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.


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.


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.


John Guare On Playwriting VI

May 23, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A TV network gave money and movie cameras to Yale so playwrights could learn how to make movies. Sam Shepard, Ken Brown, who wrote The Brig, Barbara Garson, who wrote MacBird, Megan Terry, and I were the first group. What a remarkable year! Robert Lowell was in residence. Jonathan Miller. Irene Worth. Arnold Weinstein. André Gregory. Ron Leibman. Linda Lavin. Bill Bolcom. I wrote Muzeeka about all those undergraduates I saw around me, so free and happy but wondering what in adult life would allow them to keep their spirit and freedom? How do we keep any ideals in this particular society? Vietnam was starting to become a specter that wouldn’t go away.

The first act (House of Blue Leaves) was written in one sitting, but it took me nearly five years to write the second act. I knew what the events would be, but I lacked the technical skill to handle nine people onstage, to make the material do what I wanted it to do . . . . A friend . . . John Lahr, told me about a director from the Guthrie Theater named Mel Shapiro. I saw his work at Lincoln Center on a Vaclav Havel play; I loved it. We got a wonderful cast, went into rehearsal. Blue Leaves was a success. We won the Obie and the New York Drama Critics prize, and my picture was on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature. Then Joe Papp asked Mel to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona. The production toured around the city parks on a truck in the summer of 1971. Because of the work we had done on farce structure for Blue Leaves, Mel asked me if I would cut and shape Two Gentlemen into ninety minutes . . . . By the time we opened, we had a musical that became a great success and moved from Central Park to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award. So I had a play and a musical on at the same time in New York. I was asked to do more musicals . . . . I didn’t know quite what to do. I was in a panic.

(A) few of us . . . moved up to Nantucket and started a theater where we did Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I wrote fifteen drafts of that play. Then I realized that I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to make something perfect.

Garson Kanin once said, Isn’t it funny that not many people know how to write a play but everybody knows how to rewrite a play. That’s what you have to be careful about: to whom you listen and whom you close out. And also, strangely, how to keep the radar open just in case somebody, some stranger, does throw something good at you. Answers are easy. Formulating the problem—that’s the art. But finally you have to realize there are certain times when, as Valéry says, a work of art isn’t finished, it’s just abandoned. You have to cut bait and move on to the next work.

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 VII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare On Playwriting V

May 16, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A playwright is a writer who only has ninety-nine pieces of paper to tell his tale. You’ve got to get your story told in approximately two hours. If it’s too long you have to learn how to cut without destroying the intention of your work . . . . Theater is the place where you learn all your lessons in a crowd. Imagine a novelist watching five hundred people simultaneously reading a draft of a novel and then making adjustments based on their immediate responses. Also, you had better know the audience with whom you want to draw up the contract. Peter Brook gave a seminar at La Mama and someone asked him what the prime aesthetic problem was in the theater. He said, Oh, that’s easy. When once you’ve discovered the laugh, it’s how do you keep the laugh.

Off Broadway was beginning—our version of Paris in the twenties. I saw remarkable plays at the Caffé Cino by Lanford Wilson and H. M. Katoukas, who walked around the Village with a parakeet tied to each finger of his hands. Ten parakeets flying all around him. The Caffé was run by a burly Sicilian, Joe Cino, who worked in a steam laundry from seven a.m. to four p.m., then went to his kingdom, his paradise, a café on Cornelia Street decorated with a crush of twinkling Christmas tree lights, religious statues, Kewpie dolls, and blowups of Jean Harlow and Maria Callas, a kind of insane storefront attic. I brought two plays to Cino. He said, Sorry we’re only doing plays by Aquarians. I sputtered that I was an Aquarius! He looked at my driver’s license. February 5. He weighed my plays in his beefy hands, then checked his astrological charts, and said, You go into rehearsal in two weeks, run for two weeks with a possibility of an extension for a third. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had been a Gemini.

Edward Albee earned himself eternal playwright sainthood. Out of the profits from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he and his producers took a lease on a theater on Van Dam Street, and every week for six months of the year from 1963 to 1969 they produced a new play. The plays were not reviewed. Audiences just showed up at the theater to see what was there. They were very exciting times. I once wrote a play called A Day for Surprises on a Thursday and it opened the next Monday.

