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Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting John Howard Lawson Contents Introduction to the 1949 edition 5 Introduction to the 1960 edition of Theory and Technique of Playwriting 10 Book One 31 Theory and Technique of Playwriting Part 1 History of Dramatic Thought 32 I. Aristotle 34 II. The Renaissance 40 III. The Eighteenth Century 49 IV. The Nineteenth Century 57 V. Ibsen 83 Part 2 The Theatre Today 99 I. Conscious Will and Social Necessity 102 II. Dualism of Modern Thought 111 III. George Bernard Shaw 118 IV. Critical and Technical Trends 124 V. Eugene O’Neill 136 VI. The Technique of the Modern Play 146 Part 3 Dramatic Structure 159 I. The Law of Conflict 162 II. Dramatic Action 167 III. Unity in Terms of Climax 172 IV. The Process of Selection 182 V. The Social Framework 192 Part 4 Dramatic Composition 207 I. Continuity 209 II. Exposition 219 III. Progression 228 VI. The Obligatory Scene 242 V. Climax 246 VI. Characterization 256 © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 3 Introduction to the 1949 edition In preparing a new edition of this book, a little more than a decade after its first appearance, I have endeavored to make a sober estimate of its value and limitations. It seems proper to judge a study of the technique of play-writing in terms of its practical usefulness in the strident, rough-and-tumble, hurly-burly competition of the contemporary theatre. The young playwright, facing the alternative of a quick production of his work or the abandonment of a dramatic career, is likely to be more concerned about the managerial demand for plays in a single setting than about the splendor of the theatre’s past. If his play is accepted and produced, the furious tempo of a month’s rehearsals and the ordeal of the first night leave little time for historical and philosophic speculations Why, then, should a book that purports to serve as a guide to the working craftsman undertake an extensive survey of esthetic, social, and political problems? The question goes to the root of the book’s purpose. It explores the relationship between the practice of playwriting and the social forces that influence the contemporary drama, between the two hours of illusion in the darkened playhouse and the life that surges around the theatre’s walls. The extension of the book to include a study of the film is a continuation of its purpose, an enlargement of the original design. The structure and technique of the motion picture reflect a new stage in the historical evolution of dramatic forms. The theoretical approach rests on the general premise that the drama, like all modes of communication, reflects the customs, morals, lifeways of a given society. However, the reflection is not static; it is not a clear image in an untarnished mirror. The artist is himself caught in the movement of conflicting forces and shifting class relationships; he is a participant in the struggle which he seeks to interpret. His creative activity is both personal and social; his portrayal of the world around him is an extension of his own life, projecting social meanings, values, aspirations, hammered and shaped white-hot on the forge of living experience. In shaping the materials of his experience into a conscious work of art, the artist utilizes techniques and forms that have evolved in the course of history and that represent the community’s cultural heritage. For example, a poet may express intensely personal feeling in a sonnet, but the sonnet form is the inheritance of centuries, the crystallized social experience of many poets. In adapting his thought and feeling to the requirements of the sonnet, the poet gives his apparently unique emotion social meaning, and relates it to the human experience of which it is a part. If the emotion were unique in any absolute sense, it might logically demand a unique poetic form. In recent years, there have been many attempts to express the unique soul in forms that are necessarily unintelligible, because they are not clearly related to group experience. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 5 The form of a work of art unites the creative activity of the individual with the historically evolved culture of the community in which he lives and works. Esthetic forms are undergoing continuous change and modification. The process is determined by the climate of culture and its changing function in the community life. Therefore, form is the key to the social meaning, or content, of a work of art. It is by no means accidental that modern criticism has tended to divorce form and content: the separation is inherent in the dominant philosophic tendencies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Philosophers insisted that the inner world of the spirit is unaffected by the greed and exploitation that characterize the external reality. The artist accepted the dualism: it provided a shield and buckler against the hazards of a hostile environment. The artist rejoiced that the content of his work – the essence, or creative spirit – remained inviolable. But since art is communication, the artist found himself in a contradictory position: he had to communicate his freedom from the bondage of communication, for otherwise he would be entirely deprived of self- expression, and would cease to exist as an artist. The creative impulse, deprived of fellowship and purpose, would curl up and die in the sealed tomb of the ego. Therefore, we find that the tendency to turn art inward and make it independent of reality does not give the artist the spiritual safety that he craves. His interest in his own feelings and sensations is inevitably transformed into a preoccupation with “pure form.” He has less and less to say and is more and more concerned with the way of saying it. This is the revenge that art takes on those who betray its social function. The artist pretends that he has control over the esthetic process for his private use and enjoyment. In order to maintain the illusion, he has to assert his control over form. Form is the link between the creator and the society he serves; the artist who wishes to go it alone without social responsibility must break the link. He must invent private modes of expression which seem to have no social function and thus prove his freedom from the social forces that shape cultural forms in terms of group experience and community needs. The increasing social pressures and tensions of the twentieth century brought an increasing emphasis on the primacy of form. Critical theory has elaborately endorsed the view that form is not designed to facilitate communication, but to establish a barrier between the creative spirit and the unfriendly environment. Unfortunately, many critics interested in the social function of art have accepted the spurious argument that form is determined by personal and esthetic considerations. They have searched for social meanings in the