Arthur Miller On Playwriting XII

March 21, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

After the Fall would have been altogether different if by some means the hero was killed, or shot himself. Then we would have been in business . . . . there’s nothing like death. Still, I just wasn’t going to do it . . . . I think Günter Grass recently has said that art is uncompromising and life is full of compromises. To bring them together is a near impossibility, and that is what I was trying to do. I was trying to make it as much like life as it could possibly be and as excruciating—so the relief that we want would not be there: I denied the audience the relief. And of course all these hard realists betrayed their basic romanticism by their reaction.

Look, I know how to make ’em go with me—it’s the first instinct of a writer who succeeds in the theater at all. I mean by the time you’ve written your third play or so you know which buttons to push; if you want an easy success there’s no problem that way once you’ve gotten a story. People are pretty primitive—they really want the thing to turn out all right. After all, for a century and a half King Lear was played in England with a happy ending. I wrote a radio play about the boy who wrote that version—William Ireland—who forged Shakespeare’s plays, and edited King Lear so that it conformed to a middle-class view of life . . . . He was an expert forger. He fixed up several of the other plays, but this one he really rewrote. He was seventeen years old. And they produced it—it was a big success—and Boswell thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and so did all the others . . . . It’s what I was talking about before: the litmus paper of the playwright: you see, Ireland sensed quite correctly what these people really wanted from King Lear, and he gave it to them. He sentimentalized it; took out any noxious references.

(W)hat happened in Italy with Zeffirelli was—I can describe it very simply: there was a stage made up of steel frames; it is as though one were looking into the back of a bellows camera—you know, concentric oblong steel frames receding toward a center. The sides of these steel frames were covered, just like a camera is, but the actors could enter through openings in these covers. They could appear or disappear on the stage at any depth. Furthermore, pneumatic lifts silently and invisibly raised the actors up, so that they could appear for ten seconds—then disappear. Or a table would be raised or a whole group of furniture, which the actors would then use. So that the whole image of all this happening inside a man’s head was there from the first second, and remained right through the play . . . . You see in Italy the steel frame itself became the concentration camp, so that the whole play in effect was taking place in the ambiance of that enclosure. This steel turned into a jail, into a prison, into a camp, into a constricted mechanical environment. You could light those girders in such a way that they were forbidding—it was a great scenic idea.

I have always felt that concentration camps, though they’re a phenomenon of totalitarian states, are also the logical conclusion of contemporary life. If you complain of people being shot down in the streets, of the absence of communication or social responsibility, of the rise of everyday violence which people have become accustomed to, and the dehumanization of feelings, then the ultimate development on an organized social level is the concentration camp . . . . It is organized abandonment . . . one of the prime themes of After the Fall.

The last of the Arthur Miller series (part XIII) will post next Wednesday. 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 XI

March 14, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

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.

There are some biological laws in the theater which can’t be violated . . . . You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed . . . . In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play . . . . Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time . . . 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.

In the thirties, and for the most part in the forties, you would have said that (O’Neill) was a finished figure. He was not a force any more. The Iceman Cometh and The Long Day’s Journey into Night, so popular a few years ago, would not have been successful when they were written . . . . A great deal depends upon when a play is produced. That’s why playwriting is such a fatal profession to take up. You can have everything, but if you don’t have that sense of timing, nothing happens. One thing I always respected about O’Neill was his insistence on his vision . . . . there was an image behind it of a possessed individual, who, for good or ill, was himself.

(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 . . . . 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.

The Iceman Cometh opened, it happened, the same year that All My Sons opened . . . . That was in ’47, soon after the war. There was still in the air a certain hopefulness about the organization of the world. There was no depression in the United States. McCarthyism had not yet started. There was a kind of . . . one could almost speak of it as an atmosphere of goodwill, if such a term can be used in the twentieth century. Then a play comes along which posits a world really filled with disasters of one kind or another. A cul-de-sac is described, a bag with no way out. At that time it didn’t corroborate what people had experienced. It corroborated what they were going to experience, and pretty soon after, it became very timely. We moved into the bag that he had gotten into first!

