Today’s Quote

August 26, 2014

Bertolt Brecht

BrechtExil“The stage began to tell a story. The narrator was no longer missing, along with the fourth wall . . . the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role, remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him . . . The spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically, by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play. The production took the subject matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding.”

—Brecht on Theatre

The Development of an Aesthetic

Edited and translated by John Willett, 1964


Neil Simon On Playwriting VIII

August 22, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I never thought I spoke the lines until my family told me I did. They said they could walk by and tell if it was going well or not by the rhythm of it. I guess I want to see if I’m repeating words and, because I write primarily for the stage, I want to make sure the words won’t be tripping badly over some tongues.

When I wrote the Sergeant Bilko show my father asked me naively, Do you just write Sergeant Bilko’s lines or do you write the other lines too? When you write a play, maybe even a novel, you become everybody. It may seem like I only write the lines spoken by the character who is like Neil Simon, but in Lost in Yonkers I’m also the grandmother—and Bella. And to do that you have to become that person. That’s the adventure, the joy, the release that allows you to escape from your own boundaries. To be Grandma every other line for a couple of pages takes you into another being. It’s interesting how many people ask, Was this your grandmother? I say, No, I didn’t have a grandmother like that, and they say, Then how do you know her? I know what she sounds like. I know what she feels like. The boys describe it when they say, When you kiss her it’s like kissing a cold prune. I describe her in a stage direction as being a very tall, buxom woman. But she doesn’t necessarily have to be tall and buxom. She just has to appear that way to the boys. You can’t really use that as physical description, but it will convey something to the actress.

(W)hen Come Blow Your Horn was playing, the theater doorman, a black man in his sixties, was standing in the back of the theater, laughing his head off. I went over to him after the play and asked, Why were you laughing so much? He said, That’s my family up there. I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world. I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars. It’s also what I’m most comfortable with. I am a middle-class person, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. I try now and then to get away from the family play, but it amazes me that I’ve spent the last thirty-one years writing plays primarily about either my family or families very close to it. Maybe the answer is that at some point along the way you discover what it is you do best and writing about the family unit and its extensions is what I do best.

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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting IV

July 25, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

(T)here are various styles and attitudes towards comedy . . . . In Prisoner of Second Avenue you knew there were terrible things tormenting Peter Falk. He sat down on a sofa that had stacks of pillows, like every sofa in the world, and he took one pillow after the other and started throwing them angrily saying, “You pay eight hundred for a sofa and you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back! There is no joke there. Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me—saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. People come up to you after the show and say, I’ve always thought that, but I never knew anyone else thought it. It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.

I try never to think of jokes as jokes. I confess that in the early days, when I came from television, plays like Come Blow Your Horn would have lines you could lift out that would be funny in themselves. That to me would be a “joke,” which I would try to remove. In The Odd Couple Oscar had a line about Felix, “He’s so panicky he wears his seatbelt at a drive-in movie.” That could be a Bob Hope joke. I left it in because I couldn’t find anything to replace it.

Those quick lines, the one-liners attributed to me for so many years—I think they come purely out of character, rather than out of a joke. Walter Kerr once came to my aid by saying “to be or not to be” is a one-liner. If it’s a dramatic moment no one calls it a one-liner. If it gets a laugh, suddenly it’s a one-liner. I think one of the complaints of critics is that the people in my plays are funnier than they would be in life, but have you ever seen Medea? The characters are a lot more dramatic in that than they are in life.

What I try to do is make dialogue come purely out of character, so that one character could never say the lines that belong to another character. If it’s funny, it’s because I’m telling a story about characters in whom I may find a rich vein of humor. When I started writing plays I was warned by people like Lillian Hellman, “You do not mix comedy with drama.” But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play? The very first person I showed Come Blow Your Horn to was Herman Shumlin, the director of Hellman’s The Little Foxes. He said, I like the play, I like the people, but I don’t like the older brother. I said, What’s wrong with him? He said, Well, it’s a comedy. We have to like everybody. I said, In life do we have to like everybody? In the most painful scene in Lost in Yonkers, Bella, who is semiretarded, is trying to tell the family that the boy she wants to marry is also retarded. It’s a poignant situation and yet the information that slowly comes out—and the way the family is third-degreeing her—becomes hilarious because it’s mixed with someone else’s pain. I find that what is most poignant is often most funny.

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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting

July 4, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

As many plays as I’ve written—twenty-seven, twenty-eight—I can’t recollect a moment when I’ve said, This would make a good play. I never sit down and write bits and pieces of dialogue. What I might do is make a few notes on who’s in the play, the characters I want, where it takes place, and the general idea of it. I don’t make any outlines at all. I just like to plunge in. I’ll start right from page one because I want to hear how the people speak. Are they interesting enough for me? Have I captured them? It goes piece by piece, brick by brick. I don’t know that I have a play until I’ve reached thirty, thirty-five pages.

I think about thematic plays but I don’t believe I write them. Nothing really takes shape until I become specific about the character and the dilemma he’s in. Dilemma is the key word. It is always a dilemma, not a situation. To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the theme of the play is until I’ve written it and the critics tell me.

In Broadway Bound I wanted to show the anatomy of writing comedy—with the older brother teaching Eugene, which was the case with my brother Danny and me. Stan keeps asking Eugene for the essential ingredient in comedy and when Eugene can’t answer, Stan says, “Conflict!” When he asks for the other key ingredient, and Eugene can only come up with, “More conflict?” Stan says, “The key word is wants. In every comedy, even drama, somebody has to want something and want it bad. When somebody tries to stop him—that’s conflict.” By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind. All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself. You go by sequential activity. One thing follows the other. But it all starts with that first seed, conflict. As Stan says, it’s got to be a very, very strong conflict, not one that allows the characters to say, Forget about this! I’m walking out. They’ve got to stay there and fight it out to the end.

I’ve got infinitely more plays in the drawer than have seen the lights of the stage. Most of them never come out of the drawer, but occasionally one will and it amazes me how long it has taken to germinate and blossom. The best example would be Brighton Beach Memoirs. I wrote the first thirty-five pages of the play and gave it to my children, Nancy and Ellen, and Marsha, my wife at the time. They read it and said, This is incredible. You’ve got to go on with it. I showed it to my producer, Manny Azenberg and to Gordon Davidson, and they said, This is going to be a great play. I knew the play was a turn in style for me, probing more deeply into myself, but maybe the pressure of the words great play scared me, so I put it away. Periodically, I would take it out and read it and I wouldn’t know how to do it. After nine years I took it out one day, read the thirty-five pages, picked up my pen and the pad I write on and finished the play in six weeks. I have the feeling that in the back of your mind there’s a little writer who writes while you’re doing other things, because I had no trouble at that point. Obviously, what had happened in the ensuing years in my life made clear to me what it should be about. Somewhere in the back of my head I grew up, I matured. I was ready to write that play.

Sometimes it helps to have some encouragement. Once I was having dinner with Mike Nichols and he asked, What are you doing? I said, I’m working on a play about two ex-vaudevillians who haven’t worked together or seen each other in eleven years and they get together to do an Ed Sullivan Show. He said, That sounds wonderful. Go back and finish it. So I did. It was as though a critic had already seen the play and said, I love 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 II of this Neil Simon 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.


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.)