general attitude of the artist. They have assumed that his attitude, intentions, and feelings constitute what is vaguely called the content of his work. But what is content without form? How can we know the raw stuff of art before it has been dressed in language, or given sound, shape, color, dimension, texture? What is the content of a statue divorced from the carved stone? © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 6 In recent years, there has been a beginning in certain fields of the study of structure and technique as basic factors in the social development of culture. Ralph Fox analyzed the 1 novel as an art form that is especially characteristic of the era of capitalist development. Christopher Cauldwell explored the sources of poetry and its technical evolution in 2 Illusion and Reality. More recently, Sidney Finkelstein has contributed to the study of 3 art as “a language of communication.” Since the theatre is one of the more popular and “commercial” arts, it has not been especially receptive to esoteric forms that obstruct communication. While poetry, painting, and music have moved toward the abstract and subjective, dramatic technique has tended to become narrowly “practical,” dependent on tricks and repetition of tested effects. The theatre has drifted technically because it has drifted socially. The present confusion and irresponsibility of Broadway production reflects the theatre’s loss of social consciousness and moral purpose. In most cases, plays are written and produced solely to make a profit. Ironically enough, the tawdry work dedicated to commercial success is more than likely to meet commercial failure, because it does not grow out of a dramatic culture that binds the players on the stage to the audience across the footlights and assures their mutual acceptance of esthetic standards and values. There is a considerable literature dealing with the technique of playwriting. It has comparatively slight practical value, because it rests on the false assumption that the playwright builds his play in a social vacuum. The student struggles with rules concerning structure, dialogue, characterization, rising action, falling action, climax. But the rules are abstractions, unrelated either to the history of the theatre or to the drama of human events from which the playwright must necessarily draw his material. This book undertakes to study dramatic composition as a living process, the expression of the playwright’s life and experience in forms shaped by the historical development of the theatre. The approach does not attach arbitrary social significance to plays which are obviously not written with any consciousness of social issues. We have already noted that the contemporary stage is seldom characterized by moral fervor or artistic conviction. The analysis of structure in terms of the playwright’s purpose can be valid only if we examine his purpose realistically. The dramatist whose highest aspirations center upon the box office or whose awareness of life is limited to knowledge of Polti’s Thirty-six Dramatic Situations will write plays that are a true reflection of his personality. We may dismiss his work as shoddy and meretricious. But in order to understand what he has written, we must relate the structure to the thought-process that gave it birth. A farce about a bashful couple on a honeymoon may be somewhat less profound in its approach to love and marriage than Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But in each case, the writer’s beliefs, his feeling about human relationships and ethical values, will guide the dramatic conflict and determine the arrangement of scenes and situations. 1 The Novel and the People (New York, 1945). 2 London, 1947. 3 Art and Society (New York, 1947). © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 7 The method lacks the simplicity of the customary treatment of technique as a set of rules that can be memorized and applied like a recipe for a cake. But any writer who has seriously attempted to master his craft knows that the rules in the textbooks are “more honored in the breach than the observance.” Technical mastery can be achieved only through knowledge of the creative process. While technical disorder reigns in the theatre, we find confusion worse confounded in the cinema. Hollywood outdoes Broadway, not only in the amount of money expended, but in irresponsibility, false ideas of “box-office appeal,” the use of shoddy tricks. There are, of course, social and economic reasons for the lack of creative vitality in the contemporary drama and film. The artist cannot make a free choice of the conditions under which he works. He cannot control the moral climate, or harness economic forces to his artistic aims. But the effectiveness and clarity of his work will depend on his ability to understand, and to some extent master, the process of production, recognizing its limitations and utilizing its potentialities. In the case of the motion picture, communication is conducted through a complex technological and business apparatus to reach a mass audience around the world. These factors determine the film structure, radically different from all previous dramatic experience, and yet fulfilling the age-old function of theatre – the imitation of an action, combining pantomime, visual composition, movement, and speech in an integrated pattern. The study of structure, in drama or cinema, demands an historical approach. We are not dealing with forms that were newly invented yesterday or today. The film, with its fifty years of history, relies on story-telling techniques and traditions, beliefs concerning people and their conflicts and emotions, that have been developed over a period fifty times as long as the life of the motion picture. Therefore the survey of the history of dramatic thought provides a frame of reference that is valid for the study of both playwriting and screenwriting. It is supplemented, at the beginning of Book Two, by an outline of the development of the American motion picture, the dominant ideas and forces that have shaped its growth. Readers seeking technical enlightenment may be dismayed to find that such a large portion of the volume is devoted to historical material. This is the background of theory that is linked with technique in the title of the book. The study of dramatic structure and composition begins with Part 3 of Book One, and the analysis of screenwriting starts with Part 2 of Book Two. Readers who feel unprepared to undertake an excursion into the realm of history and philosophy may find it desirable – and not unduly difficult – to begin at these later points. If the discussion of technique stimulates their interest in its historical origins, they will dip back into the earlier chapters in order to find out how technical principles have developed. In the preparation of Book One, I have made only minor changes in the text. Where there are weaknesses or omissions – and there are many – the faults cannot be corrected by the revision of phrases or sentences. It has been my aim to give the book better © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 8 organization, to make the argument clearer and more precise; that is the purpose of the present introduction, and of the summaries that precede each of the parts. In Book Two, I have tried to apply the lessons learned from the reconsideration of the original text. It is my hope that the study of screenwriting shows some improvements in clarity and arrangement, and that it offers some further illumination on basic problems of art as communication. