Arthur Miller On Playwriting IV

January 25, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

The director of a play is nailed to words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.

I don’t think there is anything that approaches the theater. The sheer presence of a living person is always stronger than his image. But there’s no reason why TV shouldn’t be a terrific medium. The problem is that the audience watching TV shows is always separated. My feeling is that people in a group, en masse, watching something, react differently, and perhaps more profoundly, than they do when they’re alone in their living rooms. Yet it’s not a hurdle that couldn’t be jumped by the right kind of material. Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry—it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

We had twenty-eight and a half minutes to tell a whole story in a radio play, and you had to concentrate on the words because you couldn’t see anything. You were playing in a dark closet, in fact. So the economy of words in a good radio play was everything. It drove you more and more to realize what the power of a good sentence was, and the right phrase could save you a page you would otherwise be wasting. I was always sorry radio didn’t last long enough for contemporary poetic movements to take advantage of it, because it’s a natural medium for poets. It’s pure voice, pure words. Words and silence; a marvelous medium.

I often write speeches in verse, and then break them down. Much of Death of a Salesman was originally written in verse, and The Crucible was all written in verse, but I broke it up. I was frightened that the actors would take an attitude toward the material that would destroy its vitality. I didn’t want anyone standing up there making speeches. You see, we have no tradition of verse, and as soon as an American actor sees something printed like verse, he immediately puts one foot in front of the other—or else he mutters.

You see, in The Crucible I was completely freed by the period I was writing about—over three centuries ago. It was a different diction, a different age. I had great joy writing that, more than with almost any other play I’ve written. I learned about how writers felt in the past when they were dealing almost constantly with historical material. A dramatist writing history could finish a play Monday and start another Wednesday, and go right on. Because the stories are all prepared for him. Inventing the story is what takes all the time. It takes a year to invent the story. The historical dramatist doesn’t have to invent anything, except his language, and his characterizations . . . . basically if you’ve got the story, you’re a year ahead.

There’s no country I’ve been to where people, when you come into a room and sit down with them, so often ask you, “What do you do?” And, being American, many’s the time I’ve almost asked that question, then realized it’s good for my soul not to know. For a while! Just to let the evening wear on and see what I think of this person without knowing what he does and how successful he is, or what a failure. We’re ranking everybody every minute of the day.

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 V will post next Wednesday.)



Baseball

July 7, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” (the second of three), was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. For a good place to start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”

Here’s a quote from Jean Shepherd, writing in his forward to Vic and Sade: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer. “Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people.” Paul Rhymer certainly uses subtle dialogue techniques to point out the gulf that exists between the genders—Sade’s loyalty to her sister’s boring letters, for example, and Vick’s lack of appreciation for same, or their different takes on something as commonplace as table manners. In a 1938 script the game of baseball serves to point out that men and women will most likely always come at some things from opposite directions. Here’s a bit of that script. (Note at several points both Sade and Rush refer to Vic as “Gov,” his family nickname.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s late afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the kitchen we find Mrs. Victor Gook and her son, Mr. Rush Gook. This latter individual has just entered from out of doors and at the moment is lightly tossing his cap underneath the sink. Listen:

SADE: All right; go pick that up.

RUSH: I plan to leave again pretty soon.

SADE: Go pick it up. Call that civilized?—a monstrous big high school boy throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen? We got hooks.

Sade’s line, “throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen?” is a malaprop—a jumbling of words which at first doesn’t seem to make sense but still somehow does—and very much in character for her. After a bit more protesting, Rush goes to hang his hat on a nail in the cellarway. In the lines that follow, notice Rhymer’s meticulous attention to visual detail.

RUSH (moving off): Certainly been a fine day outside.

SADE: Hasn’t it though?

RUSH (still moving off): Around noon it was just plain hot.

SADE: Uh-huh. Mr. Gumpox came through the alley an’ I noticed he had his coat folded up an’ layin’ beside him on the seat of the garbage wagon.

RUSH (off a way): Mom, I don’t see any hook. They’re all full of overalls an’ aprons an’ junk.

SADE: You’ll find a place if ya look. There’s squillions of nails there. Hey, what’s your father an’ Mr. Drummond doin’ so much talkin’ about?

RUSH: Where are they?

SADE: Garbage box. Just wavin’ their arms around.

RUSH (returning): They weren’t’ there when I come past just now.

SADE: prob’ly walked home together an’ stopped by the garbage box to finish their talk.

RUSH (almost up): If they’re talking about baseball they never will finish.

