David Mamet On Playwriting II

December 21, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

I wrote this play called Bobby Gould in Hell . . . . Bobby Gould is consigned to Hell, and he has to be interviewed to find out how long he’s going to spend there. The Devil is called back from a fishing trip to interview Bobby Gould. And so the Devil is there, the Assistant Devil is there and Bobby Gould. And the Devil finally says to Bobby Gould, “You’re a very bad man.” And Bobby Gould says, “Nothing’s black and white.” And the Devil says, “Nothing’s black and white, nothing’s black and white—what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!” And (the director) had the assistant hold up a picture of a panda, kind of pan it a hundred and eighty degrees to the audience  . . . . That was the best moment I’ve ever seen in any of my plays.

I’ve actually been vehemently deluding myself, thinking that I have no set habits whatever. I know that I have very good habits of thought, and I’m trying to make them better. But as for where I go, what I do and who’s around when I work—those things are never important to me.

It’s really not an intellectual process . . . . but finally in playwriting, you’ve got to be able to write dialogue. And if you write enough of it and let it flow enough, you’ll probably come across something that will give you a key as to structure. I think the process of writing a play is working back and forth between the moment and the whole. The moment and the whole, the fluidity of the dialogue and the necessity of a strict construction. Letting one predominate for a while and coming back and fixing it so that eventually what you do, like a pastry chef, is frost your mistakes, if you can.

Pad and pencil. I want to see it, I want to see them all out in front of me, each one of the pencil adaptations, the pencil notations, and the pencil notations crossed out, and the pen on top of the pencil, and the pages . . . . Theoretically, one should be able to keep the whole play in one’s mind. The main thing is, I want to know that they’re there.

The most challenging dramatic form, for me, is the tragedy. I think I’m proudest of the craft in the tragedies I’ve written—The Cryptogram, Oleanna, American Buffalo, and The Woods. They are classically structured tragedies.

It’s kind of exhilarating not to have to cut to the bone constantly. Oh, well I can go over here for a moment. I can say what I think the guy was thinking or what the day looked like or what the bird was doing. If you do that as a playwright, you’re dead.

When you write stage directions—unless they’re absolutely essential for the understanding of the action of the play (He leaves. She shoots him.)—something else is going to happen when the actors and directors get them on the stage.

I like (film). I think it’s a fascinating medium. It’s so similar to the theater in many ways, and yet so very different. It’s great: it takes place with a huge number of people, which is fine; it’s very technical in ways that the theater isn’t; it calls for a lot of different ways of thinking, purely mechanical ways of thinking—that I find fascinating.

(If not a playwright) I think it’s very likely I would have been a criminal. It seems to me to be another profession that subsumes outsiders, or perhaps more to the point, accepts people with a not very well-formed ego and rewards the ability to improvise.

But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, 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. (This is the second installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Theresa Rebeck On Playwriting

October 26, 2011

Adapted from: Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2009

Here’s a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows. Here’s another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before. Here’s another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.

I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as “Waiting for Godot,” “Uncle Vanya” or “King Lear,” none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don’t think that making fun of plot, or acting like we’re all somehow “above” structure is such a good idea.

Is this really a problem? Yes. I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. “All that structure, all that story,” he growled, pouring himself more wine. “What a nightmare.”

Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don’t need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.

Sometimes people ask me where my plays come from. Where do you get your ideas? I honestly don’t know where they come from, but I do know that if you start with a few characters who need something simple from each other, pretty soon you will find that what they need is not so simple, and that the play itself needs something larger as well. The writing reveals its deeper subject. The characters reveal themselves as they act on each other in time. Time, innately, has a structure. And a lot of really smart writers who came before me understood how to make art imitate life and reveal those deeper truths in beautiful ways.

It is also completely understood that it is totally fair to steal from those guys. We are in dialogue with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Moliere and Beckett too, and a well-told story, something they all celebrated, is nothing to sneer at.

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.


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

July 20, 2011

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

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.


What Is Haiku?

January 26, 2009

A comment I received in response to my post of 1/19/09 (to read it, scroll down a bit to “Today’s Haiku,” the one with the fly) essentially asks the question that I’ve used as the title of this post. Here’s the reader’s comment: “I thought a haiku was . . . a major form of Japanese verse, written in 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, and employing highly evocative allusions and comparisons, often on the subject of nature or one of the seasons. I like the poem though.”

My reply was: “I think you’re right . . . the 5-7-5, 17 syllable style is classic Japanese haiku. But I also seem to remember that the American version(s) is (or can be) more lax when it comes to structure. (It took a lot of effort for me to just get the 17 syllable part.) I’d be interested to know what others have to say.”

