Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



Private World, Public Words


by Charles Marowitz





[Author's note: I delivered the following address some time ago at a Playwrights Conference entitled "Inventing the Future," which was sponsored by the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Center in Los Angeles and attended by playwrights, actors, and directors of many persuasions and ethnic backgrounds. It went down, as they say, like a "cup of cold sick." Many felt antagonized by its sentiments and, after the remarks were delivered, I had the rare experience of being frozen out by almost everyone in the room. Multiculturalism was a very touchy issue throughout this period and ethnic playwrights in particular, took it very seriously. It was a buzzword for inclusion and so, obviously, those who felt themselves excluded often took umbrage. Evidently, I stand by everything I said at the time although I realize it will never change the minds of the dissenters.]


(Swans - November 16, 2009)   At a political convention, the delegates and speakers confirm their party's position on the issues. There's no real inquiry or investigation and no breaking of ranks. This, thank God, is not a political convention but there's one way in which we resemble the politicians and that it is in rehashing clichés, buzzwords, and emotive catchphrases -- all of which impede true inquiry. There were quite a few phrases tossed around recently that made me squirm and I'd like to suggest we put them out to pasture.

There's "multiculturalism," which is a word that tends to put the active part of the brain to sleep. There has always been multiculturalism. In the past the cultures were French, Italian, German, Russian, and Scandinavian. Now they're Hispanic and black and Asian-American. Fine. That's a "given" and to dispute it is like disputing the law of gravity.

"Empowerment" is another dud word that fudges the issues. It implies the acquisition or appropriation of power by an essentially powerless faction, but writers have the greatest power of all -- the power of the written word -- and if dictators, generals, United States senators, and the Ayatollahs of Iran feel the need to pass injunctions against the written word, I think that bespeaks the real power that it has.

As for "Eurocentric paradigms," if that means excluding writers of color, women, and gays, I think most everybody would be against it. But if it means dumping the heritage of Western drama of the past four hundred years -- Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg -- I have to admit I am unbudgeably Eurocentric.

The greatest of all the dud words is of course the "truth," because as we all piously say to one another: all we artists ever want is to write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Then how is it that so much false garbage gets conveyed in the theatre? Is it because speaking the truth has to be harnessed to the ability to communicate the ambiguities and contradictions that make the truth almost impossible to convey? If that is so, then we should be talking not about being truthful but about writing well -- because writing well is the closest we ever come to defining the truth. Being "truthful in our art" is probably the greatest truism of all and as such should be retired from service.

There was a lot of politics talked here and, although politics are important, I'd like to start talking esthetics, which, in the theatre, are what give politics their edge.

All the most valuable public works begin in private. That's certainly true of plays but I think it's also true of political theories, philosophic insights, and scientific discoveries. The irony is that the playwright, after meticulously baking his loaf in the intense heat of his private oven, discovers that in order to serve it up to the world, he has to relinquish his isolation and become a collaborator. Once the dough has been mixed, it is kneaded into shape by the director, made to rise by the producer, sprinkled with poppyseeds by actors and designers, masticated in the jaws of the public, and finally belched out by the critic. But the fact remains that it was the solitude of the writer that first produced the work and a lot of people would contend the more that solitude is respected -- especially by directors and dramaturges -- the better the texture and flavor of the final product.

There are no formulae here. A good director extends and expands a writer's conditions as the playwright's work best find its way into the marketplace. The playwright has some influence in regard to the first question but I don't think he has virtually any in the case of the second. We all know from bitter personal experience that a hastily-assembled Staged Reading often produces only one dimension of the work in hand. A reading, by what it's obliged to leave out, can often create a highly misleading impression. It can make a flawed play seem amusing and entertaining and it can make a great play look gauche and unfocused. There are some plays, strong on sub-text and physical subtlety, that simply languish in reading situations. There are others -- plays almost fully realized in their language (Shaw's Don Juan in Hell comes to mind as does David Hirson's La bête) -- where a reading does justice to almost all of the original work. But most plays, like most houses, can't stand very well if all they have is a façade.

The writer has to gauge whether it's worth his while to present only the façade of his work. Whether that does more harm than good. Whether the "gesture" to play-production, which is essentially what a reading is, isn't simply a gross insult to both his work and the work of the actors. For after this one-dimensional performance has taken place, directors, producers, and dramaturges, proceeding on very partial insights, begin to reshape, revise, and redevelop the play -- and that's a little like deciding to marry a girl that you know only from a computer-dating printout.

But the greatest danger here isn't the process itself but the often mindless and fatuous people who are supervising the process; the directors and dramaturges who, being neither creative writers nor canny entrepreneurs, unconsciously foist other aims and values onto material they take to be "up for grabs." And that's the worst thing about a work in progress. Everybody feels he or she is entitled to dictate the direction it ought to take, and the author, who is often vulnerable and uncertain, finds himself being led up a variety of garden paths where he is stroked, petted, romanced, and ultimately gang-raped.

