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ABOUT THE PLAYS and A PLAYWRIGHT'S NOTES

ABOUT THE PLAYS 

By George Weinberg

RAVISHING THE MUSE

A famous artist, whether he's a singer, actor, painter or writer, is a whirling magnet for people who, one way or another, all want "a piece of him". A flight of these raptors -- male and female -- descends upon Burn Fargo's dinner-party. Uncaged havoc ensues, and we learn a great deal about what an artist and his muse can do for -- and to -- each other, and everyone around them.

The prized force of farce is that it makes us laugh. Once RAVISHING’s inventive situation has been set-up, its rapidity and tickle-level of funny lines are overpowering. RTM's laugh-index and ingenious variation on the creation-within-a-creation conceit prompt comparisons to NOISES OFF.

Add this: Not since BLITHE SPIRIT has so imaginative an "unearthly" element levitated a farce/comedy. And this: RTM has an igniting musical motif and finale by Scott Joplin -- and it's already on a dvd.

New general-market farces are rare, though audience appetite is always there and the dollar-return for a successful farce can be immense and long-lasting. Witness:

The Broadway revival of Marc Camoletti's BOEING BOEING began previews in April 2008, recouped by September, and ran eight months before going on the road. Last I looked, it was still touring. (BOEING BOEING in English originally opened in the 60s in London and ran for seven years. It became a Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis movie.)

Few non-musicals in recent years have matched the prosperity of Ken Ludwig's farce, LEND ME A TENOR. Its original Broadway staging in 1989 ran for 476 performances. It's had productions in 25 countries in 16 languages, and it perennially appears in U.S. regional theaters. In 2010 it was on Broadway in a five-month revival production, followed by a revival in London's West End that fall. Neil Simon's only outright farce, RUMORS, had 535 performances on Broadway, outrunning many of his more famous plays. Of everything Thornton Wilder wrote, it was his farce, THE MATCHMAKER, and its spin-off, HELLO, DOLLY, that provided the continuing income to support him in his later years.

But, a farce during times like these? Recall Wendy Wasserstein's comment on the health of farces during dark times: She noted that BLITHE SPIRIT was written and opened during the London blitz, and it ran for four-and-a-half years. Wendy observed there is “nothing as humane as sharing a laugh with strangers in the dark.” Kaufman and Hart's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU opened during the Great Depression, and ran for 837 performances. Joseph Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE ran for 1,444 performances in New York during World War II.

Camoletti'sother farce, DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER, has evidently been playing somewhere in the world ever since 1985, increasingly in American regionals over the past decade. It opened in Chicago in late 2008, and the Tribune hailed it for its "Recession-busting laughs...The good times are back just as they appear to be collapsing everywhere else."

Many good legit farces have become successful movies, but it's a happy mystery why nothing on a screen can match the moments of special comic intensity that can be achieved only by live actors on a stage. Theater pros know that a great farce will travel the globe, be revived often, and thrive indefinitely in regional theaters where extreme comedy has always had box-office power. It can be a cash-machine for decades.

PROBLEM PLAY

PROBLEM PLAY was inspired by a haunting anecdote about a math professor mortifyingly caught up in the controversial "Monty Hall"/"Ask Marilyn" brouhaha. (Marilyn Vos Savant had given her answer to a famous game-show probability puzzle. Literally thousands of academicians attacked her. The tale of their subsequent fall from sneering arrogance to abysmal humiliation made the front page of the New York Times.)

Tom's story started with Monty Hall, but grew into a deeply personal father-daughter drama. It tells of a young woman's life-bending "misadventure"; a gifted professor falling victim to an Iago-like adversary; a clawing hate; and a shielding, insulating love. During the process, Tom reworked Monty's deceptively simple question into an electrifying coup de theatre. It now provides, in a dramatic way, the clearest explanation I've ever read of the most celebrated puzzle in entertainment history.

A persistent strength of Tom's is character-driven stories. In Jana who has fled from fame, and Professor Caleb Hobson who runs toward it, he has invented two seizing, fully-rounded action-engines. The brilliant, vicious, mysterious Halley will excite questions for which the audience will imagine more answers than Halley will explicitly offer.

The play's subject is this fundamental human concern: Our limitations, what they do to our dreams, and what we do to live with them. Its title, PROBLEM PLAY, has multiple meanings.

