November 1, 2008

How Not to Write a Play
Walter Kerr
The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway
William Goldman
Mis-Directing the Play
Terry McCabe

Stage Directions – The magician, writer and teacher Eugene Burger advises students to read a book on magic written before they were born for every newly published book on magic they tackle. This is a clever, practical way to overcome the tyranny of “the new” and Eugene’s wise words steered me toward devouring three different books on theater published at three very different times: The mid-50s, the very late 1960s and 2001.

Walter Kerr’s book from 1955 is a master class on paper: “The theater is a somewhat ruder place than this. It is, and we are appalled to discover the fact, quite a primitive place. A great many seats have been lashed together in an outsized building so that a great many people can come together for a robust and companionable outside experience. The audience is not confused about the kind of experience it is looking for. When it wishes a private experience, it makes suitable arrangements. Intending to pore quietly over a delicately wrought character sketch, it snaps on one light in the living room, settles into the most comfortable armchair, murmurs a silent prayer that the telephone won’t ring, and shuts out all thought of company. When it comes to the theater, it comes looking for company. It comes looking for noise – it takes a loud play to fill a large building. It comes looking for color – it takes bold hues to hit the top of the second balcony. It comes looking for activity – it takes a lot of activity to spellbind this on-the-town and out-for-the-evening band. An arena has been erected so that an event may take place. Whatever is uneventful dies peacefully in the arena. Whatever is soft or slow or small shivers and expires in this busy barn.”

Kerr: “What has crippled the drama descended from Chekhov is its calculated inertia. We have made ennui almost a point of honor. The ennui originates, naturally enough, in our model. Chekhov was specifically concerned, as he clearly announced, with ‘disappointment, apathy, nervous limpness and exhaustion.’ What we forget is that these special characteristics were derived from, and intended to mirror, a given time, place, and state of mind: the moribund Russia of the nineteenth century. Russia itself has long since thrown off Russia inertia; only we continue to cling to it.”

Kerr: “A comparative study of the successes and failures of theatrical history would, I think, indicate that narrative strength is required not only in thundering tragedy and flamboyant farce but in the most fanciful and featherweight flights of wit … In practice, we are not confused about the necessity for narrative tension. We are bored by a book, and we put it down, when tension is not present. In the theater we sit back, glance at our watches, hope for an intermission, and remind ourselves not to bother coming the next time. But our boredom is not – as it is often said to be – the boredom of the spoiled child peevishly demanding spectacular new distractions. It is not the boredom of the foolish in the presence of the first-rate. It is the boredom of the experienced adult who has found life itself to be more complex, colorful, contrary and challenging than the pale and passive literary artifice that is presently set before him.”

Kerr: “Put it this way: there can be neither change without action nor action without change. (We are surely badgering the obvious here, but the distressed state of modern drama stems largely from its defiant denial of the obvious.) … Completeness – beginning, middle and end – requires only that that change which is essential to the nature of drama should actually have taken place … There are different kinds of changes. Aristotle, studying the practice of Greek dramatists, laid emphasis upon two: reversals and discoveries.”

Kerr: “Julius Caesar covers, quite coherently and without a lapse of tension, a period of two years. The average contemporary play covers: ACT ONE: An afternoon in early spring. ACT TWO: Late that evening. ACT THREE: The next morning.”

Kerr: “… the play that is most certain to fail is the play that announces itself as follows: ACT ONE: Anywhere. The day the hydrogen bomb fell. ACT TWO: That evening.”

Kerr: “Musical comedy is the form that makes the most extensive use of theatrical convention in our time, and something of its theatrical vitality must stem from the fact. The form is eager to please its audiences, and to explore the theater as theater – two things that the serious drama has not thought of doing in quite a long while. We generally regard the popularity of musicals as a sign of public illiteracy; it may actually be a response to creative joy.”

Kerr: “Every one of us, for instance, likes stories … Every one of us likes to watch things that go faster than we can go: horses, trains, plays … Every one of us has a great big appetite for experience … Every one of us is interested in interesting people. That is to say, we don’t feel responsible for the rehabilitation of bores. In life, we avoid them … Every one of us is fascinated by language. This doesn’t seem so obvious until we think about it. But listen to a man repeating a joke he has heard, and being careful that he gets it right … Adlai Stevenson rocketed out of nowhere to national prominence in an incredibly short time largely because he made listening a pleasure … Words are thrilling – when we take the trouble to make them thrilling.”

Kerr: “The theater was not created by a minority for a minority. It was created – in its Greek, Roman and medieval beginnings – by a crowd for a crowd. It has, since these beginnings, been at its healthiest when it was closest to the crowd. There is a favorable chance, with the crowd, of arriving at serious art.”

William Goldman’s book from 1969 bristles with archaic misunderstandings of homosexuality, written with a sort of breezy clumsiness in an apparent attempt to be hip; but the big book captures the entire 1967-1968 Broadway season – the business as well as the art of theater – and Goldman is a writer with uncanny talent to spin yarns by spotlighting just the right telling details. No other writer ever seems so present.

Terry McCabe’s book from 2001 is another master class disguised as a slim volume: “The myth of the theater director is that he or she is the auteur of what happens on the stage, just as the film director is the auteur of what we see on the screen. The myth is not true – cannot be true – and belief in the myth leads to bad directing and is therefore destructive of good theater.”

McCabe: “A good play doesn’t make statements, it asks questions to which it seeks answers.”

McCabe: “An actor was rehearsing for a London production of John Logan’s Never the Sinner. ‘I see this scene,’ his director told him at one difficult point, ‘in terms of the way the sunlight looks when it comes through the windows at Westminster Abbey.’ ‘Fine,’ the actor replied. ‘What do you want me to do?’ … The way for a director to be helpful to an actor is to talk in verbs: conceal, persuade, protect, seduce, resist, destroy, expose and so on. What the actor needs to know is what the character is trying to do from moment to moment. The answer is always a verb … Designers, on the other hand, specialize in metaphor. A set design is more than just an environment for the action. The physical world of a play is a metaphor for its theme.”

McCabe: “Good directing requires that you subordinate yourself to the play in a way that transcends mere familiarity with it … Your job as a director is to present the play as a unity, to bring the various elements of the production into one clear focus that expresses your best judgment of the playwright’s intentions … Tell the story you were given.”


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