ESSAYS & RANTS
by Edward Crosby Wells
There are some words and phrases in the English language that I hate--not dislike, but hate, hate, hate! The kind of hate that tempts me to fly over the check out counter and strangle the clerk when I hear "no problem" in response to my saying, with genuine sincerity, "Thank you." No problem? Was there a problem? Is there a "thank you" that could be construed as a "problem?" I hate "no problem."
Then there is the killer word, "whatever." There are so many attitudes that come with that word and none of them are good. Indifference, resignation, extreme dislike and do the damn thing yourself are but a few of the meanings of "whatever." And, let us not go near "whatevah." That's an attitude best left to its own devices.
"Have a nice day" is another, but just to rant about it would be cliche, so I'll leave it alone. The above are but gad flies when compared to the systemic and puzzling his/her conundrum that began with Adam and Eve--if we assume Adam and Eve spoke anything. From where would they have learned? Be that a puzzle for another time.
In the olden days of the mid-twentieth century few found anything sexist about the use of he, his or man in its universal sense. In Fact, I was well into my twenties before ever being confronted with the word "sexist." That word has put the fear of God or Goddess in many of us. However, I suspect many who have grown up post-1960 with the word are too young to remember not only the innocence behind our use of he, his or Man--but the reverence we felt for the Brotherhood of Mankind could be seen as a sexist thought nowadays, but then the Humanhood of Humankind doesn't even get past my spellchecker. It has been brought to my attention that to be truly non-sexist one must no longer use he/she in the sentence construct. It is a revelation and a long-in-coming correction of years of misuse that the use of them, they, and their are the more preferable if one is to avoid the problem altogether.
The use of he or she and they or them has become maddening for this writer. They, their and them are by all accounts, plural. So, why do we use them as euphemisms for something singular? He/she and she/he are obvious compromises (rather too obvious if you ask me) and only point out ones fear for being sexist. I doubt it has much to do with respect since to be so acutely aware of not offending, signals something yet more offensive lurking just below the surface. For example: What missing leg? Dear me, I never noticed. You're a woman? I never saw you as being any different from a man, honest! Black? Really? I never noticed and I don't look for differences like that! Not me, I believe in equality.
Even the English language has lost its innocence--and our innocence with it.
I am far from any kind of grammarian (as I tend to feel my way about and play it by ear). However, this has always bothered me about the English language: The English language has never had, to my knowledge, a gender-neutral singular pronoun. The language is flawed and it is up to somebody to fix it, be it he, she, it, them or they. Therefore, allow me to make a modest proposal. May I suggest that in place of the gender-neutral plural pronouns we substitute them with the singular, all-encompassing "shite."
Shite has all the compromise one could possibly imagine; he, she and it are all contained within the word: S-H-I-T-E. Awkward sentences will be a thing of the past. Shitekind pretty much says it all. One simple word will change the thinking of generations and generations of shite to come (in that case, shite is plural). It could well be the long-missing link in the English lexicon. Let's hear it for shite, everywhere! Little shite, big shite, shite of either sex, shite of all ages! That should solve the entire dilemma we all have had to deal with from day to day.
However, one problem remains: The problem with how to speak the language to celebrate and to respect our differences--to use the English language for the good of all Shitekind. Alas, that remains for some other forward-thinking visionary.
As for me, whatever, no problem.
--ECW. March 2009, Denver
As usual, being the mentally challenged person I am, I must rely on the kindness of the Muses to help me understand, however vaguely, the simplest of abstractions.
Luckily, my Muse popped in over coffee this morning while, in my bathrobe, I was watching last night's Rachael Maddow show on the DVR. I started to fume over the whole AIG affair and all the other "bailouts" spreading like the scent of bad gas in its efforts to save our moribund economy. "When will it end?" thought I questionably. When it has reached two, maybe three trillion thrown at the big mucka-muckas while we're down here on the ground living from hand to mouth, month to month, week to week and, some of us, day to day? When will it all end!? Suddenly, my Muse exclaimed, "Edd, I've got it!"
"Got what?" asked I.
"The answer to solve the financial wows of America, maybe the world," said she or maybe he. I never really felt around my Muse's private parts and since the voice is in my head, who can tell?