PROFILING

The one-act on this site was suggested by a real event that made international news and reverberated all the way to the White House. But in PROFILING, the action, dialog, and characters -- a Caucasian cop, "Kevin Costello", and an African-American Ivy League professor, "Remond McArdle" -- are imaginary.

Theater insiders have expressed unanimous enthusiasm for the following idea of how to expand this half-hour play into something of useful box office potential:

PROFILING presents the two men as equally right and equally wrong -- with consequent grim implications for the future. If two other writers were to create one-acts presenting the same characters but contrasting versions of the clash and "culpability", the three Rashomon-like variations could provide ninety minutes of running time -- a full night of theater.

Given the amount of attention the original event got, the three-part evening could win wide media coverage both on and off the theater-page.

FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS

Finally, the new full-length work: FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS.

I concede that superlatives can be antagonizing, but the quality of this play deserves taking some risks, so please hold this personal judgment against me and not against the work: FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS is a sexual, violent, and cerebral compound that has as much to engage a thoughtful viewer's mind as any American play I've ever read.

Everything "connects". Its interwoven storylines, recurrent motifs, and brilliant set-pieces build to a final scene, a final moment, so vivid and powerful that, for most of us, it will be unforgettable.

It begins when Bren, a rugged, reclusive 28-year-old with a history, arrives to rent a remote shack on a Connecticut beach while he writes a revolutionary philosophical paper that is, on the surface, about language.  But it turns out the rental is not a shack, and it is not remote. It is attached to an oceanfront estate, and to a family that won't allow him to be a recluse – not Elga, a liberated, gifted linguist who translates Nobelists and can say indelicate words in twenty languages; not Kurt, her secretly complex husband; and not Kit, the demon-wracked rich-girl daughter who, when she enters, is a virgin in several different ways.

The stories of all four players braid into a sensual, violent climax that shows Bren's “Incompleteness Theorem" is not confined to language -- it is an inescapable theme in the lives of almost all of us.

Paradoxically, given its sensuality and physical fury, it is the best theatrical portrait I've seen of a philosopher-at-work. As the details of Bren's "Incompleteness Theorem" unfold, threatening to overturn a hundred years of thinking about human communication, we see a counterpoint to and reflection of the storyline. While we watch the centerpiece scene in which Bren defends his Incompleteness Theorem, we become aware we're watching a playwright/gambler's unprecedented dramatic tactic.

The "philosophy" here is not fake, something unseen that the audience has to take on faith. It is genuine, cutting-edge, twenty-first century cogitation phrased with humor and an apparent clarity that gives alert viewers the exhilarating feeling they're grasping cutting-edge contemporary insights -- not only about how words work for us, but how they work on us, and even against us.

FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS has more quotable lines than any other recent play I know of. Among its stream of counter-intuitive insights is one that could serve as the slogan for the entire play: "The child and the mother, birth each other."

It's is a four-character tragedy. A great tragedy, well done, makes for the opposite of a gloomy night at the theater. Mary Renault wrote that in ancient Greece the prostitutes had two things they loved above all else -- figs and a good cry at the theater -- and philosophers since Aristotle's time have tried to explain this universal fondness for a great "sad" story.

In FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS, we get to know the characters in the profound, thorough, and intimate way that only a tragedy provides.  When a tragedy is good enough -- and Tom's is –- it's never a mere anecdote: We see the full arc of the characters' lives.

I know that asking you to read a play is no small thing; it takes one or two hours out of your life, and most of us have reason to be time-greedy. But I ask it because it's so new and mind-rousing it may tap into cerebral and pelvic responses you didn't know you have.Although it has a cast of only four, this play is likely to have more intriguing ideas, more bravura roles, more high-voltage scenes, and more memorable, fully-realized stories than anything else you've read in a long while. I hope you'll give it the hour. Elga, to justify putting time into a similar possibility, offers, "I'm awake a hundred-twenty hours a week."

KIT AND THE PHILOSOPHER
A Play in One Act

"KIT" grew out of a single scene in the full-length work, INCOMPLETENESS, AND THE REST.

In the full-length, the scene had several intended functions.

The one-act added one function – and more than doubled the scene's length. (It also has many story-adjustments to reshape it into a stand-alone one-act.)

The added function was this. Tom was determined to avoid what he felt was a flaw in many plays about alleged geniuses: they consistently ask the viewer to take on faith the "ingeniousness" and eminence of the character. In the one-act, Tom was committed to a "show don't tell" presentation of his reclusive maverick young philosopher, Bren, as Bren is challenged into explaining his "Incompleteness Theorem for Language" to a smart but fiercely resistant young woman. It emerges that the "incompleteness" invests far more than just language.

