Monday, March 1, 2010

Whipper-Snappers and Alterkockers

Over at Isaac's, I covered some of the Prof's posts on the audiences we're writing for. I think they're mainly great and really worth reading, so, you know, RTWT. Twice.

I do, though, have more than a bit of a quibble with this bit, that I quoted at Parabasis:
This, by the way, is the type of thing that youthful playwrights cannot write about empathically, having never experienced it. The young are still thrashing around with possibilities, while we are searching for meaning in what we've done and seeking the new thing that will enhance that meaning. Had Arthur Miller written Death of a Salesman at 54 instead of 34, there would have been a lot more sympathy for Willy and a lot less for Biff, I suspect. Salesman is a young man's play. Instead, at 49 Miller wrote After the Fall, a play that looks inward at his life. It is a middle-aged play.
Emphasis added.

Harrumph. I don't want to get my dander up here, but, as a young playwright, I kind of take exception. They're not exactly fighting words...but they're close.

Now, let me say this: I completely understand what's he's talking about, in a large sense. I've been a young playwright, worked with young playwrights and, as hard as I've tried, I've fallen into the traps of A) using easy stereotypes to describe older characters and B) writing plays about the trials and tribulations of youth as though they were the most important things in the world. There is a maturation process that happens, a perspective that you gain. When you're 19, in college, and in love, it seems like a break-up is the most important thing to ever happen in the history of the world. I brought an early play of mine into a writers' group once, one of those plays about a young couple breaking up, full of histrionics and whatnot. And a guy, about my age now, told me, not unkindly, that the writing was fine and all, but...who really cares? A couple of twenty-somethings breaking up? Not the end of the world. That was a lesson I took to heart.

But one I keep learning. Just last week, I brought a full-length play about an older, more middle-aged couple into a different writers' group, one composed almost entirely of writers older than I am. The play read well, but, near the end, I got dinged again. I described one of the leads as "looking good for her age" in the stage directions, which, to someone who was actually the age the character is supposed to be, was a red flag.

I am a young-ish playwright, a couple of years older than Miller when he wrote Death of A Saleman actually. No, I haven't felt real middle-aged malaise and questioning. I know that. But I can't describe it? I can't empathize? That undercuts the entire nature of art, the entire endeavor of making plays. I have parents, older friends and relatives. I listen to how they speak, watch how they move and act, hear their voices, their rhythms and I try to capture that. If was stuck only writing about things that I myself had personally experienced, yeah, I'd just be writing about a bunch of thirtysomethings who are still figuring out their lives. There's room for that, to be sure, but the real great stuff means reaching out to tell a wider story. To connect to something bigger than myself, something more. That's the whole point of imagination. To look at someone else's life and put myself in their shoes.

Plus, since theatre is a collaborative art, we get a bonus: when I finish my play, I cast an actor who is the right age and they say the words and they tell me what I get right, what I get wrong and I change it. It's a beautiful process.

I think that process gets short-changed. And I think that our field's emphasis on the playwright as the sole voice and the way we push people to only "write what they know" in the most limited senses do drive our plays away from an expansive vision and into the narrowest of focuses. But it is possible and can and should be done and encouraged.

On the Death of A Salesman tip...dude. The play's about Willy Loman. He doesn't necessarily come off as the hero, but it's his play. I don't think that Miller's sympathy lies with Biff; it's Willy's tragedy. Arthur Miller may be Biff, and certainly gave him some great scenes and moments, but it's Willy's play. It's not the play of a middle-aged man, sure. But that doesn't mean he didn't understand the middle-aged man in it.

And, for my money, I agree with Paul in the comments: I prefer The Price over After The Fall when it comes to Arthur Miller writing about the concerns of middle age. But then again, what do I know? I'm just a kid.


Scott Walters said...

I didn't mean to imply that you couldn't empathize, or that you should stick to writing only characters your age or younger. What I mean is that there is a difference between actually having felt something yourself, and having imagined it or even observed it. It is a different thing. If you compare the plays great playwrights wrote early in their career and late, they are very different. "Touch of the Poet" and "Iceman Cometh" are very different from "Beyond the Horizon" and "Hairy Ape"; "King Lear" could only have been written by an older man, in the same way that "Romeo and Juliet" is a young man's play. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and not meant to be a slam on young playwrights. Just an acknowledgment that there is a lot more at stake when there is a huge drop-off in theatre artists at age 35 than just economics. A certain world experience is lost.

And the fact is that Death of a Salesman is a better play than either The Price or After the Fall. But it is also a different play. And while Salesman is about Willy, the moral center of the play is Biff -- he has the last word on what is worth living, and where Willy made his mistake. "He didn't know who he was," pronounced by Biff at the funeral, is true enough, but also is a young man's judgment about things he can't really understand. He is on safer ground when he begs to be released from Willy's dream "before somebody gets hurt" -- that is a young man's experience of the pain of having someone else's dream projected onto him.

99 said...

I'm glad to hear it, just to be clear. And I certainly agree with you: there are plays that could only be written after a certain age, or, really, after certain life events. And there are many plays that are the province of the young.

I see your point on Death and Willy and Biff. But, to Miller's credit, I think he understands that he doesn't really understand. Which is the mark of a great artist.

Scott Walters said...

I totally agree.

99 said...

What? A comment thread that moves to agreement? Heavens to Betsy, even!

Sean said...

Just to support something that Scott touched on in his first comment. As I've gotten older, I've found that it's much harder for me to conjure the feelings I had when I was a young man. While I feel like I understand more and have certainly matured enormously, there is an intensity and a sure-footedness that comes with youthful ignorance that I've lost.

While it's true that an older person knows themselves better, and has a more ambivalent view of the world, he or she really does lose the ability to think and act like a young person. This is why it's often such a mistake to cast very young looking 25 year olds as 15 year olds, they don't walk the same, they don't hold themselves the same, they don't remember what it was to be 15.

At this point, I barely remember what it was like to be 30, and I'm not quite 40, so maybe it's my own lack of imagination. But as much as I hate talking about politics or religion with someone who's 23, I'm often thrilled at their boldness when it comes to storytelling. I'm just saying, the changes that come with age are also, partially, losses.