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 IX

February 29, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

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 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.

(T)he closer you get to any kind of political action among young people, the more they demand that the action have a certain fidelity to human nature, and that pomposity, and posing, and role-taking not be allowed to strip the movement of its veracity. What they suspect most is gesturing, you know, just making gestures, which are either futile, or self-serving, or merely conscientious. The intense personal-relations concentration of the fifties seems now to have been joined to a political consciousness, which is terrific.

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. . . . 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. . . . Such a pall of fright was laid upon us that it truly deflected the American mind. It’s part of a paranoia which we haven’t escaped yet.

(I)t’s got so we’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aeschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. 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.

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

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. However, when you speak of a strict form, I believe in it for the theater. Otherwise you end up with anecdotes, not with plays. . . . 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.

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 X will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting VIII

February 22, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(Senator Joseph) McCarthy (was) actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem . . . . For example, his 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 . . . . 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.

I had made a lot of statements and I had signed a great many petitions. I’d been involved in organizations, you know, putting my name down for fifteen years before that. But I don’t think they ever would have bothered me if I hadn’t married Marilyn (Monroe). Had they been interested, they would have called me earlier. And, in fact, I was told on good authority that the then chairman, Francis Walter, said that if Marilyn would take a photograph with him, shaking his hand, he would call off the whole thing. It’s as simple as that. Marilyn would get them on the front pages right away. They had been on the front page for years, but the issue was starting to lose its punch.

I was indicted for contempt for having refused to give or confirm the name of a writer, whether I had seen him in a meeting of communist writers I had attended some eight or ten years earlier. My legal defense was not on any of the Constitutional amendments but on the contention that Congress couldn’t drag people in and question them about anything on the Congressman’s mind; they had to show that the witness was likely to have information relevant to some legislation then at issue. The committee had put on a show of interest in passport legislation. I had been denied a passport a couple of years earlier. Ergo, I fitted into their vise. A year later I was convicted after a week’s trial. Then about a year after that the Court of Appeals threw out the whole thing . . . . It was all a dreadful waste of time and money and anger, but I suffered very little, really, compared to others who were driven out of their professions and never got back, or who did get back after eight and ten years of blacklisting.

I’m in deadly fear of people with too much power. I don’t trust people that much any more. I used to think that if people had the right idea they could make things move accordingly . . . . In the thirties it was, for me, inconceivable that a socialist government could be really anti-Semitic. It just could not happen, because their whole protest in the beginning was against anti-Semitism, against racism, against this kind of inhumanity; that’s why I was drawn to it . . . . I’m much more pragmatic about such things now, and I want to know those I’m against and who it is that I’m backing and what he is like.

I have . . . a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work.

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 IX will post next Wednesday.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting

January 4, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

In a short story, or any kind of prose, I still can’t escape the feeling of a certain arbitrary quality . . . . To me the great thing is to write a good play, and when I’m writing a short story it’s as though I’m saying to myself, Well, I’m only doing this because I’m not writing a play at the moment. There’s guilt connected with it . . . . I think I reserve for plays those things that take a kind of excruciating effort.

The first play I wrote was in Michigan in 1935. It was written on a spring vacation in six days. I was so young that I dared do such things, begin it and finish it in a week. I’d seen about two plays in my life, so I didn’t know how long an act was supposed to be, but across the hall there was a fellow who did the costumes for the University theater and he said, “Well, it’s roughly forty minutes.” . . . .  As it turned out, the acts were longer than that, but the sense of the timing was in me even from the beginning, and the play had a form right from the start.

Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting.

I think the young playwrights I’ve had any chance to talk to are either ignorant of the past or they feel the old forms are too square, or too cohesive. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that the whole tragic arc of the drama has had any effect on them.

I think that to make a direct or arithmetical comparison between any contemporary work and the classic tragedies is impossible because of the question of religion and power, which was taken for granted and is an a priori consideration in any classic tragedy. Like a religious ceremony, where they finally reached the objective by the sacrifice.

There’s no substitute for the impact on the mind of the spectacle of death. And there is no possibility, it seems to me, of speaking of tragedy without it.

When I was about twelve, I think it was, my mother took me to a theater one afternoon. We lived in Harlem and in Harlem there were two or three theaters that ran all the time, and many women would drop in for all or part of the afternoon performances. All I remember was that there were people in the hold of a ship, the stage was rocking—they actually rocked the stage—and some cannibal on the ship had a time bomb. And they were all looking for the cannibal: It was thrilling.

If I had ever thought that I was writing (Death of a Salesman) about my father, I suppose I never could have done it . . . . Willy is based on an individual whom I knew very little, who was a salesman; it was years later that I realized I had only seen that man about a total of four hours in twenty years. He gave one of those impressions that is basic, evidently. When I thought of him, he would simply be a mute man: he said no more than two hundred words to me . . . . I’ve always been aware of that kind of an agony, of someone who has some driving, implacable wish in him which never goes away, which he can never block out. And it broods over him, it makes him happy sometimes or it makes him suicidal, but it never leaves him. Any hero whom we even begin to think of as tragic is obsessed, whether it’s Lear or Hamlet or the women in the Greek plays.

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 II will post next Wednesday.)


Theresa Rebeck On Playwriting

October 26, 2011

Adapted from: Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2009

Here’s a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows. Here’s another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before. Here’s another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.