This commitment entailed two assignments for the playwright:

Tom had to provide dialog we can believe is extemporized, even though it's conveying genuine 21st century cutting-edge philosophical concepts. (And he had to make those concepts seemingly understandable and compelling to non-academic audiences.)

Second, somehow he had to make so apparently-cerebral a play "theatrical" – a story with beginning, middle and end; a story involving characters that are fully-rounded, engaging, and believable; a story with surprises, and principals who are changed by play's end.

Since one of his announced aims with the one-act is this -- "I'd like to promote philosophy as a field of study. I think it's energizing, fulfilling, and fortifying for almost every other job you ask your brain to do." – he has declared royalty-free any on-campus use whatever of the play as long as there is no charge to students or other users. Putting the entire one-act on this website may facilitate that use.

Tom's current view is that he may have achieved readability – at least, at a university level. But he has no surety about its performability -- anywhere.

As for the originality and defendability of Bren's "Theorem", my limited scholarship in the area restrains me from on-high judgment, but this much I can say: It persuades me.

My view is that, either way, he has done the near impossible: He has created a crafty, high-quality play-script that is utterly unique.

OTHER PLAYS

ENDPAPERS is available from The Dramatists Play Service. So is the one act, AMERICAN ROULETTE. Besides the one acts on the site, McCormack has others in initial drafts.

-- GW

                           A PLAYWRIGHT'S NOTES

The more general ruminations about theater below are not by me but by Tom. It's a selection of notes, often set down after long dinner-conversations when I urged him to amplify and put into written form some of the things he'd just said.

There's no need to look at them now unless you're still not persuaded to read a script. In which case do look at the notes now; you'll encounter a mind that's creative even in his non-fiction. It may spur you to want to see if he's also creative when he's being creative.

Their cogitative tone may startle, juxtaposed as it is with a farce. He has experience musing this way: He is the author of the only book ever written about the editing of novels.

-- GW

NOTES

The first note should be one of thanks to George Weinberg, PhD. George is a long-time friend, polymathic scholar with a seemingly boundless verbatim memory for literature, and author of a dozen books, including two on Shakespeare.

Despite ENDPAPERS' brief zenith, I'm effectively unknown as a playwright, which means the plays I post on this site could also go unknown. I feel a begetter's responsibility to try to gain them some notice, but pitching myself is harmful to my teeth, and who believes a writer's evaluation of his own works anyway? So I'm grateful to George for bringing to bear his sensibility, articulateness, intelligence, and learning – and for letting me hide behind him. –- Tom McCormack

About  "THE meaning of" a play.

The reader should be helped by a writer to "think about" or "understand" what's been written when the piece is non-fiction. But if the work is creative, made-up, then rinsing out the ambiguities and multiple possible interpretations is often the wrong thing to do. Beware of over-explaining. Its effect is usually to diminish and falsify. Flannery O'Connor once said it takes every word of her story to tell what it is "about".

When I was working on the original play-descriptions, I avoided asserting "meanings" or "themes" because pronouncements like that restrict a work's apparent scope, and restrain viewers' imaginations. Talk of its "meaning" tends to suggest the play is merely a useful ladder leading up to the real value: a non-fiction lesson. For me, the value of a play -- or movie, opera, symphony, dance -- is in the multi-rung ladder itself, the story and its effects at each rung, including the view from the top.

If the rungs can evoke tensions, laughter, gasps, rills of deep assent, a playwright should leave it to the viewers to conjure their own "meanings and themes". Ideally, a play will make viewers' minds throng with new notions, but the notions will be as various as the viewers' histories and receiving apparatuses. There is, at last, no THE "meaning" of any work of art.

* * *

Be wary of anyone who insists you state what you want your play to "say", announce what its "message" is. The closest allowable question is: What effects on the audience do you hope for from this or that element in the play? Except for a few passing rants, Shakespeare didn't write HAMLET to say something. He wrote it to do something -- to those who saw, and heard, and felt.