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 9 Introduction to the 1960 edition of Theory and Technique of Playwriting The Changing Years This study of dramatic theory and technique was first published in 1936, in the midst of the social and theatrical upheaval that Harold Clurman calls “The Fervent Years.” Today, the arts display less fervor, and far less interest in “social significance.” The transition in dramatic thought from Waiting for Lefty to Waiting for Godot is almost as sweeping as the changes that have taken place among the world's peoples and powers. There are those who regard the culture of the thirties as dead and best forgotten. The question need not be debated here – except insofar as this book offers testimony to the contrary. My beliefs have not changed, nor has my fervor abated. I can hope that my understanding has ripened. But I see no need to modify or revise the theory of dramatic art on which this work is based. The theory holds that the dramatic process follows certain general laws, derived from the function of drama and its historical evolution. A play is a mimed fable, an acted and spoken story. The tale is presented because it has meaning to its creator. It embodies a vision, poses an ethical or emotional problem, praises heroes or laughs at fools. The playwright may not be conscious of any purpose beyond the telling of a tale. He may be more interested in box-office receipts than in social values. Nonetheless, the events taking place on the stage embody a point of view, a judgment of human relationships. Conceptual understanding is the key to mastery of dramatic technique. The structure of a play, the design of each scene and the movement of the action to its climax, are the means by which the concept is communicated. The theatre is a difficult art form. No labor of thought can give talent to the untalented or sensitivity to the insensitive. The pattern of a play is as subtle and chromatic as the pattern of a symphony. Theatrical concepts are profoundly, and at best magically, theatrical, growing out of the culture of the theatre as part of the culture and history of mankind. Therefore, dramatic craftsmanship encompasses the past from which it has evolved. The artist is not bound by traditional styles. He is more likely to be bound by ignorance, enslaving him to the parochial devices and cheap inventions of “show business.” The true creator turns to the theatre's heritage in order to attain freedom, to select and develop modes of expression suited to his need, to give radiance to his vision and substance to his dream. The history of dramatic thought which constitutes the first part of this book traces the evolution of European theatre from ancient Athens to the twentieth century. I must acknowledge my regret that it deals only with European development, and does not encompass the riches of theatre culture in other parts of the world. Today we are beginning to realize that our dramatic heritage is not limited to the Greeks and Elizabethans and the English and continental drama of the last three centuries. There is a growing recognition in the United States of the power and resources of the theatre in India, China, and Japan. Yet these forms, and those of other lands, are still regarded as © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 10 quaint and esoteric. Brecht is the only modern dramatist who has utilized Oriental modes as an integral part of his own creative style. The contemporary stage uses a conglomeration of techniques, ranging from the banalities of the “well-made play” to the splendors of musical comedy; but all this is done eclectically, to achieve an effect, to titillate sensibilities. Broadway uses shreds and patches of theatre experience and related forms of dance, pantomime, and ritual, drawn from all parts of the globe. But there has been no attempt to consider the order and value of stage traditions, their relation to contemporary culture, their potential use in stimulating the theatrical imagination and developing new modes of dramatic communication. Let us now turn to a more modest historical task – an appraisal of the trend of European and American dramatic thought from the middle thirties to the present. At first glance, we see a kaleidoscope of contradictory tendencies: wider public interest in the theatre is manifested in the growth of “Off-Broadway” production and the activity of community and university theatres; yet all this stir and effort have not stimulated any movement of creative writing. The Stanislavsky method has attained considerable prestige, but it is doubtful whether the art of acting has progressed during these decades. The posthumous presentation of O'Neill’s last plays has added to his reputation; Brecht and O'Casey exert a growing influence; there is far more interest in Shakespeare and other classics than there was a quarter-century ago. Yet statistical evidence and critical judgment agree that the theatre is sick. The number of playhouses available for professional production in the United States dropped from 647 in 1921 to 234 in 1954. The decline continues. There were sixty-five legitimate 4 theatres in New York in 1931 and only thirty in 1959. The Off-Broadway stage is said to have lost one million dollars during the season of 1958-59. Each year, critics lament the decline of the art. Early in 1945, Mary McCarthy wrote: “In 1944, the stage presents such a spectacle of confusion, disintegration and despair that 5 no generalization can cover the case.” Fifteen years later, Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times of January 3, 1960: “Last year was on the whole banal. This season, so far, is worse… There is nothing creative at the center of things, pushing the theatre into significant areas of thought or feeling.” On May 14, 1959, President Eisenhower broke ground for the new seventy-five- million-dollar Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The Shakespeare festivals at Stratford, Ontario and Stratford, Connecticut attract enthusiastic crowds. There is apparently a need for living theatre in the United States. How does this need relate to the decline of the commercial stage? Why is there “nothing creative at the center of things?” 4 International Theatre Annual, No. 4, edited by Harold Hobson, New York, 1958. 