Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category
I work in the morning. I sit comfortably in an armchair, opposite my secretary. Luckily, although she’s intelligent, she knows nothing about literature and can’t judge whether what I write is good or worthless. I speak slowly, as I’m talking to you, and she takes it down. I let characters and symbols emerge from me, as if I were dreaming. I always use what remains of my dreams of the night before. Dreams are reality at its most profound, and what you invent is truth because invention, by its nature, can’t be a lie. Writers who try to prove something are unattractive to me, because there is nothing to prove and everything to imagine. So I let words and images emerge from within. If you do that, you might prove something in the process.
Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.
As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.
Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.
And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You’re at a party, making small talk about what you do for a living, when a bystander pipes up: “You know, my friends always tell me I should be a writer. I’m always coming up with great ideas for stories.” At that point, if you’re lucky, you can nod politely and move on to another subject, but some writers aren’t so fortunate. Isaac Asimov complained that he’d frequently be approached by strangers at events or conventions who gave him some version of the following pitch: “I’ve got an idea for a bestselling novel. If you like, I can give it to you to write, and we can split the profits.” His response was usually something like this: “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a better plan. I’ll come up with an idea, and you write the book.” According to Asimov, no one ever took him up on the offer. And although it’s easy to smile at this, it gets at a common misconception about fiction—and about what writers do—that clouds the way many readers regard even our greatest authors.
Ideas are the easy part. Give me a few hours and a stack of magazines, and I can come up with half a dozen perfectly legitimate ideas for short stories. Not all of them will be turn out to be viable, but they’ll all look equally plausible, and some of them may even get published. There’s a reason, though, that I write maybe two short stories a year at most, and it isn’t just an issue of time. Coming up with an idea is child’s play compared to the laborious work of constructing a plot and peopling it with convincing characters, a process that can feel less like the result of inspiration than an excursion into no-man’s land, in which a gain of ten inches can pass for a victory. I’m as guilty as anyone of stumbling across an interesting idea, thinking that it would make a great movie, and then promptly forgetting all about it, but I know better than to try to tell this to someone who actually writes and sells screenplays. Ideas are cheap; execution is what counts, and it’s what separates a true writer from a spinner of daydreams.
We all know this, of course, but conflating ideas with the resulting stories is a mistake that you see even among professional critics and academics. It’s a critical commonplace, for instance, that Shakespeare wasn’t much of a plotmaker, since he lifted his basic ideas from existing stories and historical texts. It’s tempting to buy into this argument, since it helps restore a god of poetry to more human dimensions, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. A glance at the primary sources of Hamlet or King Lear reveals how inventive Shakespeare really was: he often takes as inspiration only a sentence or two from a much longer work—something like the logline of a screenplay—and transforms even this gossamer premise beyond recognition. Nearly every scene in Hamlet is an original invention, as is the double plot of King Lear, to say nothing of such crowded, ingenious original stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. (Shakespeare’s Game by the playwright William Gibson, which I just finished reading, does a nice job of reminding us how artful the construction of the plays really is.)
Shakespeare, in short, was as good at plot as he was at everything else, and diminishing his achievement simply because the bare bones of the story were already there is to deeply misunderstand what a writer does. (It’s interesting to note that many of Shakespeare’s cleverest plots, like The Merchant of Venice, arise from a fusion of one or more existing stories. Here, as in almost everything, creativity arises from combination.) It’s one thing to lift a few incidents from Holinshed, and quite another to create Falstaff. And while it may seem that Shakespeare, of all writers, doesn’t require defending, there’s no better place to draw the line between idea and story, if only because he provides other writers with such a sensational model to follow. As T.S. Eliot points out, it can be dangerous to imitate Shakespeare’s style, but in the tactical elaboration of his ideas into character and action—in which we catch him thinking in a way that we can’t in his poetry—he’s practical and instructive. Taking ideas and turning them into something more is exactly what professional writers do, and Shakespeare, along with so much else, was the ultimate professional.
All good drama has two movements, first the making of the mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake.
The lesson I learn over and over again—and then forget over and over again—is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it. One’s reluctance is immensely powerful. It’s like what Proust says about habit—it seems tiny in the grand arc of a person’s life narrative, but it’s the most insidious, powerful thing. Reluctance is like that.
When you feel most terrified—I think this is true of most writers—it’s because the thing isn’t there in your head. I’ve found it to be the case that you’ve got to start writing, and writing almost anything. Because writing is not simply an intellectual act. It doesn’t happen exclusively in your head. It’s a combination of idea and action, what Marx and Freud called praxis, a combining of the material and the immaterial. The action, the physical act of putting things down on paper, changes and produces a writer’s ideas.
I’ve learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things. For instance, if you grow up odd…The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you must learn to hear people thinking. Just in self-defense you have to learn, where is their kindness? Where is their danger? Where is their generosity? If you survive, because you’ve gotten lucky—and there’s no other reason ever to survive except luck—you will find that the ability to hear people thinking is incredibly useful, especially in the theater.
—Mike Nichols, to Vanity Fair
One usually dislikes a play while writing it, but afterward it grows on one.
By shortening a play, you can lengthen it.