The assumption that a playwright is a kind of lost child that has to be helped on his way by directors, actors, and dramaturges is fairly recent. Ibsen went off to foreign countries to write his plays and when he was finished, simply sent the scripts off to his publisher. Chekhov didn't pick Stanislavsky's brains or anyone else's when he was writing his plays. And all Strindberg was ever concerned with was the clarity of his own hallucinated vision. O'Neill was notoriously isolated when he wrote a play and pretty cavalier about changes. (When his producer told him he had to cut forty-five minutes out of one of his interminable dramas, his answer was: "Chop out two intermissions.") The idea that these playwrights needed "development" in the way we use the phrase would be ridiculous to the writers in question. But today, the general consensus seems to be that without input from an army of kibitzers, pundits, PhD-graduates, and bearded second-guessers, the writer would be lost. If we're talking about the playwright "Inventing the Future," maybe a good first step is to just leave him alone to invent his own play.

The best workshop in the world is the private sanctum of the writer's own imagination -- the place where he and his instincts try to dope out the best course of action for his work. Which doesn't mean he must resist all input and criticism. What it does mean is that he must be the final arbiter as to additions or deletions, as to whether or not to import newer and more fancy weaponry or to just stick to his guns. And that involves dismantling the notion of the Svengali director, which, depending on the power of the particular Svengali involved, is sometimes hard to do -- and what's even harder, is resisting the temptations of big bucks, reduced risks, and Sunday features in the Arts Section held out by that even greater menace, the Svengali producer.

The paradox is that the private world in which the work was conceived has to have the courage to resist the allurements of the public world for which it is theoretically destined.

On the other side, one has to point out that if you are a talented new writer in the 2lst century you probably have more opportunities than your counterparts had twenty or thirty years ago. New Play programs have become part of the new Political Correctness -- and if you're black or Hispanic or Asian-American, you're not quite the disenfranchised creature you were two or three decades ago. The pendulum (which you'd be right in saying you never knew existed) has swung decidedly in your direction. To be white and talented is a good thing in today's marketplace, but to be ethnic and talented means the world will beat a path to your door. That simply wasn't the case in the 1950s or '60s. That is a dramatic change and a welcome one.

A playwright's conference -- any kind of in-bred assembly of artists -- tends to encourage peculiar kinds of fantasy. It gives people a sense of power that they don't actually possess. For example: asking playwrights to, and here I quote the Conference brochure, "explore the primary issues facing playwrights" is not only a waste of time but a misunderstanding of artistic process. Each writer is going to be drawn to his own issues and it is wrong to assume that a consensus can decide which are more pertinent than others. The imposition of democracy in the Middle East, or the problems in the inner-cities, may be an obsessive concern to some writer or other, but don't tell me that the theatre exists dramatically to regurgitate the daily headlines because I don't believe that. Just as I don't believe that TV drama has a bounden duty to rehash the dilemmas of the Menendez Brothers, O.J. Simpson, or the fall of ex-Governor Spitzer.

And as for talking about "conclusions being mandated by playwrights" (the brochure again), you can't have a mandate when you represent a group of people, all of whom have very different interests and opinions -- when there is no consolidated power bloc behind your mandate. And the fact is, in the theatre, the writer is too dependent on the wheelers and dealers and too remote from its capitalist mechanisms to really affect its day-to-day operations. A strike happens when labor decides to pit its power against management. There have been actors' strikes and stage-hands' strikes, musicians' strikes, and screenwriters' strikes, but there has never been a playwrights' strike.

We all want more outlets, more platforms, and more productions but the theatre public also has wants; they want more finished articles and less practicing-on-their time. They want more works of art and less works in progress.

All of these vital issues get fudged by the trendy catchphrases I mentioned earlier that consistently confuse art and politics. To be "politically correct" may be important for a politician, but being artistically correct is what's important for a playwright and it is pretty clear that if you impose an outside agenda -- even if it contains a Code of Fairness -- it militates against creative work. Like Harold Pinter once said: "I'm opposed to all propaganda -- even propaganda for life." The playwright always has to combat the Philistine Mind, whether its Jesse Helms's or Jeremy Collier's; but that fight belongs to the Playwright as Citizen -- not as artist.

If these remarks have any thematic point at all, it is that the playwright lives in a private world and isolation is both his curse and his strength. And no writer has ever become a better writer by being part of a collective, a syndicate, or a conglomerate. The Guilds and Unions are there to hammer out the best terms and the highest fees and I salute all their efforts and dutifully pay my dues, but I know in my heart of hearts that what may be good for the collective is not going to make me a better writer; that essentially, I have to go back into my cave, or my study or, yes, even my ivory tower, and grapple with my personal demons if anything useful is going to transfer from my private world into the public realm.

The Writer-as-Citizen has to involve himself in all those issues. The Writer-as-Artist has to realize there is a danger of mixing up social gains with artistic progress; a temptation to use the power of collective organization to compensate for personal weakness. It's when we strengthen our own personal fiber as playwrights, increase our own personal power as artists, that we confer some real benefit to the community -- and we do that by becoming better writers, not necessarily by becoming greater activists.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow151.html
Published November 16, 2009