5 Mary McCarthy, Sights and Spectacles, New York, 1957. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 11 Burden of Guilt A group of European playwrights – Giraudoux, Anouilh, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Sartre, Camus, Duerrenmatt – have been honored and praised in the United States in recent years. Their collective influence goes far beyond Broadway, and is a major factor in creating the climate of thought that pervades the drama departments of our universities and the experimental work of amateur and professional groups. We must turn to these dramatists for the clearest statement, and often the most imaginative theatrical realization, of ideas which are more confusingly and less imaginatively projected in English and American plays. The turning point in the development of the modern French theatre is signalized by one play, The Madwoman of Chaillot. Its author, Jean Giraudoux, who died in 1944, belonged to the older generation of French intellectuals. His rhetoric and fantasy are derived from ancient sources, combining elements of Racine with nineteenth-century sensibility and twentieth-century wit. But underlying Giraudoux's classicism is his mordant sense of the failure of bourgeois values in the society of his own time. The action of his plays may take place in Argos or Thebes or Troy. But the social milieu is always the narrow middle-class life of the provincial town of Bellac where he was born. There are always the petty officials, the grubby businessmen, the deadening routine that destroys the human spirit. The conflict between the ideal and the real runs through all of Giraudoux's plays. It is often veiled in fantasy, as in Ondine, or sentimentalized in terms of a young girl’s search for beauty, as in The Enchanted or The Apollo of Bellac. But finally, in The Madwoman of Chaillot, the roots of the conflict are exposed. The Countess, “dressed in the grand fashion of 1885,” is a madwoman because she holds to the old values threatened by the greedy businessmen who are going to tear down the city to find oil under the houses. “Little by little,” says the Ragpicker, “the pimps have taken over the world.” The Countess lures the seekers after oil into her cellar, and sends them down into a sewer from which there is no escape. Then she closes the trap door. They are gone forever. The vagabonds, and the poor who have retained their humanity, enter: “The new radiance of the world is now very perceptible. It glows from their faces.” The simplicity of this denouement (“They were wicked. Wickedness evaporates”) indicates the gap between Giraudoux’s hatred of an inhuman society and his dreamlike solution. The final lines turn to sentiment and irony. The Countess tells the young lovers to accept love while there is still time. Then she says: “My poor cats must be starved. What a bore if humanity had to be saved every afternoon.” The indictment of bourgeois society in The Madwoman of Chaillot foreshadows the course of European theatre in the years following World War II. But the ironic twist at the end is even more revealing of the mood of the period. The intellectual knows that “the times are out of joint”; the sensitive artist is tortured by awareness of evil. But the evil seems inexorable, and humanity cannot be saved every afternoon. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 12 The mad Countess has strength of will and even optimism. But the will tends to atrophy in the person who sees the immensity of evil but finds no way of combating it. Inability to act creates a feeling of guilt, a loss of all rational values. A world without values is a world in which action – the heart of life and drama – has lost meaning. According to Camus, human dignity is achieved through recognition of the “absurdity” of existence: 6 “For one who is alone, with neither God nor master, the weight of days is terrible.” As early as 1938, in Caligula, Camus created a drama in which nihilism is the motive-force of the action. Caligula is the symbol of Man without values. In a criminal society, he can exercise his will only by killing and destroying. Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and his creative work attempt to resolve the contradiction between the idea that life is absurd and tragic, and the search for responsibilities that give it purpose. The contradiction between these two irreconcilable concepts is strongly, almost absurdly, demonstrated in The Respectful Prostitute. Sartre’s unfamiliarity with the small-town life of the American South is evident in the play. But his choice of such a social setting shows his concern with moral values and also his abstract approach, his inability to achieve clarity. The characters seem to be under a spell of absolute evil. Lizzie, the prostitute, tries to save the Negro from lynching. The white Southerner, Fred, pursues the Negro and two revolver shots are heard offstage. When Fred returns to Lizzie, she wants to kill him but cannot. He explains that the Negro was running too fast and he missed him. Then the racist embraces the prostitute and tells her he will put her “in a beautiful house, with a garden”; as she yields to his embrace, he says, “Then everything is back to normal again”; adding as he reveals his identity to her for the first time, “My name is Fred.” The ironic twist as the curtain descends is characteristic of the modern drama. But here the irony is heavy-handed. It tells us that nothing has happened: the threatened violence did not take place. The Negro is not central to the action; he is merely a symbol of the decadence which is more fully expressed in the brutal sensuality of the racist (“Is it true 7 that I gave you a thrill? Answer me. Is it true ?”), and the helplessness of the woman. There is an existentialist link between Caligula and The Respectful Prostitute. In both plays, men accept the absurdity and cruelty of their existence and absolve themselves of guilt by denying moral responsibility. The burden of guilt is carried more gracefully in the plays of Jean Anouilh. These are sentimental lamentations over the dead body of love. There is no development of action 8 because the doom is inescapable. In the plays of youthful passion, such as Eurydice or Romeo and Jeannette, the lovers meet and cry out against the fate that engulfs them at the final curtain. In Romeo and Jeannette, the only act of will on the part of the lovers is their final decision to die together. Jeannette's brother and father watch as the pair walk out across the sands to be engulfed by the tide. Her brother says: “They’re kissing, 6 The Fall, New York, 1957. 7 It may be noted, as a matter of technical interest, that the repetition of phrases is often a sign that the emotion is not valid. 8 Produced in the United States as Legend of Lovers. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 13 kissing. With the sea galloping up behind them.” He turns to his father: “You just don’t understand it, do you, you scruffy old Don Juan, you old cuckold, you old rag bag” Here the last twist of irony reveals Anouilh's mode of thought. The contrast between love’s illusion and the “scruffy old Don Juan” leavens the sentimentality of his more sophisticated plays. The sophistication is largely strutting and posing, as in Waltz of the Toreadors. If the drama explodes into action, it is so melodramatic that it tears the fabric of the story. Hero’s rape of Lucile in the third act of The Rehearsal is preceded by a long scene, punctuated by pauses, hesitations, philosophic comments, as if the character could not quite bring himself to the violent action that his creator demands of him. The recurrent theme of all Anouilh's plays is simply that our society destroys love and life. The charge that modern civilization is a criminal enterprise is made more directly in the work of the Swiss playwright, Friedrich Duerrenmatt. It is instructive to compare Giraudoux’s last play with Duerrenmatt’s The Visit. From the imaginary town of Chaillot to the imaginary town of Giillen, European dramatic thought has made a significant journey. In Chaillot, the Madwoman saves the town from corruption and restores it to decency. In Giillen, Claire Zachannasian finds no decency; the immorality of the whole population, so different from the unassuming virtue of the poor people of Chaillot, is the condition of the action. From the moment of Claire’s arrival, it is clear that the community is ready to murder Anton Schill for a billion marks. Therefore, when she makes her offer at the end of the first act, the play is over. She says, “I can wait”; the audience can also wait, but the conclusion is foreordained. There is no suspense, because all the characters – the rich woman, the victim, the townspeople – are caught in the same web of corruption. Loss of Identity The social criticism which gives some force to Duerrenmatt’s plays is muted and divorced from reality in the work of Samuel Beckett. An unseen power has destroyed the humanity of, the characters, who can do nothing but comment, philosophically and often with comic vigor, on their fate. This is world's end, and drama's end. The denial of action is the sole condition of the action. Beckett achieves a sort of theatricalism by the denial of all theatrical values. In Waiting for Godot, the two hapless wayfarers do not know why they are waiting: ESTRAGON: What exactly did we ask him for? VLADIMIR: Were you not there ? ESTRAGON: I can’t have been listening. VLADIMIR: Oh, nothing very definite. Beckett gets an effect by making fun of conventional dramatic exposition. He also adopts a principle of indeterminacy which denies all dramatic meaning. The first act ends with the appearance of the boy who reports that Mr. Godot cannot come. The same news is brought in the same manner at the end of the play. The action is circular; the lost figures in the twilight are the same at the end as they were at the beginning. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 14 The concept of total futility in Beckett's plays is applied to middle-class life in the work of Eugene Ionesco. In directing his attack against middle-class values, Ionesco is less intellectual and more savage than Beckett. Even the interplay of ideas is lost in Ionesco, because his people are incapable of consistent thought. They have not only lost their will; they have lost their minds. Their personalities have disintegrated, so that they do not know who they are. The Bald Soprano, which Ionesco calls “an anti-play,” opens with Mr. and Mrs. Smith: “We’ve eaten well this evening. That’s because we live in the suburbs of London and because our name is Smith.” We soon find that time and human, identity are hopelessly scrambled. They do not know whether “Bobby Watson” died yesterday or four years ago, and they talk of dozens of people, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, aunts, who are all named “Bobby Watson.” The end is an exact repetition of the beginning. Another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, “are seated like the Smiths at the beginning of the play. The play begins again, with the Martins, who say exactly the same lines as the. Smiths in the first scene, while the curtain softly falls.” Jean Genet portrays people who have lost their identity. But they are no longer safely encircled by the comforts of the middle-class milieu. They have lost their innocence. Camus made Caligula conscious of his crimes, but Genet's men and women have neither consciousness' nor conscience. Even their sex is uncertain. In The Maids, the author wishes the two sisters, whose personalities are interchangeable, to be played by male actors. In an introduction to The Maids, Sartre remarks that Genet “has managed to transmit to his thought an increasingly circular movement… Genet detests the society that rejects him and he wishes to annihilate it.” Genet sees the world as a nightmare charade. In The Balcony, the visitors to the brothel indulge their perverse desires while they play at being archbishops, judges, and generals. Outside a revolution is taking place, and finally the madam of the whorehouse is installed as queen, with the fake dignitaries as religious, civic, and military leaders. In the closed world of the brothel, people seek any illusion to escape from “the hellish agony of their names.” At the end of The Maids, Solange says that nothing remains of them but “the delicate perfume of the holy maidens which they were in secret. We are beautiful, joyous, drunk and free” It would require a much more detailed analysis of the plays to explore the political and social tendencies underlying the weird concept of freedom which releases the “maids” from their agony. It is sufficient for our purpose to note the breakdown of dramatic structure in the “anti-plays” of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. Ionesco claims that “the comical is tragic, and the tragedy of man, derisory… Without a new Virginity of spirit, without a purified outlook on existential reality, there is no theatre; there is no art 9 either.” 9 Ionesco, "Discovering the Theatre," Tulane Drama Review, Autumn 1959. