Edward Albee on Playwriting

July 27, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

The action is the subject of the play. When people ask me what my plays are about, I say, “Well, it’s about what happens from the beginning to the end.” Symbolism, metaphor, and meaning are not my concern — they should be inevitable results of the action, not something that is put in or layered on . . . I said that to someone a long time ago, when I had been asked once too often why I chose the names George and Martha (as in Washington), and so now I hear it coming back at me. Well, it’s a perfectly sensible explanation, if you think about it, but the point is that I made the implications up afterward. I also discovered after I wrote the play that it examines humanism and totalitarianism, but I would have failed utterly if, during the course of a performance, someone in the audience nudged their buddy and whispered, “Hey, this play examines humanism and totalitarianism.”

People have such different vocabularies and rhythms. Particularly rhythm: Rhythm almost by itself is the basis for regionalism in speaking style. But if you cover the names of the characters in an O’Neill play, you can’t tell who’s talking.

You hear a play, even when you read it on the page.

Dialogue, like music, consists of sound and silence.

Subtext . . . is everything about the life of your character which is not revealed in the play — and you create it because God knows when you’ll need to use it .

All creative people are schizophrenic. We see ourselves doing things at the same time that we are actually doing them. If you’re making love, you back off and see it as a play. It can be kind of unnerving at first — you wonder, “Can I get back?” Well, you can. It’s a healthy kind of schizophrenia.

If you limit yourself to what you know you can do, you’ll never grow. The very best plays, apart from the exceedingly rare absolute masterpieces, are wonderful failures.

When you sit down to write, you’re writing the first play ever written by anyone. At that point, clear everything out of your head, be alone, and hear your own voice.

Know the competition from the beginning of history (and) steal shrewdly. If you steal well, they’ll say you were “influenced.” If you do it badly, they’ll call it plagiarism. But it should never really be plagiarism, because the natural playwright, by some process of alchemy, will synthesize his influence into his own voice.

Never trust anyone who tells you, “That’s too complex, simplify that.” Listen if they tell you it’s unclear. But if they say it’s too complex, then you’ve probably got something good, and you should fight to keep it. They’re just trying to make it safe and easy.

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.

Not A Book Review

January 14, 2009

Slipping the Moorings, By Susan McCallum-Smith

Book reviews are not something I do, but I highly recommend this particular volume because the author is,book1 I’m proud to say, a friend of mine.
Even so, I can also say that this personal plug is for a collection of accomplished and engrossing tales by a very talented young writer. Susan and I met in a Johns Hopkins University evening writing class some years’ back. When the class ended, several of us formed what we called “The Little Group of Serious Writers” and began to meet every couple of weeks to talk about writing and to critique each other’s work. For me, even when reading early drafts of Susan’s stories, I detected what I came to think of as “heft.” It’s a word I define, when applied to writing, as having depth and breath and clarity; also humor, insight, sensitivity and nuance. So, as I use it, that small word is actually very large (it contains multitudes), and applies to only the very best prose, the kind of writing that entertains even as it moves and informs the reader. Susan’s book gives us stories I believe my reading friends—and their friends, and their friends of friends—will find to be not just fun and beautifully written, but—dare I say it—even soul satisfying. Don’t just take my word for it; several of Susan’s professional peers also have great praise for her first collection of short fiction:

“No one could blame you for pausing with a slight air of forgetful uncertainty after devouring three or four stories in this fabulous collection, closing the book to glance again at the name of its author. Margot Livesey? Maeve Binchy? Sorry, no, but you’re in the right league, not by reputation but certainly by measure of aesthetic luminosity, narrative acumen, and dazzling descriptive powers unmatched except by the very best writers of this age or any other. Susan McCallum-Smith, a brilliant young writer making her debut, soars across the transatlantic pond of contemporary literature like a frigate bird, an old master with fresh wings, and Slipping The Moorings overwhelms with grace, elegance, gravity, humor, intelligence and dare I say perfection. Susan McCallum-Smith. Congratulations, dear reader–you just discovered a new and extraordinary talent.”
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of
Easy In The Islands and The Next New World.

“Susan McCallum- Smith enters the minds and particularly the voices of her diverse characters with much understanding, humour, and sympathy. She renders moments of conflict and change with lively language, and illuminates these moments with an admirable attention to detail and imagery.”
Sheila Kohler, author of Cracks.

“Sean O’Faolain said the short story must supply both punch and poetry, and Susan McCallum-Smith’s debut story collection does that and much more. Ranging from the edgy to the elegiac, these stories feature characters living in contexts of emotional urgency within worlds richly, even munificently, observed.”
Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo.

Susan’s publisher, Entsasis Press, describes her work this way: “McCallum-Smith creates vivid portraits of individuals who bear the scars of failed relationships, misunderstood intentions, sexual and physical abuse, and spiritual isolation. These nine stories, which move effortlessly from the 19th to the 21st centuries, take the reader to a Mexican colonial city for a Day of the Dead celebration, to visitors’ day at a Glasgow prison, to Belle Epoch New York, to the contemporary art scene of London, to villages of Scotland’s rugged coast, and to Montreal, where a hockey fan’s keen interest in the game leads to an unexpected dilemma. McCallum-Smith’s ability to give a comic and wry edge to a dark scene, to capture the patois of both high and low society, to navigate the turbulent waters of dysfunctional families, and to pull her readers through the emotional undertow of these stories attests to the power of her fictive voice. Much of the pleasure for readers lies in her masterful use of syntax and figurative language; her talent for finding exactly the right images to convey mood and setting gives her work its immediacy and its keen sense of place, creating elements of lasting beauty and transcendent insight.”

I couldn’t agree more. susan-colorFinally, Susan, being the modest lass that she is, tells us just a wee bit about herself: “I grew up in a family and a city (Glasgow) of storytellers, and many of the stories were tall, and not all of them savory, and it instilled in me a passion for language and a fascination with the nuance and diversity of the human voice.”

Born and raised in Scotland, Susan McCallum-Smith currently lives in Baltimore, where she is a freelance editor and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in Urbanite, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Scottish Review of Books; her reviews are often heard on Maryland Public Radio. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from Bennington College. Slipping the Moorings is her first book. Visit her literary blog by clicking the “Belles Lettres” link in the sidebar blogroll.

Author Photo by Jason Okutake.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.