Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Writing On Writing, Part Ten

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Tenth in a Series

(Part One)

(Part Two)

(Part Three)

(Part Four)

(Part Five)

(Part Six)

(Part Seven)

(Part Eight)

(Part Nine)

There’s an old saying that a play is never finished; it’s abandoned. And if it’s not abandoned, it’s re-written over and over, even after it’s produced and published. It’s not that playwrights are mercurial and indecisive (well, we can be); it’s because a play is a blueprint and in order for it to be fully formed, it has to go through many hands – the director, the actors, and the designers – and they have their own ideas. A play becomes a piece of clay, molded and re-shaped as it is growing. Sometimes it’s a good thing – Lanford Wilson made extensive revisions to 5th of July (including changing the title to Fifth of July) between its original production in 1978 and its revival in 1980. Neil Simon took his 1965 hit The Odd Couple and re-wrote it twenty years later for an all-female cast: Felix became Florence, Oscar became Olive, and Simon updated it from the 1960’s to the 1980’s by changing the opening scene to the gang playing Trivial Pursuit instead of poker.

Every so often a director will try to “improve” a play by making cuts or alterations, sure in his knowledge that he knows better than the playwright how the story should really be told. This usually happens when the play is new and the playwright – already a somewhat fragile creature and anxious to see the work on the stage – will consider making the requested changes, but it also happens with well-established plays. William Shakespeare has always the victim of this. It’s not really surprising, though. Shakespeare wrote before the advent of such modern conveniences as indoor stages, lights, and directors, and I daresay that very few audiences would sit still for Shakespeare played in the authentic Elizabethan setting of the “wooden O.” I’ve seen productions of his plays in all sorts of settings with all sorts of cuts and alterations to the stories. Some have been glorious successes – a production of The Comedy of Errors by the Stratford Festival of Canada was set in the Old West using TV cowboy stereotypes like the Maverick brothers and Gabby Hayes to tell the story. And I have seen real turkeys, such as a production of The Tempest in the mode of Star Wars with Ariel as R2-D2. Shakespeare should have sued.

Playwrights have no obligation to allow directors to run roughshod over their plays. After all, it’s their work and their vision, and they are entitled to see it done the way they meant it. There are supposed to be safeguards; the Dramatists Guild’s standard production contract forbids any alteration to the script without written permission from the playwright or his agent, and there have been cases where playwrights have sued to halt productions that violate the rules. Edward Albee closed down a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when a company did it with an all-female cast. But that’s the rare exception, and all too often the original message of the play is in danger of being lost if a careless or self-indulgent director or producer gets ahold of it. A playwright knows this. And yet we keep on writing…and re-writing.

Why? Few other creative forms are subject to this sort of humiliation. No one would dare go into a novel, shuffle around chapters, remove characters, or change the setting without recrimination. (Can you imagine someone trying to redo Gone With The Wind set in 1940’s France with Scarlett and Rhett as gay lovers? I don’t think so.) Who would put a Speedo on Michelangelo’s David (besides John Ashcroft)? Even architects don’t allow changes to their designs even if they have drawn something that is nearly impossible to build. (I used to sell windows and doors; I know whereof I speak with architects.) So why would an author write in a form that practically invites meddling? Because sometimes there is no other way to tell the story.

I’m often asked how I know how to tell a story as a play as opposed to a novel or short story. The simple answer is that if I see a setting first, and then see the characters, it’s going to be a play. The Hunter was in the wilderness. The set for Dark Twist – a cavernous study hall at a boarding school – had been in my head since my year at St. George’s; eighteen years later I found the people to go in it. The scene design for The Purer, Brighter Years was around me for years; it takes place in a summer cottage up in Michigan, and I saw the living room in the house on the Florida Keys that is the set for my current opus, Can’t Live Without You, then borrowed characters from other works to enjoy the sunshine. But if I meet the characters first and get to know them, then chances are they won’t be in a play. They will spend more time with me than in a locale, and that will become a tale told in a book – or at least in a manuscript.

That is how I met Bobby. In November 1994 I was on vacation with my partner on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. We were having dinner one night at a nice little open-air restaurant at the Belham Valley Hotel, and I was in the middle of a nice piece of red snapper when I looked up and glanced across the room. Standing there looking at me was a young man about twenty years old. He had blond hair, grey-blue eyes, a nice build, and he was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. Nobody else in the restaurant noticed him because he wasn’t really there, but I could see him, and in an instant, I knew everything there was to know about him and what I didn’t know, I knew he would tell me.

I did not dash back to my room at the Vue Pointe Hotel and start writing. I knew Bobby would wait for me, and besides, I was on vacation. But when I got back home the story of his life and his world began to take shape on my little Apple IIc, and nine years, two moves (to New Mexico and then to Florida), and two computers later, I’m still writing about him growing up alone, going to boarding school, finding love, losing hope, and struggling with all the little things that make up his life. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish the story and I’m not sure I’ll even try to get it published if I do; I’m having far too much fun telling the story to let him go.

I know there are writers who write solely for the money. They crank stuff out and sell it immediately and make a comfortable living doing it. More power to them; I’d love to have an income source like that. But I have never sat down to write a story or a play with the goal that I would sell it. (Heck, with my plays I’m just happy to get a staged reading so I can hear someone else besides me read the lines.) I love the process of listening to the characters and having the scenes evolve as I write. Sometimes I have no idea where they’re taking me, but it’s always better than where I thought I would go by myself. And that makes it all worth it. Bobby’s story may never be finished, but at least he won’t be abandoned.