Three-Minute Memoir

February 28, 2015

Bad Actors I

This is an edited re-post.
Click images to enlarge.

PhyllisJean1952Cecil, Virginia, 1964, was the second play I wrote and the first one produced by the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, in August, 1985. The story was based on the murder of my maternal first-cousin, Phyllis Jean. While there are positive things to say about the production, it failed my own expectations. I had hoped that writing it would somehow deepen my insight into the murderer, help me understand what drove Phyllis Jean’s husband to kill her. I was convinced that a fictionalized version of the deed would free me from thinking about it—or him—ever again. But some critics said that the play was too much  a portrait of life in a small town, rather than of the murderer and his motivations. The reviews, good and bad, only compounded the emotional confusion I still felt.

In a case of tragic serendipity (cosmic joke?) the actor cast to play Joe Pete, the wife-killer, would murder his real-life wife a few years later. And in an even stranger alignment of dark stars, the woman he killed was a co-worker/friend of mine, her office no more than a hundred yards from my own. His  wife was no tomboy like Phyllis Jean, and she didn’t have my cousin’s red hair and freckles, but she was vivacious and witty and fun to be around. And she had a lovely smile. In those ways, and in her fate, she came to remind me very much of Phyllis.

Bruce&?Cecil is an ensemble play with nine speaking roles. The character of Kitty, Joe Pete’s wife, is based on Phyllis Jean; Asher, the editor of the local paper, represents me. The story is told from Asher’s point of view and the first scene in his office is designed to define the relationship of those two friends since childhood, and to foreshadow the tragedy to come. In the complete scene we also learn that Asher had been hired by Kitty’s guardian to keep an eye on her on the school bus, in the same way that my grandmother paid me to spy on Phyllis Jean. But that’s pretty much where the resemblance to real life ends. The Baltimore Sun critic wrote that “Watching (the play) is like looking at a cut-away version of a small town.”

Here are a few lines from Act One, Scene One, beginning with a stage direction.

We hear a typewriter. Lights up in the office of the Cecil Herald. ASHER, who has a small town businessman look about him, is using his index fingers to tap out a story. After a few beats KITTY struts in. She is a small woman, pretty, light makeup, flowing red hair, the toned body of a dancer.

KITTY (after a long beat watching ASHER work, teasing): It’s O.K., Asher, don’t pay me no mind. Just pretend I ain’t here at all. (ASHER finishes the line he’s typing and looks up. KITTY, still teasing, snatches the typewriter paper and reads the headline): “Country Man Is Charged With Murder” (she glances at him, then continues.) “Four children have lost their mother and may lose their father for some time as the result of a long gun slaying at 7:30 last night in the Blue Run area of Cecil.”

ASHER (mock-stern): Kitty, give it.

KITTY: Lordy, what is this?

ASHER: Guy shot his wife over in—

KITTY (curious): What for you reckon?

ASHER (ignoring the question): Kitty, please, I’ve got this deadline—and a headache.

BeautyShopMany who saw the play agreed that my female characters were well-written, “for a man.” Any skill I may have for writing from the female POV is likely because as a young boy I spent a lot of time listening to women in all kinds of settings. My favorite half-sister ran a beauty parlor, and when she had to baby-sit me on a workday I’d tag along. I loved to watch and hear the women sitting under the hairdryers, flipping through Look and Life and Collier’s, gabbing about this and that, appearing at once cute and serious and silly in hair curlers—talking, talking, talking.

Aside from the reviews (brickbats included), the fun of hearing actors say my words, and experiencing how a play is staged, the BPF production was my reward for months of hard work. But the nagging fact remained that the murder, as written and staged, happened out of the audience’s sight and was, as one critic said, “. . . the off-stage fulfillment of (an) ominous promise (and) so perfunctory we are cheated of pathos. Perhaps the playwright wanted us to see the play’s climactic event as just another news item in the Cecil Herald. Still, murder is not a subtle crime. It calls for more than suggestion.” That critic had me pegged.

While the play was an OK first effort, I came to agree that Phyllis Jean’s death needed to be—deserved to be—dealt with directly. And, because of my inability (unwillingness?) to face it at the time, I had hidden it off-stage. As serendipity would have it, though, I’d get a chance to try again.

More about that soon, when I post Bad Actors II . . .

Copyright © 2015, Jim Sizemore

Château de Lacoste

February 18, 2015

By Kathleen Barber

Provence, France, July 2014

lzPath

As I climb from the village to the Château de Lacoste, the castle home of the Marquis de Sade, I realize that I am little more than a papered-over fourteen year old. I am still searching for my life, even though by now, I have lived most of it. I stop on the precariously steep path to wait for my friend, Lorraine. She has known me since I was fourteen and I marvel at her generosity in forgetting who I was back then: a swirling vortex of disappointment and desire laced with a foolish belief that there was something out there that would put me in order—if only I could find it.