SADE: Why do they get so excited? Person’d think one had stole the other’s pocketbook or bumped into his automobile or something.

RUSH: Yeah.

SADE: Baseball’s only a game ain’t it? (short pause) Guess the argument’s all over. Here comes Gov toward the house.

RUSH: He acts like Mr. Drummond got the best of him. See the little quick steps he takes an’ the way his face is?

SADE (giggles): Uh-huh. (raises voice) Hello there, mister.

VIC (cheerily enough): Hi, everybody. How’s tricks? (to Sade, as door closes) Paper come yet?

SADE: I doubt it. Boy very seldom shows up this early. What were you an’ Mr. Drummond havin’ such a to-do about? Never saw so much arm wavin’ in my life.

VIC: The arm wavin’ you saw through the window will in no wise unbalance the equilibrium of the world. Life will go on as before.

SADE: No, but a person watchin’ would get the idea you fellas were about to have a fight.

VIC: That may come to pass one of these days. (to himself) The big boob.

SADE: Are you mad at him?

VIC: I wouldn’t condescend to get mad at a creature so handicapped. Mr. Drummond is short the normal quota of brains. Mr. Drummond moves helplessly in a fog of stupidity. Mr. Drummond, in short, is a half wit.

Let’s pause here to fully appreciate Rhymer’s humorous rendering of Vic’s fit of pique, savoring how the angry discourse builds through several stages to its curt climax, the succinct punch word “halfwit.” That word would not have the power it does without the three lines that precede it. This is Paul Rhymer demonstrating the importance of the “set-up” in creating a humorous effect. And no stage directions are required; Vic’s high-toned anger comes through clearly in Rhymer’s word choices. We rejoin the script just in time to enjoy more of Vic’s deconstruction of Mr. Drummond’s intelligence—or lack thereof. (Click on above image to read the caption.)

SADE (giggles): Did you tell him that?

VIC: I intimated as much—an’ more—only I couched my barbs with such subtlety they went over his head like soft summer clouds.

RUSH: Baseball, huh, Gov?

VIC: How’s that?

RUSH: You an’ him were discussin’ baseball?

VIC: One could hardly refer to it as a discussion. I’d vouchsafe a thoughtful opinion an’ Drummond’d come back with a splatter of meaningless words boorishly strung together.

SADE: I was just askin’ Rush, Vic, how grown-up men can work theirself into a frenzy about such stuff.

VIC: Am I worked into a frenzy?

SADE: You acted like you were worked up into something out by the garbage box just now. You an’ Mr. Drummond both.

VIC: What did Master Rush reply when you quizzed him?

SADE (giggles): He said he didn’t know.

VIC: That would be his rejoinder when quizzed on any topic, I believe.

RUSH (chuckles): Aw, c’mon, Gov, don’t take it out on me.

SADE (to VIC): No, but really. If there was a baseball eleven in this town an’ your brother was in it or somebody an’ a fella run down your brother an’ his baseball eleven, I could halfway see why you might let yourself be upset. But these baseball elevens in Chicago an’ around. What do you care?

VIC: Baseball, Sade, is a strong American institution.

SADE: is it?

VIC: Baseball is a wholesome vent for excess nervous energy.

SADE (giggles): Prob’ly is if you’re fullback on the team or somethin’. But all you an’ Mr. Drummond can do is talk about it. I always think of baseball as a game Rush an’ the kids play over in Tatman’s vacant lot. Can’t understand why grown-up men should lose sleep because New York beats Pontiac.

Here Paul Rhymer is using Sade as the “wise fool,” a humorous device popular since before Shakespeare. By making her willfully ignorant of baseball, her seemingly innocent questions skillfully point out the absurdity of Vic and Mr. Drummond’s intense emotional investment in what is, in her eyes, only a child’s pastime. The script goes on for three more pages with Vic offering the high-minded argument that he and Mr. Drummond are passionately interested in baseball because it is a “science.” But we soon discover that their fight out by the garbage box was really over a childish disagreement about who would get to wear the pitcher’s glove if and when they scheduled a regular game of catch to “unwind” after work. Rhymer gives Sade the last word.

SADE: You mean to tell me that two great big men with offices an’ families can jump at each other’s throat over a thing like that—who gets to be pitcher?

VIC (stubborn): Sure.

SADE: Is that baseball, Rush?

RUSH (chuckles): Uh-huh.

SADE: Is that science?

The third Rhymer essay, Monologue, will post next Monday.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.