Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
Very often you find that you’ve written past the end and you say, Wait a minute, it ended here. When I started to write Plaza Suite it was going to be a full three-act play. The first act was about a wife who rents the same suite she and her husband honeymooned in at the Plaza Hotel twenty-three years ago. In the course of the act the wife finds out that the husband is having an affair with his secretary and at the end of the act the husband walks out the door as champagne and hors d’oeuvres arrive. The waiter asks, Is he coming back? and the wife says, Funny you should ask that. I wrote that and said to myself, That’s the end of the play . . . . I purposely won’t think of the ending because I’m afraid if I know, even subliminally, it’ll sneak into the script and the audience will know where the play is going. As a matter of fact, I never know where the play is going in the second act.
I had an interesting problem when I was writing Rumors. I started off with just a basic premise: I wanted to do an elegant farce. I wrote it right up to the last two pages of the play, the denouement in which everything has to be explained—and I didn’t know what it was! I said to myself, Today’s the day I have to write the explanation. All right, just think it out. I couldn’t think it out. . . . . (But) I kept going until everything made sense. That method takes either insanity or egocentricity—or a great deal of confidence. It’s like building a bridge over water without knowing if there’s land on the other side. But I do have confidence that when I get to the end of the play, I will have gotten so deeply into the characters and the situation I’ll find the resolution.
Sometimes I’ll write something and say, Right now this doesn’t mean very much but I have a hunch that later on in the play it will mean something. The thing I always do is play back on things I set up without any intention in the beginning. The foundation of the play is set in those first fifteen or twenty minutes. Whenever I get in trouble in the second act, I go back to the first act. The answers always lie there. One of the lines people have most often accused me of working backwards from is Felix Ungar’s note to Oscar in The Odd Couple. In the second act, Oscar has reeled off the laundry list of complaints he has about Felix, including “the little letters you leave me.” Now, when Felix is leaving one of those notes, telling Oscar they’re all out of cornflakes, I said to myself, How would he sign it? I know he’d do something that would annoy Oscar. So I signed it “Mr. Ungar.” Then I tried “Felix Ungar.” Then I tried “F.U.” and it was as if a bomb had exploded in the room. When Oscar says, “It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar,” it always gets this huge laugh.
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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.
Classic Scenes from Classic Films
If I were asked to pick a perfect movie I’d quickly name From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The 1953 drama was adapted from the best selling novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash, and directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider this film cinema gold from start to finish, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus only on the relationship between the Lancaster and Kerr characters. Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes’ love affair is the spine of the story and is introduced and developed by screenwriter Taradash in two perfect scenes, both of which come in the first twenty minutes of the film. Neither of them involve sand, sea or sex — at least not graphic sex.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about vintage movies is familiar with the erotic scene of Sergeant Warden and Karen kissing on the beach, the one with the wave breaking over their bodies. It’s an iconic film image, and the video is very popular on YouTube, even with people who have never seen the movie. Unlike couples in most movies, this wet duo enmeshed in a torrid embrace did not meet “cute.” You might even say they met “ugly,” or at least not very “pretty.” For me, their first scene together, which comes about ten minutes after the opening credits, is sexier than the beach scene by at least a factor of ten. No blatant fireworks, but there are sparks, a subtle display of sexual tension, mixed with an interesting undercurrent of dislike, even distrust. In that short scene there is strong attraction but also implicit conflict between the characters, and conflict, as we know, is the lifeblood of drama. For me, at least in dramatic terms, conflict is sexy. The smoldering and somewhat sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in the scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.
I’ve transcribed the two scenes by using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one is changed after we read it. In that first scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk (as played by Mickey Shaughnessy in a great character rendering). They watch as Karen arrives in the area looking for her husband.
LONG SHOT KAREN HOLMES FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S ANGLE as she walks toward them. She is at a considerable distance. Karen is about thirty. She wears a sweater and skirt. She is aware the men are studying her.
MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN AND LEVA watching Karen.
LEVA : Shooish! — her and them sweaters.
LONG SHOT KAREN FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S POV as she continues toward them. Warden’s and Lava’s voices, loud at first, get softer and softer the nearer Karen gets to camera. At end of the shot, as she is only a few yards away, they are practically whispering.
WARDEN’S VOICE: I’ll bet she’s colder than an iceberg . . .
