Plays

I started writing plays before I knew I was doing it. I had always considered myself a poet, and poetry will always have been my first love. But at a certain point, and rather abruptly, when I started the MFA/PhD program at Cornell in 1995, I began writing “dramatic” poems: poems in which the lyrical voice of the poet is submerged in the dramatic voice of an imaginary character. Moreover, somewhat in the manner of Robert Browning (whom I may have read in college––he’s not one of my favorites), I placed my characters in certain “live,” more or less concrete dramatic situations, such that the poem, whether in the form of a soliloquy or a monologue, became a kind of “speech” with a specific dramatic action. Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time, but it turns out to have been what I was doing.

Language is dramatic when spoken in the more or less desperate attempt to make something happen. If something important is riding on the elocutionary outcome of an utterance, if someone stands to win or lose something of great value as a consequence of speech, then we will listen with particular interest, and attend acutely to the result. When such speech is also compressed, such that the maximum meaning is expressed in the minimum “space” (in other words, as the ratio of what is said to what is communicated becomes more extreme), we have language that is both dramatic and poetic.

I write plays about things that bother me. In general, these turn out to be existential problems rather than, say, political ones, though I suppose, at a deeper level, every existential problem has its political consequences and vice-versa. And yet the truth is, as an audience member, I’ve always found overtly political art both tedious and condescending. In any event, my imagination isn’t stirred by journalistic “issues.” What moves me to write is invariably a question (usually connected to a particular experience) that I have to solve before it destroys my sanity. Hence I always have the feeling that my grip on reality is at stake in a play. Writing the play is a search for the answer; and thus the structure of the play, the dramatic structure, bodies forth the structure of the search, and the protagonist’s struggle is a figuration of my struggle as the playwright. If the strange gods bless the attempt, the result may be a work in which an answer is found, even if only in the “dialectical” form of clarifying the question. As I understand it, this is one way to distinguish between the dramatic genres. In tragedy, the gains are purely dialectical, since life itself has been negated in exchange for truth. In tragicomedy, the bargain is even harder: life is negated, but no truth is forthcoming, and thus the negation itself (the loss) is misrecognized. (This is the source of that familiar devastation in Beckett’s work; but also of its compassion, honesty, and humor.)

I think good plays are like good poems and good stories in that they offer us a particular possibility: an occasion to experience aesthetically a different life. They provide an opportunity, from behind the relative safety of the “representational frame,” to think and to feel. They remind us that we are alive, and they make us feel the mystery and urgency of that bizarre state of affairs. Plays are different in that, like all performances, they happen once and only once, and hence embody the very ephemerality and urgency they point toward. A poem and a story can be read and re-read at leisure. The audience member at the theatre is ineluctably caught up in the event, just as in “real life.” Only here, we have a chance to listen, to watch, to feel, to think, to reflect––because it is all there “for us.”

“The play,” then, is the performance, not the script. The script is simply the means to the performance, or, if you will, the blueprint. Just as the blueprint is not the building, so the script is not the play, but rather requires the hard work, expertise, and genius of a certain number of other people to fulfill itself. I love this aspect of being a playwright. Few things are as exciting and as terrifying as seeing my “blueprint” take shape in the rehearsal hall; and I am always looking for collaborators who are not merely artisans of their particular trades, but artists of the theatre, people with the intelligence, imagination, commitment, and plain courage necessary to co-create in this most difficult and uncanny of art forms.