Pragmatic Theater

The following is based on a speech given at the New York Public Library earlier this year.

I am speaking here under the rubric “Technique and Interpretation in the Performing Arts,” and if there were ever a title dreamed up to strike me dumb, this one verges on inspiration. It is not that I have any difficulty with the idea of technique. I can see as clearly as anybody that the notion of technique in, say, rock climbing is immediately intelligible. But your actual rock climber, as opposed to a critic of rock climbing, would probably describe what he does as climbing up rocks in the way that seems to make the best sense if you don’t want to fall off the rock, and as your actual playwright, rather than a lecturer, I would say that the theater seems to me, on the whole, to be a way of telling stories which are acted out for an audience and which mean pretty much what the audience thinks they mean.

In a while I’ll probably drop this faux naif persona. I’m not even sure myself to what degree it’s a posture. But I don’t think of myself as employing a technique distinguishable from common sense and a common understanding of storytelling. The rest is the hard part.

The idea of interpretation is intelligible, also. But we speak of actors interpreting roles, or directors interpreting authors. I don’t think writers are interpretative artists. Recently I was served up as the lunch break at an acting school and the opening question, from a student, was: What was the first thing I expected from an actor in my plays? My answer, “clarity of utterance,” got a laugh, a nervous laugh in which I detected reproach. An actor’s head is full of subtle and complex objectives, all in the service of the character, and clarity of utterance may seem the least of these—a given, in fact—but it really is the first thing I ask for, and, here and there, the last thing I get. I mean that literally: when the show is ready to go—chock-a-block with technique and interpretation, the final light cues, costume details, and sound effects in the last stages of refinement—authors like myself find themselves begging individual actors to look after this consonant or that vowel. The word “if” at the beginning of a sentence is a favorite for neglect. By the time a play opens I always know how many sentences it contains starting with “if,” because they’re all in my notebook.

There’s a man on the stage and a woman on the stage. The man says, “Would you care for a drink?” The woman says, “Yes, I think I might. I’ll have a whisky and soda.”

This mildly uninteresting exchange becomes more interesting, more dramatic, depending on the information we have. It’s more interesting if she’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s more interesting if we know the man to be a successful poisoner; most interesting of all,…

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