* * *

A question about the effect-wanted can be valuable in nudging the writer to look again at a passage he may have written unthinkingly. If the writer is a smarty-pants, he should be slow to wield defensive cleverness. ("Would you put that question to Mozart after he's just called for a given note in a melody?")  Instead, he should seriously focus on the questioned element -- especially if a quick poll shows the effect of a scene/speech/etc is not what he wanted. E.g.:

"You say your aim is to fill us with admiration for Carly's intellect as she destroys Henry's theory, but, the way you've written it, we come away not liking her. Our dominant feeling is that, sure, she's smart, but she's also cold, callous, and condescending."

* * *

It's a mistake to expect a creator to be able to give a non-fiction proof that his strokes must be aesthetic triumphs. "Why would you ever think this could have broad appeal?" That's roughly like asking for a prior proof that everyone at his dinner party tonight will enjoy the taste of his home-made spicy meat loaf. If he says, "Because it's just like BOWLING IN CINCINNATI, and BOWLING IN CINCINNATI ran for two years," he's wrong. Nothing is just like such-and-such except such-and-such.

But that has a corollary: If no one likes what a playwright's written, he can forget about constructing an argument that proves anyone ought to like it.

* * *

For what it's worth, I offer this to would-be artists: "Smart", in the sense of an apparatus in our skull that does well on standard IQ tests, has no very interesting correlation with sensibility or imagination. (Or, for that matter, with long-term memory. Consider: The only memory that can be "measured" on an aptitude test is short-term memory.) From which it follows that high scores on such measuring devices guarantee nothing about laudable creativity. Though miserably low scores on all aspects of the test probably entail some grounds for discouragement, scores that are merely unimpressive (or a record that shows you flunked out, or unilaterally quit academia) prove nothing about whether or not you will be a great "creator".   

I say that, though it's an offering that's largely unneeded. At his or her outset, the committed would-be artist usually BELIEVES, and, often rightly, dismisses all ostensible evidence to the contrary as irrelevant. Constant rejection of their efforts will at last persuade some their belief was wrong, and that their stuff is dead on arrival. But there are others who will go to their angry grave convinced a benighted lynch-mob of decision-makers has denied the world a trove of great works.  

* * *

Believing a given stroke is absolutely right or wrong helps many artists; they like a sense of certainty that allows them to move on. But for all practical purposes the only defensible measure of the stroke's worth is its effect on its viewers, and viewers vary. It's the lucky artist whose guide is solely whether or not a stroke pleases him, and there is sufficient audience that responds the way he does.

Many writers, including me, have this as one of the criteria they try to adopt when deciding what to put in and what to leave out: cut anything that harmfully brakes the momentum of the storyline. But "don't harmfully brake" is not identical to the "always advance" fiat. Depending on Mamet's personal and arbitrary stipulative definition of "further the plot", I don't accept his line: "Any spoken line of dialogue that is not written for the express purpose of furthering the plot reduces the quality of the play."

Which is to say the fiat is vacuous because there's no decision-procedure for accepting something as "furthering the plot".  Does the Queen Mab scene in ROMEO AND JULIET advance the plot? "Of course it does!" "No it doesn't!" The presence or absence of plot-advancement is disputed rationally – and inconclusively. The harmful loss of momentum is equally unprovable in absolute terms; however, for a given viewer it's discerned conclusively by sensibility: he feels it.

I could argue that a half-dozen of the most memorable chapters in all the world's novels do nothing to advance the "plot", but we as readers are nevertheless immensely grateful they are where they are. Admittedly, such excursions are harder to justify in theater than in other genres.

* * *

From this, two truths for writers emerge. First, the most useful questions about a specific play-in-preparation come not from academics or writers of general how-to books about the art and craft of the stage. You're supposed to be aware of those general 'the-art-of-war' precepts already. The most pertinent remarks about why this particular first act isn't working come from people in this particular battle's trenches -- the producer, director, or an actor searching for his character. In previous generations, the reactions of out-of-town audiences could be helpful -- provided one was careful: Ask any experienced actor how much audiences can vary from night to night.  

Second, even the trenches-folk can ask the wrong questions. They do it when, though justifiably bothered by a defect in the script, they can't precisely identify it, put their finger on the specific cause of their unease. Confounded, they snatch a damagingly inapt though commonplace question to convey their concern. For a dangerous example consider, "Whose play is it?"

Questions like that are based on suppressed false premises that assume there are "fact of the matter" referents to terms like 'protagonist' and 'whose'. In addition, "Whose play is it?" insinuates that regardless of how many characters the play has, there can be only one character with a story and outcome of crucial concern to the audience. Granted, fictions tend to have dominant characters whose storylines should not be neglected, but no single character "owns" TWELFTH NIGHT. Some plays do indeed have a central character who binds the narrative together and pulls it forward cable-car fashion –- some, but not all.