LEVA’S VOICE: Not her, Top, she knows the score like I been tellin you.
WARDEN’S VOICE: (sarcastic) Is that right?
LEVA’S VOICE: Listen, not around here, but I was back at Fort Bliss with Holmes. I heard plenty about this lady then. Plenty.
WARDEN’S VOICE: You did, huh?
LEVA’S VOICE: Okay, not me — but I know some of them she played ‘round with, so don’t tell me.
WARDEN’S VOICE: I ain’t tellin you. You’re tellin me.
Karen stops a few paces from camera.
KAREN: Good morning, Sergeant.
WARDEN: Morning, ma’am.
MEDIUM SHOT. Lava watches, listens avidly but discreetly in background. During the dialogue, Karen seems irritated by Warden, who looks at her coolly, appraisingly, physically.
KAREN: I’m looking for my husband.
WARDEN: Captain Holmes just went in town, ma’am. On business.
KAREN: Oh. He was to have left some things for me; do you know anything about them?
WARDEN: No I don’t, ma’am. Anything I can do for you?
KAREN: No, thanks.
WARDEN: I’d be glad to help. Ma’am.
She makes a slight move to go, then pauses.
KAREN: My husband’s been telling me a lot about you, Sergeant. He says you’re very efficient.
WARDEN: Yes, ma’am.
KAREN: What is it that makes you so efficient, Sergeant?
WARDEN: I was born smart, ma’am.
Karen laughs suddenly, quietly.
KAREN: I love that. Well goodbye, Sergeant.
Karen turns and walks back toward her car. Warden and Leva watch her. When she is out of earshot Leva speaks.
LEVA: Man, she sure is one, ain’t she?
WARDEN: One what?
LEVA: One woman.
WARDEN: (unconvincingly): I’ve seen better.
As performed, the first scene in the movie between Karen and Warden differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there, changes that perfectly sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the characters. The first scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic scene should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth thing. A good scene should also “entertain.” The entertaining aspect may be the result of the quality of the writing or the performances or, as in this case, a combination of both. In From Here To Eternity I believe we’ve given all four elements in just about every scene throughout the movie — and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a great film.
Scene two between Sergeant Warden and Karen also has several departures from the draft script. These changes are more extensive. In fact, several lines of dialogue are cut from the end of the second draft version. I’ll talk a bit more about that after we’ve read the scene as filmed, which comes at about the twenty minute point in the movie:
EXT. BACK PORCH OF HOLMES’ HOUSE. DAY. MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN standing outside in the rain. He wears a GI rain hat and coat. He pauses, then knocks briskly on the door of the screened porch. Karen opens the kitchen door onto the porch. She is in shorts and a blouse.
KAREN: Well, if it isn’t Sergeant Warden. You better step inside or you’ll get wet.
INT. PORCH OFF KITCHEN – DAY MEDIUM SHOT She opens the screen door and he steps onto the porch. He removes his rain hat, shaking off the raindrops.
WARDEN: I am wet.
KAREN: If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.
WARDEN: (taking the long chance) And if I’m not looking for him?
KAREN: (unsmiling) He still isn’t here.
WARDEN: (quickly) Well, I’m looking for him. Do you know where he is?
KAREN: I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he’s in town on business. That’s the way you put it the other day, isn’t it?
WARDEN: (fishes in his pocket, brings out papers) I got some papers it’s important for him to sign.
KAREN: (turns) I’ll try phoning him at the Club. Maybe he’s there.
WARDEN: Don’t do that. I never like to disturb a man when he’s drinking. I could use a drink my self. Aren’t you going to ask me in?
Karen finally smiles, faintly. She goes into the kitchen, leaving the door open. Warden follows her.
INT. KITCHEN HOLMES HOUSE – DAY MEDIUM SHOT The kitchen is small and undistinguished.
KAREN: (gestures): The liquor’s there, Sergeant — in the cabinet.
Warden takes a whisky bottle from the cabinet and pours a straight, stiff drink, puts the bottle on the table. He puts the papers down and drinks. Karen leans against the sink counter.
KAREN: You’re taking an awful chance, you know. My maid is liable to be home any time.
WARDEN: No she won’t. Thursday’s her day off.
KAREN: You think of everything, don’t you, Sergeant?
WARDEN: I try. In my position you have to.
KAREN: (goes to table and picks up the papers) Are these really important?