I had the first act of House of Blue Leaves, and I played the lead—well, read it. I liked the people who were up there—Bobby Lewis, Alan Schneider, Jose Quintero, Lloyd Richards. I liked the sense of community and festivity. It was all very receptive and intelligent and hip. I found an audience it was great fun to write for. I had a place to write for. I learned about keeping at the business of doing new work in front of audiences, working with actors, learning the way they work, finding the kind of actors who understand the rhythms of your work. That’s all a theater company is really: a group of talented people who laugh at the same jokes. You have to learn about design. What kind of visuals your work needs to register. And the audience—you have to keep listening to the audience, not to see what they want, but rather to learn how to make them respond the way you want.

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 VI of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare On Playwriting IV

May 9, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

While I was a student at Yale in 1962, I took courses in set design, lighting, and costume from Donald Oenslager and Ernest Bevan. I needed to learn the light in which a play must live. I wasn’t any good at the technical bits, but that wasn’t the point. I learned the work processes and the range of possibilities of the design people with whom the playwright shares the stage. They provide the visual entry into the playwright’s world. The playwright is the person responsible for everything on that stage. If the play doesn’t work because of a miscast actor or because of a bad set, or it’s misdirected, it’s the play that will take the brunt. Anything that happens on that stage is playwriting. So the playwright better know the actors available, the directors, the designers, all of whom deal with the life being created on stage. I once saw a comedy in rehearsal, funny and knockdown, but not until it got onstage did we all realize that the costumes, which had looked so witty on paper, had been constructed in a very heavy fabric that disguised and covered the actors’ bodies and de-physicalized them. It was too late and too expensive to change anything. The costumes went on. They got raves. The play was a bust. So the playwright has to look at paintings, listen to music, to say, Yes that’s the effect I want my plays to have.

I love the part of playwriting that is a craft to be learned continually, the –wright part, like shipwright or wheelwright or cartwright. Whether Aeschylus or George S. Kaufman, a playwright is a writer who understands the technical aspects of knowing how to deliver exposition, how to get a character on and offstage, where to place the intermission, how to bring down a curtain. How to have all the characters’ stories end up simultaneously. That’s craft, and craft can be taught by emulation. You figure out how your playwright of the moment accomplishes those facts of the theater. You learn to study those playwrights technically, the way a musician does a score, breaking the work down to learn how its composer achieved certain effects. And then, having learned a technique, one can use it oneself.

Durrenmatt’s The Visit . . . had a profound effect on me. To have a play draw you in with humor and then make you crazy and send you out mixed-up! When I got to Feydeau, Strindberg, Pinter, Joe Orton, and the “dis-ease” they created, I was home. Pinter’s plays had the rhythm of high comedy trapped in the wrong surroundings; I identified with that. I loved the strictures of farce, besides liking the sound of an audience laughing. I loved Feydeau’s one rule of playwriting: Character A says, My life is perfect as long as I don’t see Character B. Knock knock. Enter Character B. And Feydeau’s hysteria opened the door to Strindberg.

I always liked plays to be funny and early on stumbled upon the truth that farce is tragedy speeded up. Filling up that hunger. Get to Moscow. Get into an adult world. The want becomes a need. The need becomes a hunger and because you’re speeding it up so much . . . it becomes ridiculous . . . . The intensity puts it on the edge. The top keeps spinning faster until it can only explode, and if you’ve got a stageful of people at that psychic, manic state, and an audience in tune with them, then something dangerous might happen out of that hysteria. You want to move the audience into a new part of themselves.

Beckett’s a great writer but a bad influence. Young writers used to think that tramps speaking non sequiturs was playwriting. As a teacher, you want to stop people from writing pastiches of Beckett and thinking that’s playwriting. You want them to learn how to admire him, but to know the aim of playwriting is not to become a ventriloquist in someone else’s voice . . . . You have to keep working to find your voice, then have the grace or good sense to recognize it as your voice and then learn how to use 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 V of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


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.