The playwright's job entails building appetites, expectations, and, one way or another, resolving them. He doesn't always have to satisfy them (e.g. with a happy ending), but he cannot create them and then just ignore them.

I never saw a good multi-character play where I wasn't interested in pondering the later fate of several and sometimes all of the people. If a play's momentum is being harmed by a wandering narrative focus, or a profitlessly detailed or complex (or sparse) style, or an overload of attention-dividing irrelevant vignettes, or a confusingly unbraided story-cable, the critiquer should address those problems specifically. A fuzzily general query is more likely to stall remedy than quicken it.

* * *

Sometimes the best "play doctor" is a great casting director.

* * *

About revising.

The memoirs and biographies of worthy playwrights (and novelists) of the past century reveal how much of their working life is spent on revisions of their works-in-progress. From earlier centuries there's less hard evidence of this trek through draft after draft, but we know it happened (see the Tolstoyan reworking of WAR AND PEACE). 

Very likely, much revising of plays took place back then  – as it does now – during the rehearsal and staging process as the director, actors and playwright judged that something was not optimal. It might be something faulty in the draft, or, trickier but more important, something missing from the draft. It's intriguing to imagine Shakespeare, when he was a performer in his own plays, cutting or adding lines on the spot, or expanding them, or rephrasing them.

I've read many, many first person reports of writers at work. I had to; I produced two volumes on the subject myself. Every one I read was helpful, encouraging, one way or another, if only by reassuring me that even the greatest writers had hours of squinting and staggering through high weeds of words. I seize that realization as my justification for writing the first person confessions in these notes now. Admittedly, the only thing such revelations by great writers show is that staggering doesn't prove you'll never get there; but it doesn't guarantee you're a sure thing either.

This long history of revising implies a humbling truth for the great majority of playwrights: We seldom get things right on first try, or the second, or the third… I do reams of revising on my own as I reread the latest draft of a play. I'll come across a passage, register a palpable flaw for the first time, and bawl. "How could I have missed that!" or "Why didn't I think of THIS here?" (This compulsion to "improve" that many "artists" have is not confined to writers: I've read that Beethoven produced as many as seventy versions of single musical phrase before finally settling on one.)

When I first observed this about myself, I was startled, because I'd always thought of myself as a decently alert fellow. Eventually I realized it's not always a failure of skill, of cold intellect. It's a failure of sensibility's not keeping up with the gestating organism that is the play. The passage may have been serviceable with an earlier phase, but now there's a more developed script, with different elements to be accounted for, tied in, acquitted.

Many playwrights talk about the revision period as the most enjoyable for them, the "fun" part of their job. For me, the commencement of a new revision is not an undiluted pleasure, because of two implications: I have to concede it still isn't right; and it means accepting that the moment when it may be staged is delayed.

But once I'm into the rewrite, I perk up more and more. As I "fix" it, I can believe I am making it better, and that's exhilarating. Even more gratifying is the observation that with each revision there are fewer things that cry out for fixing. Most giddying is the infrequent feeling that even the greats report, a moment when self-condemnation is banished however briefly, because by God this bit, this scene, is what it ought to be. Don't touch it. Don't touch it.

At least, not before next week. There ought to be a statute of limitations, but for playwrights and novelists, there isn't. Even publication does not keep them from tinkering, with the hope the first edition will run out, and they can "correct" the script in the reprint. I have an unreliable recollection of Michael Frayn's saying that every time NOISES OFF is given a revival within his reach, his revises something in the script.

The initial succession of drafts can have the appearance of a pioneer family's album: one can detect a parental resemblance in each new generation of drafts, but as descendant offsprings accumulate, the ancestors in the lineage seem more remote, apparently less complicated, equipped with the essentials for survival on a frontier maybe, but a century from adroit White Way urbanity. All of the plays on this site trudged that developmental road (none longer than FOUR-AND-A-HALF STORYTELLERS, which also went through half a dozen title-changes.).

It's pleasant to believe that each new draft is indeed "better", but, in the not-quite-the-end, I have to agree with Paul Valery's line: "A poem is never finished, only abandoned."

