Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright
The New York Times, May 26, 1985
I grew up in New York and worked in radio and in television for 10 years. Then I said, “If I don’t start to write a play and start to get out soon, I’ll be writing ‘My Three Sons’ for the rest of my life,” which I did not want to do.
There will never be any satisfaction for me unless I can write what I feel I want to say. And I wrote that first play (“Come Blow Your Horn”) — and it was a matter of life and death for me.
Mike Nichols and I were doing “Plaza Suite” in Boston many years ago, and the first act was too long — it wasn’t that it was too long, we were getting too many laughs in a scene that we thought was basically serious. So Mike and I started to cut out all of the laugh lines, and they started to laugh at other lines that they had never laughed at. They just wanted to laugh!
I’ll write a scene that is really funny, and then I try to switch it quickly, because I think that happens in life a lot. You know, in the middle of some wonderful moment you get a phone call with tragic news. There have been a few occasions in plays when I’ve done that, and the audience is really thrown by it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they resent it. They feel that they’ve been taken or had a little bit.
My experience has been that if you write a situation well enough, the tension is so great that the audience will laugh whether you provide it or not. But many times when it’s either laugh or cry, a lot of them don’t want to cry. And they will pick out a moment — a line, a gesture, whatever it is — to laugh at. It becomes part of the play after a while. I expect it night after night — never having intended it in the beginning. There’s just so much that they can handle. You force the audience to deal with a great deal in the theater.
The thing I think most about when I’m writing is what goes on in the bedroom between the husband and wife. I don’t mean the obvious, but what they really say to each other.
I know when my unconscious is doing the writing, because when my conscious is doing it, it seems familiar to me when I see it later on. Let’s say I haven’t seen the play in eight weeks or something, and I go and watch it. I say, “I didn’t write that. That has nothing to do with me. That came out of somebody else.” I know that’s the unconscious writing. And that’s where the surprises come from. And that’s like mercury. You just grab that if you can; it’s really hard. I can’t pin it down, but I know it’s probably very important to my psyche — that bit of information. I say, “That’s what I’ve been keeping hidden.” It’s a dangerous game. If you don’t grab it, then you don’t have it anymore. But it’s also the most exhilarating. I can get up and go, “What? That was terrific! You just caught a great long fly ball.”
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” took nine years from the inception of the idea. I let it sit for six years. It just kept going in my mind. I would think about it, and six years later I wrote 35 pages. I said, “This is good, but I don’t know how to write the play.” I’d never written a play like that — sort of a tapestry, where everybody’s story is very important. I generally had written plays about two characters and the peripheral characters and how they are involved in it. And it took a long time — another three years. And then I sat down and went right through the play. But the unconscious is doing the work. It’s typing away.
I don’t know what it’s like not to write. I don’t do it every day of the year, and I do take time off, but I feel empty if I don’t have something to work on. The trick is not to get caught up in something that’s not working just for the sake of working. But I feel very happy when I can say I’ve got an idea for something that I think is worth doing. And then I can leave it alone and not work at all — it can just do its own work there while I go to the beach or play some tennis.
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.