By Jeffrey Sweet, Yale University Press, 279 pages
You’re sitting on a wooden bench in the flickering candlelight of London’s Mermaid Tavern, quaffing ale from a pewter tankard and talking theater with William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. Or you’re tossing down shots and beers at the Lion’s Head or drinking black coffee late at night in Riker’s in the Village, discussing playwriting and writer’s block with Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, as they scatter nuggets of wisdom about the mysterious craft of writing for the stage. Those days and those gatherings are gone, if they ever existed, and even if they weren’t gone, most of us would never find our way to the right places at the right times, never be a part of the heady give and take of those writers’ discussions — if, in fact, they talked about writing at all.
“Playwrights don’t talk about writing with each other much,” Jeffrey Sweet reveals in the introduction to his new book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. They dish about other things — “directors, actors, producers, agents, alimony, and real estate.” But the actual craft of writing — the tricks and the pitfalls and the wells of despair and the moments of elation — these topics don’t get aired much in open conversation.
They do in this book. Sweet has assembled a group of successful contemporary playwrights and gotten them to open up about what they do and how they do it. It’s not a gaggle of dramatists talking shop, shouting over one another and waxing philosophical or contentious as the hours pass and the liquor flows. It’s a series of one-on-ones, conducted by Sweet (who is himself a playwright), which originated as a way to mark the 10th anniversary of the Yale Drama Series and the David Charles Horn Foundation Prize, a Yale competition for emerging playwrights.
The participants in the book were drawn from the competition’s panel of judges. Some, like John Guare, Caryl Churchill, and David Mamet, declined to participate. But the list of writers who agreed to sit down with the author and lift the veil on the creative process and the state of contemporary theater includes some storied names: grizzled veterans like Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad), cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer (Little Murders), and A.R. Gurney (Sylvia, Love Letters); the next wave, writers including Marsha Norman (’Night, Mother), David Hare (Skylight), and Christopher Durang (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and some of the newer models like Jane Anderson
Robert Schenkkan Lynn Nottage and Kwame KweiArmah
Sweet brackets his collection with two interviews he conducted prior to the launching of this project. He opens with a talk he had in 2010 with Edward Albee, a man revered and honored by many of the others as the father of modern playwriting. Albee died in September 2016, as this book was going to press. And Sweet closes with his conversation with Lanford Wilson three years before Wilson passed away in 2011 at seventy-three.
The writers talk about what got them started, what and who inspired them, what they try to avoid, and what they embrace. Marsha Norman warns that “if the character description is more than two sentences long, we’re dead,” and that “another sign that you’re in trouble is a huge, long monologue at the beginning.” She urges aspiring writers to write from “their stuff. ... That means that you know the subject that has been assigned to you by the universe . ... You know what your subject is and you don’t try to write anything else.” Some of her colleagues take a different approach. David Hare says, “I’ve rarely written about myself. And I’m not really interested to.” Jules Feiffer offers this: “My basic thought process to this moment is making it all up as I go along.”
One of the major themes elicited by Sweet from his collocutors is the difference between British theater and the American stage. Kwame Kwei-Armah, a British playwright born in England of émigré parents and who now serves as artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, observes that “the British playwright has been schooled in the art of state-of-the-nation plays. We’re trained by critique, by reaction, and production history that the role of the playwright is to be the person who says, ‘This is our country right now — from a political as well as a social as well as a sociological perspective.’ ” He says that the American playwright has been pushed into working “through the lens of metaphor, and using the family as metaphor, in a way that we may not be pushed to do in Britain.” It often comes down to a difference in scale. The British, with a state-subsidized theater, think big; Americans write with an eye on the budget. Donald Margulies puts it this way: “I like getting my plays produced. And the reality is that plays with smaller casts or manageable-sized casts get produced more readily than larger, fiscally unwieldy plays.”
There’s a lot of professional insight in this collection of interviews, a lot of good advice, and the invaluable perspective of a glimpse into how these writers think. From time to time, Sweet seems, in his questions, to insert himself into the flow a bit more strongly than necessary. “I don’t claim to have the profile many in this book have,” he writes somewhat wistfully in the introduction, “but for forty-five years my work has been produced professionally on stages large and small.” The jacket flap identifies Sweet as an “award-winning playwright and theater historian,” and he has certainly been around the business a long time, writing, teaching, and enjoying friendships with theater folk. If his questions sometimes seem to strain a little to impress the reader with his inside bona fides, still he does, as he says, “know the territory.” And this book will help the rest of us to know it better. — Jonathan Richards