Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Play's the Thing

In The Playwright's Workbook, Jean-Claude van Itallie explores playwriting through exercises based on the plays of Chekhov, Beckett, Pinter and others. He deals with the fundamentals of writing: who, where, when, and what. He describes the "What" as being ‘the writer’s dominant emotional image’ that ‘functions as its (the play's) heart’.

This "What" never gets talked about in the play. It is the image or feeling that the playwright holds in the back of her mind as she is writing. van Itallie gives the example of the "What" in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as having to do with waiting but it goes deeper than that.

'When all that once mattered - social identity, work, home, health, family, and hope of happiness and longevity- has been ripped away, what’s left to call human? Breathing. ‘Breathing’ or ‘pushing on’ may be Beckett’s ‘What’.

This "What" begins the playwright on a quest that starts deep within and creates a map that encourages others to take the journey. It pushes them to formulate their own questions to look at playwriting critically and deeply. His exercises are field guides for the journey, exposing paths that will help to establish an understanding of the fundamental rules of playwriting.

'You don't have to know exactly where you're going, but you need to know where the path starts and in what general direction it seems to lead.'

The workbook doesn't advocate any one style of writing. It can easily be used to create the well- made play or an avant garde performance text. The important thing reiterated is that before the boundaries of theater can be pushed the playwright has to know where the boundaries lie and this is done by examining the work of others. A play, according to van Itallie, should be thought of as:

'...a dramatic question, not an answer. Think of yourself as skillfully including the audience in the questions of the play. As you plan the play's journey maintain a confident yet questioning attitude.'

This questioning, this journey needs to begin within the playwright. While concentrating on a ‘What’ or an emotional image, the playwright (in their best moments) acts almost as a Buddhist monk, focusing his mind on ‘specific images that ask questions.

'In this sense, strong theater is like dreaming, creating a safe context within which to experience cruel (a la Artaud) dramatic events and the wobbling of our usual straight line thinking.’

I found support for my writing, for themes of conflict and regeneration. Also, within this context, van Itallie makes the case that the function of theater is not to be a source of answers for the world's ills, but rather the place where necessary questions get unearthed, offering change in how we see and experience ourselves, each other and the world.

  • ISBN-10: 1557833028
  • ISBN-13: 978-1557833020
Lisa Alvarado

No comments: