Riviera, Philip Barry, also an Irish American. I liked the destructive lives they led and the glamorous wish-fulfillment worlds of Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. I wished I lived in their living rooms with no financial necessities. I liked the rhythm and artificiality of high comedy. And I liked Barry’s plays for their mood changes. They could suddenly go pensive. For learning purposes, they seemed more manageable than O’Neill.

Barry wrote not only boulevard plays like Holiday or Paris Bound, but far more instructive, nobly failed experiments like Hotel Universe or Here Come the Clowns. I did a thesis on him and learned about the nineteenth-century form comedie larmoyante, “tearful comedy”—noble and brave and smiling through the tears and flattering the audience. Take the closing lines of The Philadelphia Story: “You look like a goddess.” “Yes, but I feel like a human being.” And how comedie larmoyante grew into the well-made plays of Sardou and Scribe and then how that was turned on its ear by Ibsen whose plays did everything not to make you comfortable.

Moss Hart said the audience will give you all their attention in the play’s first fifteen minutes; but in the sixteenth minute they will decide whether to go on the journey you want them to take. That first fifteen minutes draws up the contract of your agreement with the audience. You can subvert it or play with it, but you must set up the premises for the evening, whether the play is Mother Courage or Getting Gertie’s Garter—well, maybe not Getting Gertie’s Garter. I once gave a course at Yale on only the first fifteen minutes of a play. The Homecoming. The Cherry Orchard. What the Butler Saw. The information the audience receives in that opening movement, that musical statement, allows us to enter the world of that play.

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 John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare on Playwriting

April 18, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

To stay around any place you love, you have to have a job . . . . I worked backstage at summer stock doing jobs from garbage man, to strapping on Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg, to fixing Gloria Swanson’s broken plumbing in her dressing room with her yelling at me as I worked the plunger. I ran the light board for her show, which involved bringing up all the stage lights surreptitiously when she came onstage so the audience would subliminally think, Gee, isn’t everything brighter when she’s around? . . . . It was called a “star bump.” Knowing lore like that made me feel there was a secret freemasonry to the theater. Then I toured as an advance man for a summer stock package, setting up the show each week in a different theater before moving on to the next. Even with Six Degrees of Separation I felt part of my job as playwright was to go backstage two or three times every week during the run to check the backstage temperature—who’s unhappy, who’s not speaking, whose costumes are wearing out. You must keep people happy backstage because that affects what’s onstage. During a run, the playwright feels like the mayor of a small town filled with noble creatures who have to get out there and make it brand new every night. When a production works, it’s unlike any other joy in the world.

My parents started taking me to plays early. Plays have a celebratory nature that no other form has. Theater always meant celebration, a birthday, a reward for good grades. I felt at home in a theater. I loved being part of an audience. All the rules—the audience has to see the play on a certain date at a certain time in a certain place in a certain seat. You watched the stage in unison with strangers. The theater had intermissions where you could smoke cigarettes in the lobby and imagine you were interesting. The theater made everybody in the audience behave better, as if they were all in on the same secret. I found it amazing that what was up on that stage could make these people who didn’t know each other laugh, respond, gasp in exactly the same way at the same time.

My mother’s family was in show business. Her two uncles toured in vaudeville with a bill of sixteen plays they cobbled together from 1880 to 1917 with titles like Pawn Ticket 210, The Old Toll House, and Girl of the Garrison. Lines like the old man coming forward and saying: Twenty five years ago this very night my son left home taking the money he did not know was rightfully his. Oh, if I could only see him again. (Flickering outside the window.) Oh, the same lightning! The same thunder! (Knock knock.) Who can that be!

My grandfather was a cop in Lynn, Massachusetts. In a raid on a Lynn cathouse they found a very small child left by one of the arrested girls. He brought the baby home; he turned out to be five years old and a midget. Little Billy was taken into the act by the uncles for the good reason that he was a great little hoofer and song shouter. The act broke up when little Billy left to join the George M. Cohan Review of 1918; dressed as a tiny soldier, he was one of the cast who introduced “Over There.” My mother’s real brother, who was known in our family as Big Bill, became an agent for stars like W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, and Will Rogers. Big Bill was called “Square Deal” Grady by Damon Runyon for the “creative” contracts he made with his clients. He was head of casting at MGM from 1934 to 1956. I never saw Big Bill much but his presence and power to discover people figured heavily in my dream life. In fact, the monologue that opens the second act of House of Blue Leaves happened exactly as described: Big Bill was on a major MGM talent hunt searching for an unknown child to play Huckleberry Finn. To escape all these kids, he came to see us. I decided fate had sent him to me: I would be Huck. I packed my bags and went mad and auditioned. He quickly left thinking he’d been set up by my parents. My mother cried. It was horrible. I gave up all dreams of acting at age eight. Playwriting seemed a lot safer.

