By Joyce Carol Oates
Published as the Afterword to Twelve Plays.
Writing for the stage when one has written primarily for publication, to be read, is an extremely challenging task, though it’s difficult to say why. The written word and the spoken word are both words—aren’t they?
Yet, as the fiction writer begins the task of writing drama, he or she discovers that the techniques of prose fiction simply do not apply to the stage. Still more, the task of “adapting” fiction for the stage is problematic, for one quickly discovers that it is not “adapting” so much as “transposing” that must be done. How much easier, how much more expedient, simply to set aside the fiction and begin anew, from a new angle of vision!
The essential difference between prose fiction and drama is that in prose fiction, it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. In a memory play, the central character may speak to the audience as a narrator, but only to introduce the action in which, then, he or she will participate. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves in the theater, and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue—action—subterranean/subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized. Description simply is. Does that sound easy?
Many a gifted prose writer has failed at writing plays for lack of, not talent exactly, but an elusive quality that might just be humility. In itself, humility won’t make a fiction writer or a poet into a playwright, but it is a helpful starting place.
Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic phenomenon. It is communal; its meeting ground is the juncture at which the sheerly imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashbacks, flashforwards, digressions, analyses, interruptions, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force fields of emotion are virtually visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it must be in purely emotional terms.
Drama remains our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.
When I write poetry and prose fiction, every punctuation mark is debated over in my head; my poetry is a formalist’s obsession, in which even margins and blank spaces function as part of the poem. (Not that anyone else would notice, or that I would expect anyone else to notice. Poets quickly learn, and come to be content in, the loneliness of their obsessions.) When I write for the stage, however, I write for others; especially in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not to imply that I am without a deep, abiding, and frequently stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound. It’s simply that, to me, a text is a text—inviolable, yet without life. A play is something else entirely, and so is a film. It is this mysterious “something else”—the something that is others’ imaginations in collaboration with my own—that arouses my interest.
Well-intentioned, print-oriented people are forever asking, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My reply is generally a mild one: “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”
As soon ask of a novelist, “Doesn’t it upset you if strangers read your books, and impose their own interpretations on them?”
In 1985 I attended the West Coast premiere of my play The Triumph of the Spider Monkey at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. As directed by Al Rossi and featuring the popular young actor Shaun Cassidy, my grimly satirical posthumous-confessional play about a youthful mass murderer who becomes a fleeting media celebrity in Southern California had been transformed into a fluid succession of brief scenes, with a rock music score and arresting stage devices—a sort of showcase for Cassidy, whose energetic presence in this unknown work by a little-known playwright assured sellout performances for the play’s limited run, and some enthusiastic reviews by critics who might otherwise have been skeptical about the credentials of a prose writer turned playwright. My collaboration with Mr. Rossi had been by way of telephone and through the mail, and my pleasure in the production was enormous, both because it was very well done and because it was in the nature of a surprise. The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, reimagined by another, was no longer my play; “my” play, published in book form (in Three Plays, Ontario Review Press, 1980), consists of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in direct proportion to the degree to which I was surprised by it.
Of course, over the years, since I first began writing plays (in 1965, at the invitation of Frank Corsaro, who directed my first play, The Sweet Enemy, for the Actors Studio), I have had a few stunning surprises too. Yet, in fact, very few—and even these have been instructive.
In the spring of 1990 I learned with much gratitude what can work—and what can’t—on the stage. At the invitation of Jon Jory and Michael Dixon, I accepted a commission to write two linked one-act plays for the Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Tone Clusters and The Eclipse. The first began as a purely conceptual piece, devoid of story: an idea, a mood, a sequence of jarring and discordant sounds. “Tone clusters” refers to the eerie, haunting, dissonant music, primarily for piano, composed by Charles Ives and Henry Cowell in the early twentieth century. The music is unsettling and abrades the nerves, suggesting as it does a radical disjuncture of perception; a sense that the universe is not after all harmonious or logical. In conjunction with these tone clusters of sound I envisioned philosophical inquiries of the kind humankind has posed since the pre-Socratic philosophers, but rarely answered—”Is the universe predetermined in every particular, or is mankind ‘free’?”; “Where does identity reside?”—being put to an ordinary American couple of middle age, as in a hallucinatory television interview. The horror of the piece arises from its revelation that we reside in ignorance, not only of most of the information available to us, but of our own lives, our own motives: Death wrapped in plastic garbage bags! in the basement! and we never knew, never had a premonition! Only later, by degrees, in the writing of the play, did the nightmare interview become linked with a crime, thus with the specific, the timebound and finite. It is subsequently ironic to me that Tone Clusters, which exists in my imagination as a purely experimental work about the fracturing of reality in an electronic era, is always, for others, “about” a crime.
When rehearsals were begun in Louisville, however, under the direction of Steve Albreezi, and I saw actors inhabiting the roles (Adale O’Brien and Peter Michael Goetz), I soon realized the impracticability of my original vision. Why, I thought, there the Gulicks are, and they’re real.
In my original idealism, or naivete, I had even wanted the play’s dialogue to be random, with no lines assigned to either speaker; a kind of aleatory music. What madness!
Equally impractical was my notion, for the second play, The Eclipse, that an actual eclipse—a “blade of darkness”—move from left to right across the stage, in mimicry of an older woman’s relentless gravitation toward death. As soon as the gifted actresses Beth Dixon and Madeleine Sherwood inhabited their roles, this purely symbolic device became unnecessary. (I have left the direction in the play, however. My impractical idealism remains—maybe, somehow, it might be made to work?)
In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding the surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are being told not by us but by way of us—”drama” is our formal acknowledgment of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously, this phenomenon involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can occur only when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.
The question of how a writer knows when a work is fully realized is rather more of a riddle than a question. In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say, or to feel; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over. (Which is why writers so frequently occupy melancholy zones—always, we are being expelled from phases of our lives that, for sheer intensity and drama, can rarely be replicated in the real world.) Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there can be no final, fully realized performance.
I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am, not the playwright, nor even a quivering network of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.