Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George S. Kaufman

“The darndest thing happened to me the other night…”

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

Be a little suspicious, if you’re a playwright, of play ideas. The important thing really is not that first idea, but the subsidiary ideas that support it. Unless the original notion brings with it a little flood of material, unless it has a beginning and a middle and an end, or at least two of those things to start with, be careful. People are always ready to give you ideas for plays, and they’re worth nothing. Watch out for that true story that somebody brings you—I’ve never known it to be worth a nickel. You know—the fellow who says, “The darndest thing happened to me the other night. You could make a great play out of it. I was walking along the street and I met a fellow I hadn’t seen in ten years. What do you think of that?” Of course all you have to do is take that idea, put two and a half hours of stuff after it, and you’ve got a play. It’s a cinch. And then you get sued for plagiarism.

George S. Kaufman

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2014 at 9:00 am

Moss Hart’s train scene, or the importance of slowing things down

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

In his famous theatrical memoir Act One, Moss Hart talks about the quiet scene that saved an entire play. The work was Once in a Lifetime, the first of his eight collaborations with George S. Kaufman, and although it was a classic comedy loaded with gags and funny lines, it died on the stage: at every performance, he could sense the audience growing more restless, and he ended up with three days left before opening night with no idea of how to fix it. Finally, Sam Harris, the producer, delivered a verdict: “It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around.” Harris continued:

Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other…It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. I can almost feel them begin to get tired all around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up.

Rocked by this advice, Hart went for a long, solitary walk through the moonlit night, and at four in the morning, the answer hit him. All it would require was one new scene, using an existing set—a train—where two of the characters could talk over what had happened in the plot so far. It would give the audience a breather, as well as a chance to consolidate the story, and it wouldn’t cost anything to stage, although it would require throwing away another set that had been built at great expense. Hart went to Kaufman with the idea the next day, and although it took some convincing, they finally went ahead with it. And on opening night, not only did the scene work wonderfully as a pause in the action, but it got an enormous reaction in its own right. Jokes got huge laughs; even straight lines seemed funny; and the rest of the play sped along on the resulting momentum, all thanks to one scene in which the audience, for once, had been given a chance to process what had happened and anticipate what came next. Hart concludes: “The vital scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as they are by the actors on stage.”

Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There are a lot of lessons to be unpacked here, which is why I’ve devoted so much space to this story. (I owe my knowledge of it, incidentally, to a rather unlikely souce: Al Jean’s commentary track on the fifteenth season of The Simpsons, in which he notes that Hart’s story taught him to insert a quiet scene with Homer and Marge in bed, just talking over the plot, whenever an episode wasn’t working. It’s for insights like this that I continue to buy and listen to the box sets for later seasons, even after I’ve mostly lost interest in the episodes themselves.) The first is the obvious point that a movie, book, or play can’t consist of one manic high point after another: if a story is too exhausting, or too “noisy,” it’s only going to wear out the audience. So many action movies, for instance, consist of nothing but one big set piece after another, as if they’re terrified of allowing the viewer’s attention to stray for a second. The result is usually the opposite: the audience wearily regards every gunfight or car chase as more of the same. A break in the action allows us to decide how we feel about the story so far, instead of just reacting to one development after another, and by including moments of quiet, the high points can stand out, rather than degenerating into a blur of activity.

And this is about more than just giving the audience a physical breather. The best works of art appeal to multiple parts of the brain, and there’s a sense of relief when a narrative that has been operating on an immediate, visceral level slows down to allow our more contemplative selves to join in on the fun. One of my favorite examples is the little scene between Indy and his father on the blimp in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which gives us some wonderful character moments—”I respected your privacy. And I taught you self-reliance“—as well as a briefing on where we’ve been and where we’re going, just before the chase begins anew. (It’s telling that both Hart’s train scene and Indy’s blimp scene take place on modes of transportation, as the characters find themselves in transit from one plot point to another. That’s shrewd story construction, since it reassures the audience that we’re still heading somewhere even as the plot applies the brakes.) And it’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply to my own fiction, which otherwise threatens to consist of one damned thing after another. If you’ve done it properly, everything else seems to play at a higher level. As Mahler says: “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower, not faster.”

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

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