On Sunday, my wife and I attended a panel discussion featuring composer Jimmy Lopez and playwright Nilo Cruz, the team faced with the challenging task of adapting Ann Patchett’s beloved novel Bel Canto for the Chicago Lyric Opera. At first glance, Patchett’s book seems like an obvious candidate for adaptation: it’s a romantic, often melodramatic story of a hostage crisis in an unnamed South American capital, with captives and guards becoming reluctant companions, friends, and even lovers, all centered on the figure of a beautiful lyric soprano. Lopez and Cruz come across as smart guys who seem more than capable of delivering on the promise of the project, although we won’t see the results of their work for a while—their first workshop is scheduled to take place sometime in the first half of 2014. But although I’m looking forward to being in the audience when it premieres, I was also amused by the tone of the panel’s moderator, dramaturge Colin Ure, who voiced a few dry doubts about whether this work was “particularly suitable for opera.”
I was a little skeptical as well. As it happened, I just finished reading Bel Canto last week, and although I liked it a lot, I had a number of similar reservations. It’s a well-crafted, heartfelt novel with much to recommend it—Patchett takes a wonderful premise and realizes it beautifully. The story is smartly paced without being overly plotted, and much of it is genuinely romantic and moving. What’s most impressive is that Patchett makes it look so easy: even as the story turns on tiny shifts in relationships between characters, and spans a period of several months without much in the way of action or artificial suspense, the pages still fly by. It’s tempting to credit this mostly to the material, which is one of those great ideas that most novelists only dream of finding. (Although it’s based on a real incident, the musical angle, which is a masterstroke, is the author’s invention.) But the novel could have degenerated into an empty thriller or a syrupy romance if Patchett hadn’t been able to execute it so expertly.
A writer reveals more about herself in her lapses than her strengths, however, and in Bel Canto, as in many books, they come from the same place. Patchett clearly loves her characters, and while this affection goes a long way toward drawing in the reader as well, it occasionally blinds the author to the weaknesses of her own story. Roxane Coss, the singer ostensibly at the heart of the novel, is an effective symbol, but as Ure pointed out at the panel, she isn’t especially interesting as a character. Indeed, she’s close to a perfect example of a Mary Sue: beautiful, supernaturally talented, capable of solving everyone’s problems, and so alluring that everyone falls in love with her. Patchett’s reluctance to penetrate Roxane’s inner life is especially frustrating given the care with which she develops the other players, notably Gen, the Japanese translator who enters into an idyllic romance with a young woman among the guerrillas. And the epilogue, which Ure rightly called “ridiculous,” pairs off two characters in a happy ending that reads as if Patchett is writing fanfic for her own novel.
These are all flaws that can be addressed, in an adaptation, with the right kind of detachment, and the team assembled for the opera of Bel Canto seems more than capable of this kind of objectivity. Cruz described himself as an exile who enters a new world every time he starts a play, and notes that he didn’t reread the novel before setting out to write his libretto, trusting instead on his outline, impressions, and memories. The opera will diverge from the book in a number of important and, I think, promising ways, cutting the epilogue entirely and pushing back one of the most dramatic scenes—the release of the female hostages—to the end of the first act. Whether the result will be worth it is something we won’t find out for another couple of years. But so far, the signs are encouraging. Bel Canto, the novel, is a textbook case of how an author’s closeness to her own work can prevent her from making the hard, correct choices, and if the creative team behind this opera can keep what makes this novel so special while refining its weaker elements, the result could be something to celebrate.
As with death, so with a thousand other commonplaces of life and of the theatre: an embrace; a hasty entrance; the light shock to which we react quickly; the deep shock which our feelings, in order to protect us, at first reject; the manner of starting a quarrel; the manner of saying a long farewell. When these things are well and truly acted they seem simplicity itself. “But,” says the reader, like the student in Stanislavsky’s book, “all this is obvious!” To which his master retorts: “Did I ever say it was anything else?’ Yet how often do we see these simple truths really convincingly performed? Do not a great many audiences prefer, or at least feel more comfortable when witnessing, the artifices and the clichés to which they are accustomed? Many prefer to see the wheels going round. They would often rather see an actor “acting” acting, which I suppose makes them feel they know where they are, than acting the part without concession to convention…But just as for an actor to give himself up to conventional acting will in time dry up whatever imaginative powers he may possess, so it is with audiences; they become lazy, bored and only the most violent stimuli will satisfy them. Hence, amongst other things, the appetite for “pace” for its own sake, to which must be sacrificed one of the essentials of any artistic performance, rhythm.
Out of my entire annual output of songs, perhaps two—or at the most, three—come as a result of inspiration. We can never rely on inspiration. When we most want it, it does not come. Therefore the composer does not sit around and wait for inspiration to walk up and introduce itself. What he substitutes for it is nothing more than talent plus his knowledge. If his endowment is great enough, the song is made to sound as if it were truly inspired.
Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion.
My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a director.
It is extremely arrogant and very foolish to think that you can ever outwit your audience.
Talent is nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.
In a good play, everyone is in the right.
Because [Harold Pinter] is eager to know how people he trusts feel about his work, he circulates his manuscripts among a select group. When he wrote his three line ode to the cricket star, Len Hutton (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time / another time”), he sent a copy to Simon Gray, then called him to ask if he had received it. “Yes,” said Gray, “but I haven’t finished reading it yet.”
89% work and worry over work, struggle against lunacy 10%, and friends 1%.
—Tennessee Williams, on the division of his life
If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other. I found the third act for Young Love that way. I was hopelessly stuck and then discovered two people I had never had together in a major scene. Instantly values emerged, the scene broke, and there was my third act. I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.