WARDEN: Yes. But not important they get signed today. Tomorrow’s okay.
Karen suddenly, deliberately, rips the papers in half, then crumbles and throws them into the wastebasket.
WARDEN: I got copies at the office, so it won’t be much work to fix them up.
Warden’s control has begun to affect Karen’s now. She is losing her poise.
KAREN: That’s what I like about you, Sergeant. You have confidence. It’s also what I dislike about you.
WARDEN: It’s not confidence, ma’am. It’s honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin all to waste.
He moves close to Karen, is on the verge of embracing her. Greatly tempted but greatly disturbed, she turns away. During her monologue she pours herself a drink. Her tone is no longer brittle. It is bitter.
KAREN: Waste, did you say, Sergeant? Now that’s a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You’re probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance — what about the house without a child? There’s one sort for you. Then there’s another. (Karen takes a drink) You’re doing fine, Sergeant. My husband’s off somewhere, it’s raining outside, and we’re both drinking now. But you’ve probably got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady’s not what she seems. She’s a washout, if you know what I mean. And I’m sure you know what I mean.
WARDEN: You gonna cry?
KAREN: (turning away): Not if I can help it.
Warden takes a drink and puts the glass down on the table, hard enough for her to hear.
KAREN (turning back to him): What are you doing?
WARDEN I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?
KAREN (slowly) I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.
They stare squarely at each other, both puzzled and a little afraid of their emotions. This is something neither had counted on. He goes to her and they kiss. Music up. The camera pulls back and out the window, into the rain.
Now that’s one sexy scene, the sexiest in the movie, in my opinion. It’s much more erotic than that sea-soaked episode on the beach, the one that everyone remembers. Toggling back and forth between the second draft script and my tape of the movie was a revelation. I came to appreciate even more the writing skills involved, but also the contributions to the project that Kerr and Lancaster make — how subtly the nuance of facial expression, gesture, and body language communicate and reinforce emotions only hinted at on the page.
And remember that section of dialogue I mentioned that was cut from the second scene — removed either by the screenwriter in a later draft, or perhaps by the director as he shot the movie? In the Daniel Taradash second draft there was no kiss. In its place there is the following exchange, which comes after Karen says, “I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.”
WARDEN: I know a beach near Diamond Head. Nobody ever goes there. The cars on the highway pass above and they never know it’s there. You feel like you used to feel when you were a kid, hiding by yourself in a cave, watching the others hunting you.
Karen turns, goes to the sink, puts the whisky bottle back in the cabinet.
KAREN: Maybe . . . why not?
WARDEN: How about Payday?
KAREN: You don’t have to spend money on me, Sergeant.
WARDEN: I just like to have some on me when I take out a woman. Can you get away?
Warden grins. He goes to the door to the porch, pauses there.
WARDEN: I’ll be in Kuhio Park. Say, nine o’clock. Payday.
Karen leans back against the sink, watches him go out to the porch. A moment later the sound of the door is heard as he leaves. She turns on the faucet, starts to rinse the glasses they have used. Suddenly she turns the faucet on full force, watches it pound into the sink.
What is wrong with this second draft version of the scene? A more apt question is, What’s right with it? Take the blatant symbolism of the faucet water pounding into the sink, that’s downright corny. And the dialogue is too explicit, from Warden’s crude planning of their first “date” and it’s useless (to the audience) details. It’s all pure exposition that lacks even a suggestion of emotional nuance. Nothing is left for us to think about. Worse still, we feel nothing. We have been talked down to, led by the hand (nose) so that every thing is made perfectly (awfully) clear. Basically, we are disrespected and our intelligence is demeaned. We are insulted by being given TOO MUCH DIRECT INFORMATION.
You don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to figure out which of the two versions of that second scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple. The cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director, enables us to connect to the story in a personal way. The same is true for the complete film. Throughout we are shown, not just told. We are allowed to feel our way into figuring it out for ourselves. The filmmakers permit us to collaborate in the creative process, and that’s what makes these two scenes — and the rest of the movie, all of which is treated with the same artful craft — so powerful. As I say, it’s a perfect film.
If you have a classic scene from a classic movie that you’d like to share with the world, write it up (500-1,000 words) and send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to consider it for publication on the blog. Failing that, I’d at least like to know what you think of my choice in this case, pro or con.