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 two of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Irwin Shaw on Playwriting

April 11, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 4

Interviewed by George Plimpton and John Phillips

(M)y first job was writing Dick Tracy . . . . It was a radio show. I pushed Dick Tracy into situations and rescued him five times a week. It made me a living and gave me time to do my own writing.

(A)most every writer will tell you that events that happened to him before he started writing are the most valuable to him. Once he starts writing he seems to observe the world through a filter. I believe that’s true about writers: that the unconscious observation of things, a kind of absorbing of life that goes on before he becomes a writer, that is what is most useful to him. When he starts observing things professionally and taking notes and trying to remember, he may collect a lot more but he loses the spontaneous quality and the flow. He becomes too systematic. It’s his job to be, but he never gets anything as valuable as what he got unconsciously. He has become the observer rather than the actor. The best portrayal of the type that I know is the character of Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and then there’s Philip Quarles in Huxley’s Point Counter Point who wrote notes on his own reactions while his son was dying of meningitis

(F)ailure is inevitable for the writer. Any writer. I don’t care who he is, or how great he is, or what he’s written. Sooner or later he’s going to flop and everybody who admired him will try to write him off as a bum. He can’t help it. He’s bound to write something bad. Shakespeare wrote a few bad plays

I think the course of my writing during the thirties pretty well reflects what most of my generation was preoccupied with then. We began in the Depression, very dedicated and oppressed and doom-conscious. In the early thirties we were against a new war at any cost. We believed that simply by protesting against war we could avoid it. We kept saying to ourselves “we won’t fight again ever about anything.” My play (Bury the Dead) was produced in 1936 and the play that won the Pulitzer Prize for that year was Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, and that was a fierce attack on munitions makers.

(Theater is) the hardest of them all. Young novelists come a dime a dozen, but the playwright must be older, more experienced, and in more complete control of his craft. The scope of the novel is such that mistakes can be made, even serious mistakes, without impairing the value of the work. But the theater audience is hypercritical and the form of the play is extremely exacting, and one mistake and you’re through. I’ve had a hard time with the theater. I’ve always been anxious to write plays. I read all kinds of plays and books on the theater and books about how to write plays, but all I learned was that playwriting is something nobody can teach you.

I wrote five plays before Bury the Dead. They were all bad, and I didn’t show them to anybody. I had to write them to practice, and that’s the way I learned. Since Bury the Dead, I’ve written seven plays, all but The Gentle People flops. I like the theater as a form, but I’m not so sure about its being the right one for me. You never can tell what’s going to happen. My play The Gentle People was translated into French and produced in Paris last winter, thirteen years after it was done at home. It was perhaps the greatest theatrical success I’ve had. They called it Philippe et Jonas and the French appreciated it as I meant it to be: a combination fairy tale and joke. In New York it was accepted by critics and audiences alike as a head-on melodrama.

I have a fine play in mind I’ll write for them someday. The curtain slides up on a stage bare except for a machine gun facing the audience. Then after a pause in which the audience is given time to rustle their paper bags and their programs, wheeze and cough and settle in their seats, the actor enters. He’s a tall man dressed in evening clothes. He comes downstage to the footlights and, after a little bow, smiles charmingly at the audience, giving them more time to mumble and rustle and cough and whisper and settle in their seats. Then he walks upstage, adjusts the machine gun, and blasts them.

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.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting X

March 7, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(B)efore I wrote my first successful play, I wrote . . . fourteen or fifteen other full-length plays and maybe thirty radio plays. The majority of them were nonrealistic plays. They were metaphorical plays, or symbolic plays; some of them were in verse, or in one case — writing about Montezuma — I turned out a grand historical tragedy, partly in verse, rather Elizabethan in form. Then I began to be known really by virtue of the single play I had ever tried to do in completely realistic Ibsen-like form, which was All My Sons. The fortunes of a writer! The others, like Salesman, which are a compound of expressionism and realism, or even A View from the Bridge, which is realism of a sort (though it’s broken up severely), are more typical of the bulk of the work I’ve done. After the Fall is really down the middle, it’s more like most of the work I’ve done than any other play — excepting that what has surfaced has been more realistic than in the others. It’s really an impressionistic kind of a work. I was trying to create a total by throwing many small pieces at the spectator.