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 15 The prophet of this new dramatic dispensation is Antonin Artaud, who issued a series of manifestoes in France in the nineteen-thirties. He called for “a theatre of cruelty… furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but 10 interior.” Anger in England In England the tensions that indicate the breakdown of old certitudes are not as sharply felt as on the continent. The English bourgeoisie hold, somewhat doubtfully and with growing uneasiness, to the fading glories of their great past. It follows that the English theatre is more conventional and less addicted to fantasy and philosophical despair. But the tendencies which we have noted in Europe are also present in Britain. Christopher Fry is a more optimistic Anouilh. While the lovers in Anouilh are doomed, the lovers in The Lady's not for Burning escape the execution demanded by, the stupid townspeople. They look at the town, and Thomas says: There sleep hypocrisy, porcous pomposity, greed Lust, vulgarity, cruelty, trickery, sham And all possible nitwittery… But the lovers have each other. They look forward, with comfortable foreboding, to a lifetime together. As the curtain descends, Thomas says: “…And God have mercy on our souls.” T. S. Eliot, grown old and sanctimonious after his wanderings in the wasteland, has moved from the poetic eloquence of Murder in the Cathedral to the desiccated language and stilted situations of his later plays. The faith that illuminates Murder in the Cathedral seems to have lost its potency in the dramas that follow it: religion has become a remote answer to the desperation of a de-dining upper class. Violence shadows The Family Reunion: Lord Monchensey returns to his mother's house to admit that he has murdered his wife. There is an atmosphere of indeterminate danger: Why do we all behave as if the door might suddenly open, the curtains be drawn, The cellar make some dreadful disclosure, the roof disappear, And we should cease to be sure of what is real and unreal? Harry leaves on a vague mission of expiation, “somewhere on the other side of despair.” But his address will be “Care of the Bank in London until you hear from me.” 10 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, New York, 1958. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 16 Eliot’s voluble aristocrats are haunted by the fear that their society is disintegrating. The, fear is more stridently articulated, from the viewpoint of the lower middle class, in the school of naturalistic drama inaugurated in 1956 by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Jimmy Porter, like the same author's George Dillon and all the other angry young men, is caught in a cage of futility. The cage, the shabby attic apartment, is small and isolated from the winds of change which are the ultimate cause of Jimmy’s frustration. Here there is no large speculation on Man's fate, no indictment of the whole society. Jimmy Porter’s hysterical talk is divorced from action, and tells us only that he is very sorry for himself. He is a sentimentalist, basically interested only in love. The action is circular. When Jimmy’s wife leaves, she is replaced by Helen. At the beginning of the third act, Helen is leaning over the ironing board, working with a pile of clothes, in exact duplication of Alison’s activity at the opening of the play. When Alison returns, Helen leaves, and the game of love goes on. Jimmy and Alison pretend they are a squirrel and a bear (their favorite game), hiding from unknown dangers: “There are cruel steel traps about everywhere.” As the curtain descends, they embrace, pooling their despair, hugging their misery. The first great Greek tragedy that has come down to us shows Prometheus, tortured and bound to his bleak rock, defying the power of the Gods. There is no Promethean defiance and there are no tragic heroes, in Osborne’s world. Even despair is reduced to a small gesture. In The Entertainer, Osborne describes the people of this nether world: “We’re drunks, maniacs, we’re crazy… We have problems that nobody’s ever heard of, we're characters out of something that nobody believes in. But we're really not funny, we're too boring.” The Castrated Hero It seems strange that Americans, inhabitants of a proud and prosperous country, can accept the grotesque image of the United States in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Yet his plays are no further removed from reality than the ironic extravaganzas of Anouilh or the nightmares of Genet. The popularity of Williams’ work, reaching a vast public in film adaptations, shows that the themes of guilt and lost identity, criminal impulses and profitless despair, evoke an emotional response in the American audience. Williams’ first important play, The Glass Menagerie, produced in 1945, tells a story of frustrated love with moving simplicity. The concept that the search for true love is an illusion, harshly shattered by reality, reminds us of Anouilh. But two years later, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the conflict between illusion and reality is projected in violent, almost pathological terms. The climax, Stanley Kowalski’s rape of Blanche while his wife is in the hospital having a baby, indicates the further course of the author’s development, leading to the treatment of homosexuality and cannibalism in Garden District (called Suddenly Last Summer on the screen) and the frenetic melodrama of Sweet. Bird of Youth. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 17 The first act of Sweet Bird of Youth exhibits his style and technique. The scene is a hotel bedroom. The young adventurer, Chance Wayne, has brought an aging Hollywood actress to his home town on the Gulf, in order to impress the girl who is his only true love, Heavenly Finley. He intends to force the actress, called Princess Pazmezoglu, to help him get a film job, so that he can bring Heavenly to the West Coast with him. We learn that Heavenly had contracted a venereal disease, which required an operation – making it impossible for her to have children. Her father and brother, holding Chance responsible, are determined to castrate him. The exposition conveying this information begins with' a dialogue between Wayne and a young doctor, George Scudder, who performed the operation, and who announces as he leaves that he intends to marry Heavenly. When George has departed, the actress wakes up. She cannot remember whom she is with. She calls frantically for oxygen. After she inhales the oxygen, she demands her pink pills and vodka. Then she wants dope, which is hidden under the mattress. As they smoke the stuff, she becomes sentimental. But Chance tells her that their whole conversation, including the talk of dope, has been taped. He insists that she sign over all her traveler’s checks to him. She agrees. But first he must make love to her: “When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way… I have only one way to forget these things I don't want to remember, and that's through the act of love-making.” As the ritual of sex begins, the stage goes dark. There are several points of technical interest in, the opening scene. It is almost all expository, dealing with previous events and with Chance's elaborate plans. The plot is so fully stated that the only suspense lies in watching the way in which the predicted action will unfold. Williams has a habit of exposing the whole course of his story in the first act. This is due in part to the complicated and retrospective situations with which he deals. In The Rose Tattoo, in Garden District, in Orpheus Descending, the present . action is determined and made inevitable by past events. