I’ve been trying to learn to write plays. It’s a craft, I know, not only an art. I’ve heard it said by someone in the theater that writing a play is like plumbing. I understood her to mean that things have to be connected up right or you have a spontaneous overflow of something you don’t want on your floor.
There’s a joke about someone who tried to fix a plumbing problem himself with ugly results, then gave up and called a plumber. The plumber came, heard the problem, went into the cellar, banged on a pipe, and presented a bill for two hundred dollars. The customer was outraged: “Two hundred dollars for banging on a pipe!” The plumber said, “Two dollars for banging on the pipe. A hundred ninety-eight dollars for knowing what pipe to bang on.”
As I watch plays nowadays, or on the way home if I’m really caught up by the play, I try to figure out where the elbows and valves are, where to bang. I saw my friend Tim at a performance of an August Wilson play. He’s an aspiring playwright too—a promising one. After the play Tim said, “How did he DO that?”
Recently I went to a reading of poetry and prose by Harold Pinter, playwright and screenwriter, winner of the Nobel prize, with a style so distinctive that the word “Pinteresque” was coined. One of the characteristics of his plays is that things aren’t all filled in, explained, the dots connected. And another is that the language is all. Pinteresque. At the reading I saw another friend, Jay Carson, who’s a poet. I said to Jay that I hadn’t known that Pinter wrote poetry but it made sense. “All great playwrights are poets,” Jay said. I just read an interview with Tony Kushner in which he says he’s not a poet. Maybe he’s an exception.
William Butler Yeats was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, opened in 1904 and still in existence. He spent a good deal of time and energy writing plays and, I suppose, in theater business, and complained about it: “The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins…My curse on plays /That have to be set up in fifty ways…”
I haven’t been writing much poetry lately.