* * *

Playwrights can be showered with dramaturgs' suggestions. There's much to be said about how to profit from, and how to avoid damage from, those advisers. I'll confine myself to one remark:

Above all, the playwright needs to resist cries for script alterations when he discerns his adviser's real reason for balking is that he's never seen anything like this before.

*****

["Beware: Here be philosophy!" The following, final, piece is very long, nerdy, and, for doing most creative work, useless. Much of it originated with notes made in preparation to write a play with a central character who used to be a professional philosopher. Moreunder, for many normal people it is likely to be very tiresome. But for those of us forever engaged with questions about "creation" and creators, it may have moments of interest. -- TM]

THE FOUR STAGES OF A WRITER'S "ACT OF ART".

I recently read this Samuel Johnson remark about Shakespeare: "His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct." Johnson had an insight, but this time it was inchoate, and sharded by several confusions. Still, it gives me the pretext to talk about creative acts, and, glancingly, about that tattered but unbowed notional flag, "art".

To show more clearly how Johnson and others may have gone astray on an aspect of creative work, I need to offer several general assertions. The first amounts to a precarious attempt to parse the "act of art". 

Any "act of art" is an event with four parts or stages.

("Acts of art" can range from envisioning the over-arching structure and effect of a complete work, all the way down to finding a specific bit like "the right word". It's understandable that we refer to the writing of a play -- or novel, movie, poem –- as if it were a single act, one work, as in "a work of art". But it's always a multiplex of countless creative acts. When Shakespeare wrote, "The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets," the single sentence was the result of a number of separate artful inspirations.)

The four stages of a writer's creative act are: 1) a craving for an effect; 2) imagination of the specific material that will produce the effect; 3) conjuring of the words to "express" that material; 4) judgment and selection.

The first stage is a craving for an effect on the sensibility and awareness of anyone viewing the work. This first stage is a "generic" yearning in the sense that the specific events or words that will produce the effect-wanted are not yet identified.

This here-and-now craving that initiates each act of art is distinguished from yet more general "requirements" featured in textbooks and playwriting classes: "The playwright must show early on what's at stake for these characters." "A play is like a living creature; the characters/actors, with their action, dialog and personas, bring it nourishment and energy; but a conflict – a goal-and-obstacle -- is its oxygen; if you don't supply it in the first eight minutes your creature will be dead." "Show, don't tell." "If there's a gun on the wall in the first act, etc.") These general and learnable "rules" allegedly apply to all dramas; they lack the here-and-now aspect of the craving I'm citing. For example, "show, don't tell" is said to apply throughout the play. (Though the way something is told can be its own show.)

It's true that those memorized "rules" can mechanically lead a writer to be aware of generic needs here and there in a story. But it's also true that writers regularly feel cravings for effects that aren't implied by generic dramaturgic requirements.

This is because as the writer proceeds, amassing the details of his story, the characters predicaments and their cravings become more specific, even to the writer. Those cravings – and the audience's needs -- are increasingly more situation-specific. Picture the playwright as the CEO of a new enterprise: his next play. Initially, he may think about the master-effect –-the structure of the storyline, the characters needed, certain big events, the climax and resolution. But as he amasses details, he begins to intuit lower-level demands –- the need for specific onstage actions and utterances that characterize.

CEOs of a growing organization often draw up job-descriptions. Only after seeing clearly what task needs to be done do they feel ready go looking for the person to do it. Think of the effect-wanted as a job description. 

For example, in writing BREAKING THE CODE, Hugh Whitemore wanted to tell the wrenching story of Alan Turing, the brilliant English cryptanalyst and computer scientist, whose revelation that he was gay led to his dismissal and suicide.  Whitemore rightly judged that the impact of the tragedy depended on convincing the audience that Turing had, among other things, a rare and valuable mind. He knew he couldn't just assert that Turing was smart; he needed a scene that displays his ultra-braininess. Whitemore's daring solution was to have Turing come downstage and give a dazzling lecture on cybernetics to a 'class' (i.e. the audience). Whitemore's insight told him that viewers didn't have to follow Turing's lecture; the point, the effect wanted, is to give them the feeling they are in the presence of "genius" –- just as, in GOOD WILL HUNTING or SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, that effect is achieved even though the audience can't understand either the problems or the answers the young heroes come up with.

In AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, the screenwriter Douglas Stewart knew he needed to convey early on that Zack had occasion to learn martial arts, but he didn't want to do it so obviously that everyone realizes it's a set up. Stewart solved those two generic needs by showing Zack as a boy in the Philippines being mugged by other boys who employ the "oriental arts". As we watch the early scene we think we are simply being shown what a difficult childhood Zack had. By the time the adult Zack, challenged by a bully, reacts with devastating karate, it's credible because we recall the childhood scene. In GOOD WILL HUNTING, the creators decided they had to establish Will's amazing intellect right at the outset, and then quickly provide a scene showing how his inner rage and outer pugnacity keep him from benefitting from his brain.

There are two different sorts of intuition here. There's an intuition of an effect wanted (in Will's case, two effects), and then specific inspirations about how to achieve them.  

(These cravings of an effect wanted are usually the writer's sensing of an appetite or demand in the audience -- or in the writer himself. But a comparable intuition is a writer's sensing something different from a conscious yearning in the audience. Call it an unconscious READINESS in those viewers, an opportunity for a winning surprise. )

The knowledge and fulfillment of very general, "textbook" requirements in drama is what I'd guess Johnson had in mind when he wrote that Shakespeare's tragedy is "skill".

Johnson's underlying thought here seems to be this: Comic bits don't require "thinking", they "just come to" certain people, the way music -- in the broadest sense -- just comes to gifted composers; in contrast, each utterance or action in a "serious work" has to be "figured out", using a learned skill. "Shakespeare sure studied his Aristotle."

By relegating to the level of mere learnable skill a writer's gift for conceiving desirable generic dramatic effects, Johnson underestimated such inspirations. Often this intuition of a situational effect wanted can be as artful as any "instinctive" bit in a comedy. In fact, I'd guess the question, "What made him think of it?" may arise in experienced theater savants more when watching dramas than comedies.

The savant's question "What made him think of it?" is often not limited to the specific action and dialog in a scene; instead, it can be stirred by the savant's awe that the writer's ingenuity told him such a scene would be useful at all. Shakespeare did it repeatedly. Miller did it in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Kushner did it in ANGELS IN AMERICA. Theater can be at its most theatrical when it glides momentarily into surreal memories, imaginings, hallucinations.

When Shakespeare wanted his next line to convey the eerie feel of disastrous Rome, that was both a specific and a generic choice. Only thereafter did his ultra-gifted mind conjure the specific images and sounds, and, only after that, those particular notion-stirring words – 'tenantless', 'sheeted', 'squeak and gibber'. 

Great fiction-editors and great directors come to their jobs with knowledge of the "textbook", but their greater gift is a good and confident sensibility, one that allows them to say –- no matter what "rule" a passage seems to ignore -- "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The valuable director then brings to bear an imagination devoted to helping a scene achieve its intended effect. (If the director, guided by his sensibility, not a "rule" book, feels the writer should want to achieve a different effect at a given moment, he'll try to make his case to the "creator".)

The three intuitions – first, of the generic effect-wanted right here, then of "material" that will produce it, and then of the seemingly apt words -- are three separate actions in the mind of the writer. Sensibility is at work throughout, but in the fourth stage sensibility rules: It judges –- and selects or rejects the imagination's offerings.

For some writers, the narrative seems to flow out of their hands with such easeful speed they’re unaware of any premeditation in what they do. They imagine a desirable effect in this next scene, and the apt actions come to them with their next breath.  In particular does satisfying the third craving -– finding the words -- appear to be instantaneous. So quickly do the words come, the illusion of many writers is that they think in words.

In fact, though, the cravings – for a whole effect-producing scene, or for a specific word  -- can last for an imperceptibly small fraction of a second, or for weeks. Sometimes it’s satisfied so quickly that the mind can’t distinguish between the notion and the word the notion coaxes up -- as, for example, when we are talking.  We want to refer to a certain feline that we see in our mind's eye, and the word 'tiger' arises, seemingly simultaneously. But notion – including images – always, always, precedes the retrieval of a long-associated word.

The majority of writers talk of the frequent time-consuming struggle, first to find the images and actions – and, second, to find the words to "express" them, i.e. to produce the effect they want.

That the notion always precedes the word in the writer is demonstrated more vividly by examples where we obviously have the image/notion/effect in mind before we have the word that will occasion that notion in someone else's mind: "Gretchen's smile – what's it feel like, what's the adjective? 'Cold'. No. 'Gelid'. No. 'Reptilian!' Yes!" "What's the name of the actress in 'Jules and Jim'? I can see her face in my mind's eye." My guess is Faulkner, in describing the stout and aged Dilsey, "descending the stairs with a sort of painful and terrific slowness", saw Dilsey in his mind's eye for some time before summoning up that inspired phrase 'terrific slowness'.  