A slice of gold catches my eye. I peer down a long, dark alley formed by two ochre buildings standing like angry lovers, an arms-length apart. Beyond the alley lies a quilt pattern of gold and green farmland. Lorraine passes me, good-naturedly complaining about my fascination with going up hills.

lzGreenDoorHills excite me and Lorraine never says ‘no’, which is fortunate as we are spending a week in the Luberon, the hill country of Provence. Cobblestones make the path uneven: we aren’t ashamed to hold on to the handrails. In America, we probably wouldn’t be allowed to walk up here. In America, we are so bent on suing our neighbors for every bump that life gives us that we allow little risk . . . little adventure. I imagine the servants of the Marquis trudging this path, bringing grapes from the farm, a blue bowl recently fired, or perhaps a query about a daughter last seen following the Marquis through a side door of the local church. Hanging on a coral-colored wall of a butcher’s shop is a poster announcing Festival de Lacoste, an annual celebration of music and theater created by Pierre Cardin who is also the current owner of the Château. The poster lists Puccinni, Tchaikovsky, Natalie Dessay, and I want to hear everything.

lzBentManWe navigate the last of the cobblestone pathway and all at once are entering the upper courtyard of the eleventh century castle. At this level the building is mostly a limestone ruin. I wonder if there are ghosts. My breathing is heavy with anticipation; my heart is bursting with the discovery of a new world. I turn to see a road and a carpark nearby, but rather than feel foolish for having made the climb from the village, I feel sorry for the tourists who have driven. I smile at Lorraine and she grins back, then makes her way to the magnificent sculpture of a muscular man, his form unnaturally posed. The statue is both beautiful and disturbing, and its placement against the canvas of the sky, magnificent.

lzHeadA sculpture of a disembodied, imprisoned head of the Marquis de Sade draws me to it. Though his victims have been long at rest, his torment is still not over. I shudder. Instead of thinking about gardens and wine, I find myself trying to reconcile the impulse of life that is sometimes loving and sometimes cruel. What has brought me here?

I go to the edge of the hill and look down and down and do not fall and do not step back. My eyes sweep over the Luberon valley, and I long to explore every town, stand in fields of grapes, climb every hill. A forgotten self writhes beneath the layers of family, career, husband, friends . . . of definitions unsought and dreams abandoned. Time is running out.

“Ready?” Lorriane asks. “There’s plenty more to see today.”   I have known Lorraine since she was fourteen, too. When I look at her, I see her sisters, brother, parents—see my own family. Days of unfulfilled longing and moments of exaltation have brought us here. Layers of my life peel away and they float down the hill on a Provence breeze. There is more to see, and Lorraine and I are both still looking. We go back the way we came, and nothing looks the same.

lzVista2

Click images to enlarge.
Copyright © 2015, Kathleen Barber

lzKathleenLorraineKathleen Barber, on the right, stands with her friend Lorraine in a field of Provence lavender. Ms. Barber has had over fifteen plays produced in Baltimore community theaters, most recently In the Shadow of Lushan, produced by Fells Point Corner Theater as part of The Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Kathleen is a partner in a manufacturing business, The Fairlawn Tool & Die Company, founded by her father, which has served as the basis for several of her plays. She has had short stories published in Teen Magazine, New England Senior Citizen, and The Maryland Poetry Review.


Sam Shepard on Play Writing VI

January 5, 2015

Adapted from: The Pathfinder

By John Lahr, The New Yorker, February 8, 2010

Shepard-6The male influences around me (growing up) were primarily alcoholics and extremely violent. I listened like an animal. My listening was afraid.

I  just dropped out of nowhere. It was absolute luck that I happened to be there (NYC, 1963) when the whole Off-Off Broadway movement was starting. I think they hired everybody. It was wide open. You were like a kid in a fun park—trying to be an actor, writer, musician, whatever happened . . . . For me, there was nothing fun about the sixties. Terrible suffering . . . . Things coming apart at the seams.

I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced. There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer . . . . There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves.

When you write a play, you work out like a musician on a piece of music. You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come  . . . . Break it all down in pairs. Make the pairs work together, with each other. Then make ’em work against each other, independent.

I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable . . . instead of embodying a “whole character,” the actor should consider his performance “a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme,” . . . . to make a kind of music or painting in space without having to feel the need to completely answer intellectually for the character’s behavior.

Character is something that can’t be helped. It’s like destiny . . . . It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, and the blood that runs through our veins.

(I was) dead set against revisions because I couldn’t stand rewriting . . . . (The plays) were chants, they were incantations, they were spells. You get on them and you go. Plays have to go beyond just working out problems. (They have to move) from colloquial territory to poetic country.

I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing, and endings are a disaster.


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


From Here to Eternity, an Essay

March 18, 2014

Two Scenes from a Classic Film

By Jim Sizemore

Kerr-Lancaster-Kiss

If I had to pick one 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, directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider the film cinema gold from start to finish, but I’ll briefly focus 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 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. (Click images for larger versions.)

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 known even to 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.” 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 can be sexy. The smoldering and sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in that scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.

I’ve transcribed the two scenes using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the finished movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one has been changed after we read it. In that scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk. 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. Leva 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, this scene differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there which sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the two characters. The scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic encounter should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth: a good scene should also entertain. That 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.

kerr-lancaster1Scene 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 twenty minutes into 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.

