Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tom Stoppard On Playwriting

I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.

I think theater ought to be theatrical . . .. you know, shuffling the pack in different ways so that it's —- there's always some kind of ambush involved in the experience. You're being ambushed by an unexpected word, or by an elephant falling out of the cupboard, whatever it is.

The central paradox of theater is that something which starts off complete, as true to itself, as self-contained and as subjective as a sonnet, is then thrown into a kind of spin dryer which is the process of staging the play; and that process is hilariously empirical.

Words deserve respect. Get the right ones in the right order, and you can nudge the world a little.

In writing plays, I find that the problems — if that’s what they are — are very mundane, and in a way surface. The wellspring of a play is often curiously uninteresting — it derives from insubstantial stray images and ideas, What it doesn’t arise from at all, I don’t think, is anything like a complete sense of the whole. You know, What am I going to try to achieve here? What is it going to be about underneath?

I seldom worry about underneath. Even when I’m aware that there is an underneath. I tend to try and suppress it further under, because theater is a wonderfully, refreshingly simple event. It’s a storytelling event. The story holds or it doesn’t . . .  The same would be true of a short story or a novel.

One of the built-in ironies of being a playwright at all is that one is constantly trying to put into dramatic form questions and answers that require perhaps an essay, perhaps a book, but are too important and too subtle, really, to have to account for themselves within the limitations of what’s really happening in the theater, which is that the story is being told in dialogue.

I use this ill-suited medium (to account for) matters like morality or empire, or the authenticity of romantic love (with the reservation) that failure is almost built into a play if that is its true purpose, its true function. And so one avoids failure if one can, by denying that that is the function of the play. And one says that, no, that was merely an aspect or a sidelight of the play’s function and the primary function is to tell an entertaining story.

My primary delight, which is a good enough word for the fuel that one needs to do any work at all, is in using the language rather than the purpose to which language is put . . . and more than language, I would say theater — the way theater works, through disclosure and surprise.

One of the things I like most about the theatre is not its literary side, altought clearly that has an appeal to me, but what I love about the theatre is its pragmatism, it’s a pragmatic art form. I love it for being adjustable at every point. There’s no point where theatre gets frozen unless you walk away from it.

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