Monday, November 24, 2008

Kerr - On Tuning a Play Out

The most earnest exhortation, repeated often enough, becomes as pat as a television commercial. After a while, because I know everything the man is going to say and even the tone of voice in which he is going to say it, I will very likely dial him out. This does not necessarily indicate a lack of sympathy, or a disagreement about social aims, on my part. On the contrary, it is possible that I have reached a state of almost total agreement with the playwright, that we have achieved a meeting of the minds so absolute as to induce a kind of conversational paralysis. I can anticipate every argument, every illustration, every conclusion he is prepared to offer (I am confident he is not going to come out in favor of lynching) and if I am ever going to be honest about it, I must admit that the good fellow bores me. He is on the side of the angels; so am I. He is going to develop his argument along certain lines; I know them. He is going to complete his charge to the jury in a burst of warm rhetoric; I can recite it in my sleep. I am all for him you understand. But we are such old hands at this game, the playwright and I, that, hearing he has brought off yet another new "challenge," I can send a check off to my favorite charity and stay home in perfect complacence.

I have seen this man's play perhaps a thousand times. And however much I may admire its integrity, its candor, and its passionate purposefulness, I don't really want to see it again. The meaning is familiar, the method is transparent. A play that I can anticipate in very mechanical detail is a play which no longer shocks surprises or delights me.

A few years ago my wife was having her hair done by a gentleman barber who had exhibited some interest in the theater. A new Lillian Hellman play,
Montserrat was due to open the following Monday, and my wife asked if he were going. He didn't say he wasn't. He simply lifted his eyes heavenward, raised one shoulder and murmured in weary pain, "Insurrections in Bolivia?"

A short descriptive phrase in the advanced publicity had made it perfectly clear to him that his presence was not required.

-Walter Kerr, How Not to Write Play

Kerr was writing this in the 50's

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