In sum, as we write we judge the word or phrase the mind is offering by whether or not we feel the word does the job. What job? This: Does it when heard (or read) occasion in the audience-mind (or, at least, in some of them) the notion we have in mind as we write? How could we ever do this if we do not already have a notion in mind? (In rare, startling events the word can be the guide, not the follower. Many great writers, particularly poets, have not been ashamed to reveal they use the thesaurus. They have a word in mind, but it isn't quite satisfying. The index leads them to the multiplex entry for that word, and, to the writer's delight, he comes across a related but different word that "feels" better, as it evokes a slightly altered notion in his own mind. The word improves his original thought.)

A footnote about the third stage –- finding the optimal words to express the ingredient: T.S. Eliot, in his theory of the "objective correlative", overlooked this stage. He called for "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events" that are the "formula" for the emotion he wants to stir. But he apparently failed to appreciate that the objects aren't the "formula" that readers encounter on the page; they encounter words.  A layman and a good writer may both bend themselves to describing the same hurricane, or battle, or a certain slant of light on winter afternoons, but the good writer will do it brilliantly while the layman is dumbfounded.

Johnson also made a mistake about comedy that's almost the reverse of his mistake about tragedy. His apparent assumption that there is no "thinking" prior to a comic intuition was wrong. The wittiest person in the room is often not the one commonly agreed to be the most "intelligent".  But the put-down is wrong; he is very smart at a certain kind of intellection. There are many varieties of intellect in us humans.

I've been in gatherings where situational moments arose that everyone sensed harbored a funny line like a coin at the bottom of a swimming pool. While the "brainier" guys were still dog-paddling toward the ripples, the non-nerd would pop to the surface with the precise witty articulation the rest sought.

Quick wits are simply faster than the others at finding the funny. We tend to rank "thinking" over "mere instinct" -- which we assume "any idiot" might have, but we should accept that "being funny", like drama, requires cerebration about the effect, directed by a keen humor-compass. It selects the pertinent elements, sequences them to maximum effect, and finds the right words or actions. It's a cerebral gift of a complexity Johnson didn't grasp when he called it "instinct". 'Instinct' tends to be a word summoned up by people when they have no other idea of how to "explain" a purposive act.

To rephrase the four stages: The first stage says, "I want this effect." It's always general, like "Right here she has to look smart! Be funny! Show contrition!"

The second stage is imagination's coming up with suggestions of specific events or other ingredients it says will do the trick: "Jenny sells her ring so she can give Celia the money for the trip." 

The third stage is finding the words.

The fourth stage is sensibility's tasting imagination's offering intended to achieve the effect, and passing judgment: "Yes, that scene would do it," and "Yes, those words will do it," or, "No, that’s not the right adjective. Try again."

Samuel Johnson's error was distantly akin to assuming a sculptor's "skill" at shaping marble is identical with a gift for envisioning what to shape it into. In book publishing there is a kind of manuscript-submission often referred to as an "editor's novel". They are regularly written by editors, professors, and Nobel Prize winners in science. They are like landscapes designed flawlessly, but with no living thing in sight; all the elements are as unconvincing as painting-by-numbers.

None of this is meant to deny that many artists from many genres have been originally spurred by a single vivid image that arrives seemingly mid-creative-stride. A writer may observe a fleeting moment on a ship, say, with a handsome young couple alone at the railing; he is peering glumly at the horizon to his left; she is gazing with equal forlornness at his back. She is talking to him, too softly for the writer to hear. Abruptly, the man moves off to his left – limping badly. After a beat, the woman goes to her right – also limping. The tableau burns into the writer's mind like an indelible film-clip. His mind is heaving. There's a story here. He will write it. Like Henry James, he wants no further facts from them. He will imagine better ones.  He's been given stage #2: the "material". But its effect will be a function of earlier doings; those doings will prompt a hope/dread/need that will make the snapshot be the right material, the right stage #2. He is happy to have to conjure these things. And then to find the "expressing" words.  

In sum, the storyteller has to "imagine" more than just vivid characters, utterances, and events. Before all, though, the writer has to bring to the task the gift of sensibility. Far more people have a fecund imagination than have a worthy sensibility. In an adult, the lack of apt sensibility is incurable. It cannot be taught.

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