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the author's two versions of the final act reveal his difficulty in achieving a climax after the 11 detailed presentation of a situation, from which there is no escape. This aspect of Williams’ method is far more than a technical weakness. It goes to the heart of his meaning. We are foredoomed to defeat. We thrash about in a net of evil. The innocence of young love is in the past: Heavenly was fifteen and Chance was seventeen when they discovered the wonder of a “perfect” sexual experience. (In Orpheus Descending, Val tells a curiously similar story of a girl who appeared to him on the bayou when he was fourteen; like Heavenly in the photograph shown by Chance Wayne, she was stark naked and immediately available.) At the final curtain of Sweet Bird of Youth, when Chance's enemies have captured him and the castration is about to take place, Chance comes forward to face the audience: “I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding – not even that No, just for 11 The various versions of Williams’ plays offer fascinating opportunities for technical study: Battle of Angels, produced in 1940, contains the matrix of Orpheus Descending, presented in 1957; two short plays are the basis for Baby Doll; the sketch, Time, shows the origin of Sweet Bird of Youth. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 18 your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all” This is the monstrous message of the play: sexual lust and greed are the conditions of our lives; we are all as ambitious, frustrated, and amoral as Chance Wayne. The reference to “the enemy, time,” is false sentiment and false philosophy, suggesting that age and death are the real cause of our defeat. But Chance does not face old age; he faces castration, which symbolizes the failure and degradation, of modern man. Williams tries to give the play a larger social framework by means of the racist speech delivered by Boss Finley at the end of the second act. But this political background has no validity in relation to the central situation, which revolves around Chance and the 12 Princess. Williams’ pessimism is visceral and mindless. The Princess is as ruthless as Claire in The Visit. But Claire is a clever woman plotting vengeance for a wrong that was done her. The Princess is a wreck, living on pills, oxygen, and dope. She needs sex and will buy it on any terms. The scene in which she forces Chance to come to bed with her is not merely a sensational device. As the stage darkens, the degradation of both characters is final. He has nothing except his virility; she has nothing except her need of the male. Each personality is reduced to its irreducible minimum, a sex-urge without emotion or joy. Robert Robinson observes that in Williams’ plays “there can be no intimacy, for intimacy is the act of rewarding identity to another… other people simply satisfy an 13 appetite…” He adds that “Mr. Williams is a, doggedly minor artist.” He is minor because those who deny identity to others lose their own sense of life; this is true of the playwright as well as of the characters to whom he refuses the gift of living. There is a long descent from Caligula to Chance Wayne. Jimmy Porter stands between the two. Caligula chooses, consciously and of his own will, to reject moral responsibility. He learns that life without responsibility has no human warmth or dignity. Jimmy Porter, caught in drab frustration, learns the same lesson. The part of Caligula in the New York production of the Camus play was assigned, appropriately, to an actor who had played Jimmy Porter. The new American hero can learn nothing. Even his rôle as a phallic symbol is a delusion. Castration is the answer to his claim to manhood. Robert Brustein writes that the modern “inarticulate hero” sees society “as the outside of a prison,” which he wishes to enter for warmth and security. Therefore, “much of the 14 acting and writing of the inarticulate hero is not only neurotic but conformist.” Chance Wayne is a thoroughgoing conformist. He is conventional in his longing for lost love, in his exaggerated toughness, his Hollywood ambitions. He wants to belong, and even at the end he is asking the audience to like him. 12 Williams confirms this in a recent statement: he feels that the second act is ineffective, because Boss Finley is of no interest to him, and he has prepared a new second act for the published play (New York Times, May 1, 1960). 13 New Statesman, London, September 27, 1958. 14 Commentary, February 1958. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 19 Among the many playwrights influenced by Williams, conformity is advocated more tenderly, as in the plays of Robert Anderson or the more recent work of Paddy Chayefsky. William Inge offers a romantic version of the tough male in Picnic, and a farcical portrait in Bus Stop. In Inge, the male’s aggressiveness is always tamed by a 15 woman, who finds out in her turn that the man is as frightened and lonely as she is. In Come Back, Little Sheba, Doc gets drunk and violent in order to drown his desire for Marie, the young boarder. At the end, he and his wife are together in the love and misery of the bourgeois prison. At the end of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Cora ascends the stairs, where her husband’s naked feet can be seen “in the warm light at the top.” The theme of acceptance and submission is projected in large poetic terms in J. B. by Archibald MacLeish. J. B. is a good man and he is rich. But he must undergo a catalogue of horrors. The three “comforters” who try to console him represent psychiatry, religion, and “left-wing materialism.” The last, of course, is the most absurd of the three, but all talk in ridiculous cliches. The anti-intellectualism inherent in this caricature of contemporary thought, and the crude violence of the melodrama preceding it, remind us less of the Book of Job than of Tennessee Williams. J. discovers that he must accept life blindly. His wife says: Blow on the coal of the heart. The candles in churches are out. The lights have gone out in the sky. Blow on the coal of the heart And we'll see by and by. There are, of course, other tendencies in the American theatre. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened in March 1958, on the day following the premiere of Sweet Bird of Youth at a playhouse a few blocks away. The contrast between the two plays is fascinating; the fact that both were greeted with equal acclaim makes one wonder what criteria – if any – determine Broadway success. The enthusiastic applause for A Raisin in the Sun may be due in part to the circumstances of its production. Dramas which deal 16 honestly with Negro themes are a rarity in the New York theatre. When such a play is the first work of a Negro woman, its success has broad meaning, both in the theatre and, in the American life of our time. Lorraine Hansberry’s unusual accomplishment involves unusual responsibilities, both for the author and for those who venture to appraise her contribution. The sense of theatre and vivid characterization revealed in her first play demand realistic discussion of its merits and limitations, and its relationship to the further course of her work. 15 See Brustein’s “The Man-Taming Women of William Inge,” Harper's, November 1958. 