FADE OUT

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 scene from the movie 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 by the screenwriter or 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?

KAREN: Maybe.

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.

FADE OUT.

kerrlancaster2What 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, our intelligence 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 scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple; as filmed, the cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director lets us 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 said, it’s a perfect film.

This is an edited repost from September 28, 2009.
Copyright © 2014 Jim Sizemore

Playwrights on Playwriting

February 8, 2014

Henrik Ibsen

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Henrik-IbsenThere are two kinds of spiritual law, two kinds of conscience, one in man and another, altogether different, in woman. They do not understand each other; but in practical life the woman is judged by man’s law, as though she were not a woman but a man.

The wife in the play (A Doll’s House) ends by having no idea of what is right or wrong; natural feeling on the one hand and belief in authority on the other have altogether bewildered her.

A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.

These modern women, ill-used as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated according to their gifts, prevented from following their calling, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in temper—it is these who furnish the mothers of the new generation. What will be the result?

The fault lies in that all mankind has failed. If a man claims to live and develop in a human way, it is megalomania. All mankind, and especially the Christian part of it, suffers from megalomania.

Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. I always proceed from the individual; the stage setting, the dramatic ensemble, all of that comes naturally and does not cause me any worry, as soon as I am certain of the individual in every aspect of his humanity. But I have to have his exterior in mind also, down to the last button, how he stands and walks, how he conducts himself, what his voice sounds like. Then I do not let him go until his fate is fulfilled.

As a rule, I make three drafts of my dramas which differ very much from each other in characterization, not in action. When I proceed to the first sketch of the material I feel as though I had the degree of acquaintance with my characters that one acquires on a railway journey; one has met and chatted about this or that. With the next draft I see everything more clearly, I know characters just about as one would know them after a few weeks’ stay in a spa; I have learned the fundamental traits in their characters as well as their little peculiarities; yet it is not impossible that I might make an error in some essential matter. In the last draft, finally, I stand at the limit of knowledge; I know my people from close and long association—they are my intimate friends, who will not disappoint me in any way; in the manner in which I see them now, I shall always see them.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, 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.


Playwrights On Playwriting

January 22, 2014

Friedrich Dürrenmatt On Playwriting II

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Duerrenmatt2Doubtless the unities of time, place, and action which Aristotle . . . derived from Greek tragedy constitute the ideal of drama. From a logical and hence also aesthetic point of view, this thesis is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that the question arises if it does not set up the framework once and for all within which each dramatist must work.  Aristotle’s three unities demand the greatest precision, the greatest economy, and the greatest simplicity in the handling of the dramatic material. The unities of time, place, and action ought to be a basic dictate put to the dramatist by literary scholarship, and the only reason scholarship does not hold the artist to them is that Aristotle’s unities have not been obeyed by anyone for ages. Nor can they be obeyed, for reasons which best illustrate the relationship of the art of writing plays to the theories about the art.

No matter how abstract an aesthetic law may appear to be, the work of art from which it was derived is contained in that law. If I want to set about writing a dramatic  action which is to unfold and run its course in the same place inside of two hours, for instance, then this action must have a history behind it, and that  history is the story which took place before the stage action commenced, a story  which alone makes the action on the stage possible. Thus the history behind Hamlet is, of course, the murder of his father; the drama lies in the discovery of that murder. As a rule, too, the stage action is much shorter in time than the event depicted; it often starts out right in the middle of the event, or indeed toward the end of it. Before Sophocles’ tragedy could begin, Oedipus had to have killed his father and married his mother. The stage action condenses an event to the extent to which Aristotle’s unites are fulfilled; the closer a playwright adheres to the three unities the more important is the background history of the action.

The one-act play obeys the unities still, even though under a different condition. The plot is dominated by a situation instead of by history, and thus unity is once again achieved.

Comedy—insofar as it is not just satire of a particular society as in Moliére—supposes an unformed world, a world being made and turned upside down . . . . Tragedy overcomes distance; it can make myths originating in times immemorial seem like the present to the Athenians. But comedy creates  distance; the attempt of the Athenians to gain a foothold in Sicily is translated by comedy into the birds undertaking to create their own empire before which the gods and men will have to capitulate. How comedy works can be seen in the primitive kind of joke, in the dirty story, which, though it is of very dubious value, I bring up only because it is the best illustration of what I mean by creating distance. The subject of the dirty story is the purely sexual, and, because it is purely sexual,  it is formless and without objective distance. To achieve form the purely sexual is transmuted . . . into the dirty joke. Therefore this type of joke is a kind of original comedy, a transposition of the sexual onto the plain of the comical . . . . Thus the dirty story demonstrates that the comical exists in forming what is formless, in creating order out of chaos.

The means by which comedy creates distance is the conceit. Tragedy is without conceit. Hence there are few tragedies whose subjects were invented. By this I do not mean to imply that the ancient tragedians lacked inventive ideas of the sort that are written today, but the marvel of their art was that they had no need of these inventions, of conceits.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, 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.