I am interested in the thoughts of others about haiku form, Japanese or English, which is why I decided to cobble together an expanded version of my comment. My hope is that this post will provoke even more discussion of the ancient, profound—and often humorous—Japanese art form. My knowledge of haiku, haikubk16such as it is, comes from these two books: “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa,” Edited by Robert Hass; and “Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku,” Edited by Bruce Ross. I quote from both in this post. By reproducing some of my under-linings from the books, I attempt to share my understanding of what, in its various forms, haiku is. First up, from the introduction to “The Essential Haiku,” a book that has as its focus the classic Japanese haiku of three masters, Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa, which begins:

“It is a truism of Japanese literary criticism that the three men represent three types of the poet—Basho the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist—and their differences are clear at a glance when you read them. “Here is a fall poem that has Basho’s poignant calm and spiritual restlessness:

Deep autumn—
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder?

“And this winter poem was Buson’s painterly mix of precision and strangeness:

Tethered horse;
snow
in both stirrups.

“And here is a summer poem of Issa’s, with its pathos and humor:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
Casually.”

Note that in translation not one of these poems retain the suggested five-seven-five, seventeen syllable form. Even so, all still manage to express their observations of life and nature beautifully. Also note the use of humor, as in the Issa haiku where he speaks to his resident house spiders. As a cartoonist, I find the use of humor especially appealing. I’m also impressed by the skillful economy of expression inherent in haiku generally. Here’s an edited quote from the book about haiku form:

“The hokku, as it was called in Basho’s time, emerged almost accidentally, from the practice of linked verse. It was, from the beginning, very attentive to time and place. It tended to begin with a theme from classical poetry . . . that was associated with a season of the year. It then added an image that seemed to penetrate to the essence of the classical theme. The spirit of haiku required that the language be kept plain. . . . It also demanded accurate and original images, drawn mostly from common life.”

Classic haiku also has as a crucial element the insistence of a specific time, place—and, especially—a season, without which a haiku was thought to be incomplete: “In Basho’s poem . . . the phrase . . . ‘deep autumn’ or ‘autumn deepens’ is traditional and had accumulated resonance’s and associations from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow . . . which can also mean ‘snowfall’ in Buson’s poems . . . The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem.”

The Robert Hass introduction also offers insight into the ways Japanese and English poetry spring from their respective cultures, especially from the very different religious points of view:

“If the first level of haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn’t. Another is that, because there is no creator-being in Buddhist cosmology, there is no higher plan of meaning to which nature refers. At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; and that they suffer. Though the melancholy of autumn is as traditional an experience in European poetry as it is Japanese, it is not fundamentally assimilated into the European system of thought. English poets had a word for these feelings, they called them ‘moods.’ When Wordsworth or Keats writes about being ‘in pensive or in wayward mood,’ you know that they’re doing one of the jobs of the artist, trying to assimilate psychological states for which the official culture didn’t have a language. Basho’s Japan did. The old Japanese phrase that sums up the transience of things, ‘swirling petals, falling leaves,’ was a religious thought . . . the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen. . . . Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.”

His purpose in editing the book, Robert Hass says, was to give a fuller sense of the haiku form to readers in English, as well as some sense of the variety and intensity of the experience this art can deliver. He ends his introduction with these words: “Perhaps the best way to get into (haiku), after one has familiarized oneself with the symbolism of the seasons and the Japanese habit of mind, is to read them as plainly and literally as possible.”

I’ve selected the following quotations from Bruce Ross’ introduction to “Haiku Moment” to contrast classic Japanese haiku and the adaptations of the form we English speakers have attempted. haikubk21I’ll begin and end with structural differences:

“A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath. Since an average syllable in English is much shorter . . . modern haiku in English generally range from twelve to fourteen syllables, although many haiku poets try to maintain a five-seven-five syllable count. Some Modern English haiku use the three-liner vertical column arrangement, but horizontal one-liners, two-liners, and four-liners occur, with the horizontal three-liner short-long-short construction the most common one. English haiku tends also to lack some of the sound color of their Japanese counterparts because the prevalence of vowels in Japanese words and the frequent use of assonance, alliteration, and other sound values in Japanese haiku have not been sufficiently recognized by the non-Japanese world as indigenous to the haiku form.

“Japanese haiku also uses kireji (‘cutting words’), particles of language that indicated a pause or a stop. Kireji usually separate discrete image clusters and often coincide with the short-long-short line breaks in haiku. English haiku normally uses punctuation marks in much the same way. Traditional Japanese haiku also includes either a kigo (‘season word’) or a kidai (‘seasonal topic’). These words as one, two, or even three images provide the emotional focus in a haiku . . . . Modern English haiku is . . . not formally dependent upon a standardized season word . . . . The Japanese nature image conveys real experience . . . The Japanese image also occurs in the present tense, highlighting haiku’s emphasis upon real lived experience.”

In my own attempts to write haiku I like to adhere, as much as possible, to the use of nature images and the structural devices of the Japanese tradition, but without being locked into them, or blocked by the formal rigidity. Based on the English haiku I’ve read, as well as many comments in “Haiku Moment,” it seems that when it comes to composing haiku, almost anything goes.

This essay has been a very limited examination of the haiku form. If you’d like a more detailed answer to the question “What Is Haiku?” please read the suggested books. In the meantime, you may also want to type “haiku” into the little search window at the top right of this page.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.