I saw one production (of After the Fall) which I thought was quite marvelous. That was the one Zeffirelli did in Italy. He understood that this was a play which reflected the world as one man saw it. Through the play the mounting awareness of this man was the issue, and as it approached agony the audience was to be enlarged in its consciousness of what was happening. The other productions that I’ve seen have all been really realistic in the worst sense. That is to say, they simply played the scenes without any attempt to allow the main character to develop this widened awareness. He has different reactions on page ten than he does on page one, but it takes an actor with a certain amount of brains to see that evolution. It isn’t enough to feel them. And as a director, Zeffirelli had an absolutely organic viewpoint toward it. The play is about someone desperately striving to obtain a viewpoint.

(F)or years theatrical criticism was carried on mainly by reporters. Reporters who, by and large, had no references in the aesthetic theories of the drama, except in the most rudimentary way. And off in a corner, somewhere, the professors, with no relation whatsoever to the newspaper critics, were regarding the drama from a so-called academic viewpoint — with its relentless standards of tragedy, and so forth. What the reporters had very often was a simple, primitive love of a good show. And if nothing else, you could tell whether that level of mind was genuinely interested or not . . . . They knew how to laugh, cry, at least a native kind of reaction, stamp their feet — they loved the theater. Since then, the reporter-critics have been largely displaced by academic critics or graduates of that school. Quite frankly, two-thirds of the time I don’t know what they really feel about the play. They seem to feel that the theater is an intrusion on literature . . . . I don’t think we can really do away with joy: the joy of being distracted altogether in the service of some aesthetic. That seems to be the general drift, but it won’t work: sooner or later the theater outwits everybody. Someone comes in who just loves to write, or to act, and who’ll sweep the audience, and the critics, with him.

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 XI will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting VI

February 8, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

For years theatrical criticism was carried on mainly by reporters. Reporters who, by and large, had no references in the aesthetic theories of the drama, except in the most rudimentary way. And off in a corner, somewhere, the professors, with no relation whatsoever to the newspaper critics, were regarding the drama from a so-called academic viewpoint—with its relentless standards of tragedy, and so forth. What the reporters had very often was a simple, primitive love of a good show. And if nothing else, you could tell whether that level of mind was genuinely interested or not. There was a certain naïveté in the reportage. They could destroy plays which dealt on a level of sensibility that was beyond them. But by and large, you got a playback on what you put in. They knew how to laugh, cry, at least a native kind of reaction, stamp their feet—they loved the theater. Since then, the reporter-critics have been largely displaced by academic critics or graduates of that school. Quite frankly, two-thirds of the time I don’t know what they really feel about the play. They seem to feel that the theater is an intrusion on literature. The theater as theater—as a place where people go to be swept up in some new experience—seems to antagonize them. I don’t think we can really do away with joy: the joy of being distracted altogether in the service of some aesthetic. That seems to be the general drift, but it won’t work: sooner or later the theater outwits everybody. Someone comes in who just loves to write, or to act, and who’ll sweep the audience, and the critics, with him.

Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use. He’s the litmus paper of the arts. He’s got to be, because if he isn’t working on the same wavelength as the audience, no one would know what in hell he was talking about. He is a kind of psychic journalist, even when he’s great; consequently, for him the total atmosphere is more important in this art than it is probably in any other.

There are some biological laws in the theater which can’t be violated. It should not be made into an activated chess game. You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed. The larger the better. It’s the law of the theater. In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play. Fourteen thousand people! And nobody can tell me that those people were all readers of the New York Review of Books! Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people. I think for much the same reasons—because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder—and not very well-motivated at that.

(Eugene O’Neill) had one virtue which is not technical, it’s what I call “drumming”; he repeats something up to and past the point where you say, “I know this, I’ve heard this ninety-three different ways,” and suddenly you realize you are being swept up in something that you thought you understood and he has drummed you over the horizon into a new perception. He doesn’t care if he’s repeating. It’s part of his insensitivity. He’s a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils. His virtue is that he insists on his climax, and not the one you would want to put there. His failing is that so many of his plays are so distorted that one no longer knows on what level to receive them. His people are not symbolic; his lines are certainly not verse; the prose is not realistic—his is the never-never land of a quasi-Strindberg writer. But where he’s wonderful, it’s superb.

