Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"A Writer - But Not This One - Speaks"

One of the great joys of life is to walk into a bookstore and hear a volume on the shelf calling your name. 

I found an anthology of plays be Herb Gardner.  Herb Gardner, among other plays, wrote “A Thousand Clowns”, which I saw on Broadway when I seventeen, and it showed me that a comedy could be smart and funny and insightful and about something that matters.  That experience planted a seed that maybe I could do something like that.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

The following is Gardner’s introduction to the anthology.  Allow this to pour over you.  Gardner has a resonating writer’s voice.  And I thought it was worth passing along.

NOTE:  Gardner writes in huge, overstuffed paragraphs.  The only thing I changed was I broke them up, so they’d be easier to look at. 

And now, ladies and gentlemen – Mr. Herb Gardner.

In this dream I always have I am sitting on the stage of the old Morosco Theatre wearing a tuxedo, writing the third act of a play.  Unfortunately, it is the opening night of the play I’m writing, and the opening night audience is filing into the theatre. 

They come down the aisles and take their seats; I hear the familiar and expectant buzz of well-wishers and killers.  I scratch away with dried-out felt-tipped pen on loose-leaf paper on a trembling card table, around me the crisp opening night air of Bar Mitzvah and execution.

I wave to them.  I offer a comforting smile.  I am cordial; they are restless.  I keep writing.  I hold my free hand up from time to time as though to say, “please wait, I’ll be ready soon.” 

The stage is littered with props, parts of costumes and pieces of sets.  I look around for clues; there is a trampoline and a piece of a train, the outside motor of a forties icebox is strangely new and polished, a school desk, and a U-Boat periscope, an abandoned sneaker lies on a witness stand, a five-string banjo and a Dodgers’ cap, a battered phone booth; twenty-two clocks, all of them with a different time and all of them wrong, a straw hat, a derby, a steel safe with a doily and a bowl of flowers on it, the cabin of a ferris wheel, a rotting B.L.T. and a rocking chair.  The objects stand in the same order, ready for use.

As always, I’m sure there is a pattern to this debris, and as always I don’t know what it is. 

In the wings an ancient stage hand sits with half a pastrami sandwich, dozing; he awakens briefly, smiles at me, offers a wink of recognition and whispers the word “schmuck.”  He is my muse.  He whispers the word again; I tell him that I am a playwright.  There is always a confusion between us on this issue. 

Actors and actresses of various ages and in various shapes and sizes wait in positions around the stage, in doorways, at the top of stairways, one is behind the wheel of a taxi and another is mumbling under a trapdoor at my feet.  “Please wait,” I say, “I’ll be ready soon.”

In the back of the theatre a white-haired man is speaking calmly into a walkie-talkie, arranging a lawsuit.  He is the producer.  “Please wait,” I shout to him, “I’ll be ready soon.”

I hold onto the card table and we shake together.  I look down at the manuscript; it is entitled “Please Wait.”  I feel a strange mixture of terror and comfort, I am in that familiar, anxious place: a theatre. 

I am where I have always wanted to be, wondering what I will do there.  A barefoot tap dancer with marvelous plans, a hopeful amnesiac waiting to remember. 

The conspiracy is clear and the dream is complete; the players, the playgoers and the playwright for the play.   

The editor of this volume, a hopeful and kindly fellow, has been waiting for this introduction for two months.  I have offered him a series of deadlines, lies, promises and apologies which we have both decided to believe.

How can I explain that I write plays, that I speak in the voices of other people because I don’t know my own; that I write in the second person because I don’t know the first; that I have been writing plays most of my adult life waiting to become both an adult and a playwright, and that it takes me so many years to write anything that I am forced to refer to myself during these periods as a playwrote. 

I have tried to write this introduction at desks, in taxis, on long plane rides; I have worked on it at thirty-thousand feet and in bathtubs; I have spoken it into tape-recorders and the ears of friends and loved ones.  There are several problems; I can’t seem to invent the character who says the lines; I am writing words that won’t be spoken aloud and in a strange language, English – my first, last and only language; and, most importantly, I cannot offer an explanation for why I wrote these plays, because there are none.

Playwriting is an irrational act.  It is the Las Vegas of art forms, and the odds are terrible.  A curious trade in which optimism, like any three year-old’s, is based on a lack of information, and integrity is based on the fact that by the time you decide to sell your soul no devil is interested.

Your days are spent making up things that no one ever said to be spoken by people who do not exist for an audience that may not come.  The most personal thoughts, arrived at in terrible privacy, are interpreted by strangers for a group of other strangers. 

The fear that no one will put your plays on is quickly replaced by the fear that someone will.  It’s hard to live with yourself and even harder for people to live with you; how do you ask a Kamikaze Pilot if his work is going well? 

The word “playwright” looks terrible on passports, leases, and credit applications; and even worse in newspaper articles alternately titled “Where Did These Playwrights Go?” and “Why Don’t These Playwrights Go Away?,” usually appearing in what the New York Times whimsically refers to as the Leisure Section. 

The most difficult problem, of course, is that I love it.

God help me, I love it.  Because it’s alive.  And because the theatre is alive, exactly what is terrible is wonderful, the gamble, the odds.  There is no ceiling on the night and no floor either; there is a chance each time the curtain goes up of glory and disaster, the actors and the audience will take each other somewhere, neither knows where for sure.  Alive, one time only, that night.  It’s alive, has been alive for a few thousand years, and is alive tonight, this afternoon.

An audience knows it’s the last place they can still be heard, they know the actors can hear them, they make a difference; it’s not a movie projector and they are not at home with talking furniture, it’s custom work.

Why do playwrights, why do we outsiders and oddballs who so fear misunderstanding use a medium where we are most likely to be misunderstood? 

Because when this most private of enterprises goes public, and is responded to, we are not alone. 

Home is where you can tell your secrets.  In a theatre, the ones in the dark and the ones under the lights need each other.  For a few hours all of us, the audience, the actors, the writer, we are all a little more real together than we ever were apart.  That’s the ticket; and that’s what the ticket’s for.

Some words of advice about reading these plays.  Sometimes I’m out in the street and I think of a character or a scene; on the way upstairs to my desk I lose fifty percent.  While translating these captionless pictures into intelligible language I lose another twenty-five.  A good actor can put back the seventy-five percent I lost on the way to my desk.  So I ask you, for whatever might be good in these plays, read them like good actors; because a play on paper is only a code book, signals, notes for emotions, vague road maps for countries in constant border dispute, and nothing without you. 

Also, of course, none of these plays is finished; but please wait, I’ll be ready soon. 

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