16 Among the few important plays by Negro authors to reach Broadway, mention must be made of Langston Hughes' Mulatto, and Theodore Ward's Our Lan'. Of special interest is Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind, produced off Broadway with far less recognition than it deserves. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 20 A Raisin in the Sun is impressive in its simplicity, its respect for human values. This is the source of its modest strength; yet it also indicates a lack of depth, an oversimplificatio of the dramatic event. The structure seems old-fashioned, because n many plays have dealt with a similar theme – an inheritance transforms the prospects of a lower-middle-class family, and the money, or part of it, is wasted by an improvident son. This theme seems to acquire new vitality when it is applied to the problems of a Negro family. But the reverse is also true: the passions and aspirations of the Negro family, the psychological 'singularity of each person, are minimized by the triteness of the structure. Underlying the conventional technique of the play is a more profound conventionality. The Negro family struggles, as it must, for a better home in a better neighborhood ; but there is no hint that there is anything wrong with the bourgeois world the family seeks to enter. The monstrous evil of racism shadows the play, but it has no dimension of horror. It is symbolized in the only white character, who is an ineffectual racist. But the emotional life of the family centers on the son's foolish anger, his bitter dreams. Conformity to bourgeois values is the key to the play’s viewpoint. It is embodied in the, aimless stupidity of Walter’s rebellion. It may be unfair to see in him some shreds and patches of Williams’ mindless heroes; but Walter's action, his irresponsible loss of the money, have meaning only in relation to his mother's humble common sense, which is rooted in her adherence to an old value: "In my time," she says, "we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too." Thus the difference between Sweet Bird of Youth and A Raisin in the Sun poses troubling questions. Williams shows bleak decadence, and says there is no escape from it. Miss Hansberry sees a society of simple virtues, in which conformity is desirable and inescapable. This may account for the success of A Raisin in the Sun. It is to be hoped that its author possesses the modesty and feeling for art to learn from success as others must learn from failure. Julian Mayfield has said that many Negro writers are “reluctant to leap head first into the nation’s literary mainstream,” because it means “identifying the Negro with the American image – that great power face that the world knows and the Negro knows better…” To be sure, the “great power face” is not the true image of America, but Mayfield is justified in describing the mainstream of American culture as characterized 17 by “apathy and either a reluctance or a fear of writing about anything that matters.” Miss Hansberry, having become part of the mainstream, runs the risk of being immersed in it. But her talent, and the position she has achieved, offer her a unique opportunity to go beyond her first play to deeper insights and larger themes. 17 The American Negro Writer and His Roots, Selected Papers from the First Conference of Negro Writers, March 1959, published by the American Society of African Culture, New York, 1960. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 21 The Testament of Eugene O'Neill When the first edition of this book was published, O'Neill seemed to have retired from the theatre. After 1934, he wrote nothing that reached the public, except The Iceman Cometh, finished in 1940 and produced six years later. Yet during this long period, O'Neill worked feverishly, destroying much of what he wrote and leaving several plays in manuscript. These plays, staged after his death in 1953, reveal the intensity of his quest for dramatic truth. He was tortured by the artist's need to find some order and reason and beauty in existence. His conviction that something had gone wrong, in his own troubled heart and in the life of his time, forced him to turn back to a crucial year: in 1912, when O'Neill was twenty-four years old, the world was moving toward a war which would undermine the foundations of “Western civilization”; he had returned from his sea voyages; he had seen the world from the decks of tramp steamers, from dark forecastles and water-front dives. He returned to haunt the New York water front, to read Marx for the first time, to contribute social poems to the old Masses. In December 1912, he was stricken with tuberculosis. In The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill tried to create a social allegory of that fateful year. The action is confused and melodramatic, because the ideas are beyond the author's grasp. O'Neill could not give order and meaning to his impassioned indictment of a society that destroys human values. Lack of conceptual clarity tends to make dramatic action 18 strained and improbable. Without clarity, there can be no aesthetic form, no sustained magic. But O’Neill could understand, with masterful emotion and depth, the disintegration of his own family. In Long Day's Journey into Night, he returns again to 1912, to tell, as he has said, “of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” The play is his testament, a last monument to his genius. Through his pity and love for “the four haunted Tyrones,” he offers a vision of the whole society which decreed their suffering. There is terrifying emotional clarity in the long drunken scene in the third act of Long Day's Journey into Night, reaching its climax when the father and his sons are interrupted by the mother's appearance carrying her old-fashioned wedding gown of white satin. Under the influence of morphine, she speaks of her girlhood, her desire to be a nun. The play ends with her simple words: “That was in the winter of my senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember, I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” The three men remain motionless as the curtain comes down. O’Neill has left the dark jungle of irrational fears to ascend the wintry heights of tragedy. Yet in doing so he acknowledges that the long sojourn in the jungle defeated the fulfillment of his genius. Edmund Tyrone, the younger son who is O’Neill himself, tells his father that he doubts whether he has even “the making of a poet… I couldn’t 18 This is true even in Shakespeare – for example, in Timon of Athens. © The Estate of John Howard Lawson 22

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