Even after (The Iceman Cometh) was cut, the thing took four or five hours to play. The production was simply dreadful . . . . When I went to see that play not long after it opened, there must have been thirty people in the audience. I think there were a dozen people left by the end of the play. It was quite obviously a great piece of work which was being mangled on the stage.

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 XII 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 VII

February 15, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I mean by the time you’ve written your third play or so you know which buttons to push; if you want an easy success there’s no problem that way once you’ve gotten a story. People are pretty primitive—they really want the thing to turn out all right. After all, for a century and a half King Lear was played in England with a happy ending. I wrote a radio play about the boy who wrote that version—William Ireland—who forged Shakespeare’s plays, and edited King Lear so that it conformed to a middle-class view of life . . . . He was an expert forger. He fixed up several of the other plays, but this one he really rewrote. He was seventeen years old. And they produced it—it was a big success—and Boswell thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and so did all the others.

You see, what happened in Italy with Zeffirelli was—I can describe it very simply: there was a stage made up of steel frames; it is as though one were looking into the back of a bellows camera—you know, concentric oblong steel frames receding toward a center. The sides of these steel frames were covered, just like a camera is, but the actors could enter through openings in these covers. They could appear or disappear on the stage at any depth. Furthermore, pneumatic lifts silently and invisibly raised the actors up, so that they could appear for ten seconds—then disappear. Or a table would be raised or a whole group of furniture, which the actors would then use. So that the whole image of all this happening inside a man’s head was there from the first second, and remained right through the play.

Well, I have always felt that concentration camps, though they’re a phenomenon of totalitarian states, are also the logical conclusion of contemporary life. If you complain of people being shot down in the streets, of the absence of communication or social responsibility, of the rise of everyday violence which people have become accustomed to, and the dehumanization of feelings, then the ultimate development on an organized social level is the concentration camp. Camps didn’t happen in Africa where people had no connection with the basic development of Western civilization. They happened in the heart of Europe, in a country, for example, which was probably less anti-Semitic than other countries, like France. The Dreyfus case did not happen in Germany. In this play the question is, what is there between people that is indestructible? The concentration camp is the final expression of human separateness and its ultimate consequence. It is organized abandonment . . . one of the prime themes of After the Fall.

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 VIII will post next Wednesday.)


Friedrich Hebbel On Playwriting

November 9, 2011

By Friedrich Hebbel, 1813-1863, translated by Eric Bentley

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, New York, 1983

A genuine drama is comparable to one of those big buildings which have almost as many rooms and corridors below ground as above ground. People in general are aware only of the latter; the master builder of the former as well.

The devil take what nowadays passes for beautiful language! This language in drama is the conunterpart of “How beautifully put!” in conversation. Chintz, chintz and more chintz! It may glitter but it gives no heat.

Form is the expression of necessity. Best definition: Content presents the task; form, the solution.

Bad playwrights with good heads give us their scheme instead of characters and their system instead of passions.

In Shakespeare we find, amid the great wealth, the most miserly economy. In general a sign of the highest genius.

Dramatic deeds are not the ones that go straight ahead like bullets.

Drama shouldn’t present new stories but new relationships.

In the drama, what we see as bad we must also see as good.

All dramatic art has to do with impropriety and incomprehension, for what is more improper and uncomprehending than passion?

By shortening a play, you can lengthen it.

In drama no character should ever utter a thought; from the thought in a play come the speeches of all the characters.

The worst plays often start out like the best ones. The battle that’s most ignominiously lost starts out with thunder and lightning just like the one that will be most gloriously won.

Let the What in drama be known and throw no shadows; but not the How.

We know that a man must die; we don’t know what fever he will die of.

The bad conscience of mankind invented tragedy.

Ideas are to drama what counterpoint is to music: nothing in themselves but the sine qua non for everything.

Every genuine comic figure must resemble the hunchback who’s in love with himself.

In modern French plays, morality is the orange in the dead pigs mouth.

You can’t  have a play without ideas, any more than a living man without air. But does it follow that, because there’s earth, fire, air, and water in a man, he is nothing but a receptacle for these four elements?

Monologues: pure  respirations of the soul.

To present the necessary in the form of the accidental: that is the whole secret of dramatic style.

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.


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.