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.


Playwrights on Playwriting

January 15, 2014

Friedrich Dürrenmatt On Playwriting

DuerrenmattAdapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

I would ask you not to look upon me as the spokesman of some specific movement in the theatre or of a certain dramatic technique . . . nor to believe that I knock at your door as the traveling salesman of one of  the philosophies current on our stages today, whether as existentialist, nihilist, expressionist, or satirist, or any other label put on the compote dished up by literary criticism. For me, the stage is not a battlefield for theories, philosophies, and manifestos, but rather an instrument whose possibilities I seek to know by playing with it.

The problems I face as playwright are practical, working problems, problems I face not before, but during the writing. To be quite accurate about it, these problems usually come up after the writing is done, arising out of a certain curiosity to know how I did it . . . I risk disappointing the general longing for something profound and creating the impression that an amateur is talking. I haven’t the faintest notion of how else I should go about it, of not to talk about art like an amateur. Consequently I speak only to those who fall asleep listening to Heidegger.

The artist indeed has no need of scholarship. Scholarship derives laws from what exists already; otherwise it would not be scholarship. But the laws thus established have no value for the artist, even when they are true. The artist can not accept a law he has not discovered for himself.

Literary scholarship looks on the theatre as an object; for the dramatist it is never something purely objective, something separate from him. He participates in it. It is true that the playwright’s activity makes drama into something objective (that is exactly his job), but he destroys the object he has created again and again, forgets it, rejects it, scorns it, reevaluates it, all in order to make room for something new. Scholarship sees only the result; the process, which led to this result, is what the playwright can not forget. What he says has to be taken with a grain of salt. What he thinks about his art changes as he creates his art; his thoughts are always subject to his mood and  the moment.

Perhaps a writer should never talk about his art, but once he starts, then it is not altogether a waste of time to listen to him. Literary scholars who have not the faintest notion of the difficulties of writing and of the hidden rocks that force the stream of art into oft unsuspected channels run the danger of merely asserting and stupidly proclaiming laws that do not exist.

If you’d like to read more of 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.


Neil Simon On Playwriting II

July 11, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

For years I’ve been trying to write the play of what happened to me and the seven writers who wrote Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But I’ve never got past page twenty-two because there are seven conflicts rather than one main conflict . . . . I didn’t have somebody to be serious, to anchor it. I always have to find the anchor. I have to find the Greek chorus in the play, the character who either literally talks to the audience or talks to the audience in a sense . . . . More recently, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, I’ve been literally talking to the audience, through the character of Eugene, because it is the only way I can express the writer’s viewpoint.

The writer has inner thoughts and they are not always articulated on the stage—and I want the audience to be able to get inside his head. It’s what I did in Jake’s Women. In the first try out in San Diego the audience didn’t know enough about Jake because all he did was react to the women in his life, who were badgering him, trying to get him to open up. We didn’t know who Jake was. So I introduced the device of him talking to the audience. Then he became the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knew things I never thought I would reveal about Jake—and possibly about myself.

Steven Spielberg, who had gone to see Brighton Beach, got word to me, suggesting the next play should be about my days in the army. I was already thinking about that and I started to write Biloxi Blues, which became a play about Eugene’s rites of passage. I discovered something very important in the writing of Biloxi Blues. Eugene, who keeps a diary, writes in it his belief that Epstein is homosexual. When the other boys in the barracks read the diary and assume it’s true, Eugene feels terrible guilt. He’s realized the responsibility of putting something down on paper, because people tend to believe everything they read.

I’ve always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, This is what they say now. This is what they say next. Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn . . .  I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play . . . . I didn’t get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in . . . . They said, No, no, no. This is where I want to go. So, I started following them. In the second play, Barefoot in the Park, I outlined the first two acts . . . .  I never got through that outline either. In The Odd Couple, I outlined the first act. After a while I got tired of doing even that. I said, I want to be as surprised as anyone else.

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 III 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.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting XIII

March 28, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

(Senator) McCarthy (was) actually saying certain lines that I recall the witch-hunters saying in Salem. So I started to go back, not with the idea of writing a play (The Crucible), but to refresh my own mind because it was getting eerie. For example, (McCarthy)  holding up his hand with cards in it, saying, “I have in my hand the names of so-and-so.” Well, this was a standard tactic of seventeenth-century prosecutors confronting a witness who was reluctant or confused, or an audience in a church which was not quite convinced that this particular individual might be guilty . . . . He had nothing at all—he simply wanted to secure in the town’s mind the idea that he saw everything, that everyone was transparent to him. It was a way of inflicting guilt on everybody, and many people responded genuinely out of guilt; some would come and tell him some fantasy, or something that they had done or thought that was evil in their minds. I had in my play, for example, the old man who comes and reports that when his wife reads certain books, he can’t pray. He figures that the prosecutors would know the reason, that they can see through what to him was an opaque glass. Of course he ends up in a disaster because they prosecuted his wife. Many times completely naive testimony resulted in somebody being hanged.

I never used to, but I think now that, while I hadn’t taken over an ideology, I did absorb a certain viewpoint. That there is tragedy in the world but that the world must continue: one is a condition for the other. Jews can’t afford to revel too much in the tragic because it might overwhelm them. Consequently, in most Jewish writing there’s always the caution, “Don’t push it too far toward the abyss, because you’re liable to fall in.” I think it’s part of that psychology and it’s part of me, too. I have, so to speak, a psychic investment in the continuity of life. I couldn’t ever write a totally nihilistic work.

I do have about five things started—short stories, a screenplay, et cetera. 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 a calendar in my head. You see, the theater season starts in September, and I have always written plays in the summertime. Almost always—I did write View from the Bridge in the winter. So, quite frankly, I can’t say. 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. Somewhere in the blood you have a play, and you wait until it passes behind the eyes.

This is the last post in the Arthur Miller series. 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 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.)


Arthur Miller On Playwriting V

February 1, 2012

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

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

I always drew a lot of inspiration from politics, from one or another kind of national struggle. You live in the world even though you only vote once in a while. It determines the extensions of your personality. 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. And had it gone on, we would have gotten a whole new American personality—which in part we have.

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.

You can’t conceive of (Molière) except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.

I don’t think one can repeat old forms as such, because they express most densely a moment of time. For example, 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 . . . . We’re in an era of anecdotes, in my opinion, which is going to pass any minute. 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.

(B)efore I wrote my first successful play, I wrote, oh, I don’t know, maybe 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.

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 VI will post next Wednesday.)