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 VII will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting V

February 1, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. You live in the world even though you only vote once in a while. It determines the extensions of your personality. I lived through the McCarthy time, when one saw personalities shifting and changing before one’s eyes, as a direct, obvious result of a political situation. And had it gone on, we would have gotten a whole new American personality—which in part we have.

How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little piddling private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all “a story,” a myth for its own sake.

You can’t conceive of (Molière) except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.

I don’t think one can repeat old forms as such, because they express most densely a moment of time. For example, I couldn’t write a play like Death of a Salesman anymore. I couldn’t really write any of my plays now. Each is different, spaced sometimes two years apart, because each moment called for a different vocabulary and a different organization of the material . . . . We’re in an era of anecdotes, in my opinion, which is going to pass any minute. The audience has been trained to eschew the organized climax because it’s corny, or because it violates the chaos which we all revere. But I think that’s going to disappear with the first play of a new kind which will once again pound the boards and shake people out of their seats with a deeply, intensely organized climax. It can only come from a strict form: you can’t get it except as the culmination of two hours of development.

(B)efore I wrote my first successful play, I wrote, oh, I don’t know, maybe fourteen or fifteen other full-length plays and maybe thirty radio plays. The majority of them were nonrealistic plays. They were metaphorical plays, or symbolic plays; some of them were in verse, or in one case—writing about Montezuma—I turned out a grand historical tragedy, partly in verse, rather Elizabethan in form. Then I began to be known really by virtue of the single play I had ever tried to do in completely realistic Ibsen-like form, which was All My Sons. The fortunes of a writer! The others, like Salesman, which are a compound of expressionism and realism, or even A View from the Bridge, which is realism of a sort (though it’s broken up severely), are more typical of the bulk of the work I’ve done. After the Fall is really down the middle, it’s more like most of the work I’ve done than any other play—excepting that what has surfaced has been more realistic than in the others. It’s really an impressionistic kind of a work. I was trying to create a total by throwing many small pieces at the spectator.

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 VI will post next Wednesday.)


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting II

November 30, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

My mother was walking down the street and she ran into the receptionist from the June Taylor School of Dance, where I went as a child. The receptionist asked, How’s Wendy? My mother said, Well, I don’t know. She’s not going to law school, she’s not dating a lawyer; now she’s writing plays. She’s cuckoo.

I thought writing a full-length play was something I didn’t want to do and didn’t know how to do. It seemed old fogyish. But I was on a committee to evaluate the Yale School of Drama, and there was this young woman, a directing student, who told me that what she wanted to do was explode text. I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, There goes The Sea Gull! I thought, Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it. I thought, I would just like to try to do this. If in fact playwriting is like stained glass, if it becomes more and more this obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to do that craft.

When you write in an episodic mode, you know that the scene will be over. The hardest part, what’s really boring, is getting people on and off the stage. You can’t just bring the lights down and bring them up again. Someone has to say, I’m leaving now . . . . That’s very hard to do. I always think structurally. But for The Sisters Rosensweig it was very hard going. In that play there are four scenes in the first act and three in the second. I should have combined the first two scenes.

I was very sad when The Sisters Rosensweig opened the first time. People like Merv and Gorgeous are fun to write; they’re nice to have in your apartment. They’re really good company. So when you discover those people, they’re talking and you’re not talking anymore. I remember the day I wrote the line for Gorgeous about Benjamin Disraeli being a Jewish philanthropist: I started laughing because I thought, That’s Gorgeous, there you go. The character, not my sister. If you stay with the actual people in your real life, it won’t work. It’s too constraining.

I learn things from watching and listening to people. I’m not much of a reader; I’m slightly dyslexic. Take Merv—he is someone I knew when I was eight years old . . . I remember going to someone’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn with my mother and young niece. And you know when they take the Torah out? My mother said to Samantha, Quick, kiss the Torah before the rabbi takes it out for cookies and lunch. It was such a crazy image to me.

My plays start with a feeling. The Sisters Rosensweig started when I was living in London writing The Heidi Chronicles. I thought about Americans abroad, and somebody said to me, You’re terribly Jewish, just like my brother-in-law. It was that same feeling I had at Mount Holyoke, a little bit uncomfortable with myself. Like wherever I went I was always wearing a tiara with chinchilla.

I always think of new plays when I’m finishing one . . . . This is a darker play than The Sisters Rosensweig. My plays tend to skip a generation; this one is closer to The Heidi Chronicles, though it is also darker than that play.

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. (This is the second of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part three will post next Wednesday.)