I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as “Waiting for Godot,” “Uncle Vanya” or “King Lear,” none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don’t think that making fun of plot, or acting like we’re all somehow “above” structure is such a good idea.

Is this really a problem? Yes. I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. “All that structure, all that story,” he growled, pouring himself more wine. “What a nightmare.”

Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don’t need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.

Sometimes people ask me where my plays come from. Where do you get your ideas? I honestly don’t know where they come from, but I do know that if you start with a few characters who need something simple from each other, pretty soon you will find that what they need is not so simple, and that the play itself needs something larger as well. The writing reveals its deeper subject. The characters reveal themselves as they act on each other in time. Time, innately, has a structure. And a lot of really smart writers who came before me understood how to make art imitate life and reveal those deeper truths in beautiful ways.

It is also completely understood that it is totally fair to steal from those guys. We are in dialogue with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Moliere and Beckett too, and a well-told story, something they all celebrated, is nothing to sneer at.

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.


Kurt Vonnegut On Playwriting

September 28, 2011

Adapted from: It May Not Make History, But That’s Not The Point

By Kurt Vonnegut, The Los Angles Times, October 24, 2004

People ask me in these crazy times if I, like so many others, am writing a play that might influence the course of American history in the coming years, a la “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I have replied that no work of art can do that nowadays. It would be nice if one could, but forget it.

I wrote my play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” in the 1960s, when another unpopular war, now generally acknowledged as having been cruelly nonsensical, in Vietnam, was going on. But the timing was purely coincidental. My inspiration wasn’t the My Lai massacre or the bombing of Cambodia or whatever, but my having just read about the homecoming of the hero Odysseus after an absence of many years, as described by Homer so humorlessly in his “Odyssey” nearly 3,000 years ago. Not exactly news of the day.

When my play was first produced in 1970 . . . . the Viet Nam war still going on and making more people than ever die . . . But I did not imagine for as much as a nanosecond that my burlesquing of blustery, blowhard tellers of war stories like Odysseus, or to some extent like Ernest Hemingway, would have the slightest effect on history . . . .  All I wanted then, and all I want now, whenever my play is revived, is that actors and a small audience, about 200 people . . . have a good time for 90 minutes or so.

Wherever I teach creative writing . . . I have never mentioned the possibility of changing the world for the better by means of a work of art. What I have tried to teach instead is sociability: how to be a good date on a blind date; how to show a total stranger a good time; or, if you like, how to run a nice restaurant or whorehouse. The same would have been my main lesson had I been teaching jazz.

What “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” confirms, I hope, is that contrary to Homer’s Odysseus, a war hero or hunter, a killer, is not the most glorious sort of person imaginable. Nor is it right, as Homer and Greeks of his time evidently believed, for a man to regard a woman, save for a witch or a siren, as an obvious inferior, as his God-given servant and property.

Has “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” written 35 years ago now, become dated? It surely has in this way: One of the leading characters is a vacuum cleaner salesman. There really used to be such people, and they made good money too. Selling Electroluxes was the way my big brother Bernie put himself through MIT, all the way to a PhD. And then he went on to discover that silver iodide particles can make it snow or rain sometimes.

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.


Neil Simon On Playwriting II

August 31, 2011

Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright

The New York Times, May 26, 1985

I like writing women very much. I have shared the confidences of women more than I have of men. Men are more close-mouthed about their real feelings, whereas women, if the situation is right, open up. It’s exotic for me to write about women, because they are so different.

But it always amazes me — when I get a director I like and who likes the play, he understands everything I mean, where the actor doesn’t. The reason I won’t direct a play is that I will watch what a director does and say, “I never thought of it quite that way.”

I have a number of directors that I work with frequently. I haven’t worked with Mike (Nichols) in a number of years, but I did do four plays with Mike, and I did four plays with Gene Saks and other people. You find someone that you have shorthand battles with — you know, you don’t have to have long discussions about it, because they know what you’re looking for. I don’t like to sit at rehearsals all day long, so I like to feel that I am being well represented.

I was going to say that as good a relationship as you can have with a director, and maybe even having had great success with him, it still depends on the play you’re doing. It’s like casting and acting.

I find that actors relate much more to the director than they do to me. I tend to sit back quietly and occasionally will throw in something to the director — less often to the actor. The actor is to me a peculiar person. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s one I don’t fully understand. They have a much different approach to the material. In the first place, most of the actors that I’ve worked with, they open the script, take the yellow pencil and go through all of their lines — which means to me that that’s what they think the play is about — the yellow lines, their part.

I just have to watch that process, and I see the director able to communicate to them in a way I can’t. I am much more direct in my attitude — if it were up to me, and they said, “How was that?” I would say, “Well, that just stunk. I thought it was really lousy.” I have to say that, because I say it to myself about my own work. It’s hard for me to be diplomatic and hands-off and know how to work with the actors. So I tend to shy away from them.

I’m naive and optimistic enough to think that plays will always be here despite the fact that it’s been a fairly grim season, and we’re losing more and more playwrights to films and to television — places where they’re guaranteed to make money. And the price of tickets makes it so difficult to put on certain kinds of plays that don’t promise to be a big smash hit.

Whenever I go to speak at a school, it’s rarely for the drama class. It’s always for a film class. There are so few drama classes that are interested in the theater. There’ll be about four kids in the group who are interested in plays, but most of them want to know about films. And they all want to direct — the cliché.

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.