I was quivering with anticipation, quaking with expectation and jaw-dropping eagerness to hear the inspired solution. I was simultaneously mopping up the coffee that sprang from my mouth and onto my bathrobe from the jaw-dropping.
The answer sprang forth from her fountain of Reason and sounded something like this: Give three trillion to We the People; not the measly three or six hundred dollars that was tried in the past, but a minimum of ten thou per. Ten thou times three hundred million equals three trillion in total bailout. When you figure in the cost of war and all the bailouts it's a modest sum to make real change. Then We the People could spend it or invest it in any way that strikes our fancy. That ought to pump up the economy almost over night. We the People would become the beneficiary of that which we have supported. And what we don't spend our money on is quite obviously of no use and ought to fail.
The gasbag of a devil within pontificated, making a nauseating stink like a flatulent social conservative when he exploded with, "That's Socialism!"
"So? What's the problem?" quizzed I.
--ECW. March 2009, Denver
The art of combining sounds of varying pitch to produce compositions which divert us with their harmonious and pleasing sound is not, of necessity, restricted solely to a collection of notes arranged to make music in its literal sense, but may also be found in the words combined and laid out in sentences of rhetorical consequence by masters skilled in the craft of literary composition. These masters of the language of literature, noble sages of the written word, combine with artistic fervor their thoughts and ideas, observations and insights, recollections and meditations upon the printed page with unrestrained vigor while meticulously formed to create its own musicality: A musicality both melodic and mindfully understood as a direct attempt at communication; an attempt to impart a most subtle kind of information to the attentive reader from an author who, through words alone, aspires to construct a bridge where upon may cross a meaningful message, a mysterious missive, from another time and space, not strictly to entertain, but to introduce the initiate to a quality beyond poetry or the prose of information directly imparted. It is a musicality designed to free the spirit and to help make possible an understanding between the listener and ones, too often unheard, Self.
Through the music of words one may see beauty defined. Through the music of words one may come to know a private truth. Through the music of words one may slip into sublimity. Through the music of words one may come to know a presence as real as the blood pumping through ones veins while remaining unmoved in an armchair believing oneself alone. Through the music of words one may find oneself in a loving embrace as one moves with unseen grace across the printed page with a partner invisible and yet not without substance.
Through the music of words we dance.
ON THE ART OF PLAYWRITING
A while ago I was asked what was the best book for someone thinking about trying their hand at playwriting. I had no idea. The following was my response.
There is absolutely no book I could recommend on "how to write a play" since I do not believe in an academic approach to playwriting. In fact, I'm rather hostile to the idea of approaching any Art academically. If it is your fate, it is all there inside you waiting for the passion to release it -- the inspiration, the talent, the desire to channel your Muse. One can unfold those petals into the playwright's mindset by reading the plays of the best of us.
We learn very little in this life from those outside ourselves other than statistical facts, an astonishing assertion, but one in which I believe. Those outside ourselves confirm what we already know. I also believe that when we hear that bell ringing confirmation, we learn from within. Everyone who has ever touched me within has influenced my work.
Read lots and lots and lots of plays until you discover the technique of what holds them together, what makes them work, how a character is developed from the inside out, how to hear the truth and the singularity of each character's voice. Most importantly, after you have read those lots and lots and lots of plays, forget about them! Find your own voice. Write what you would like to see, what you would pay to see. Listen to the rhythm and the underlying subtext of the words of those with whom you come into contact, and also those you overhear and are not a party to.
When you begin to write, listen very carefully as your characters develop. Do not gloss over any false notes or doubts you may feel. Rethink and rethink until it seems natural to your ear. Allow the characters to grow and inhabit your story. Often they will guide you through the maze of your story with twists and turns you hadn't foreseen, thus going a long way to eliminate the "predictable" factor. Don't force words or ideas into their mouths! Don't speak for them, push them or get in their way. Trust them. Trust your own sense of honesty.
Now begin. Begin with a steady diet of play reading. Again, read lots and lots and lots of plays. Soon you'll instinctively be driven to the plays and the playwrights that will speak to you deeply and inspire and touch and spark the fuel with which we create -- passion.
A Personal Journey
Recently I was asked why I had an aversion to open readings, workshopping and undergoing the developmental process that has served American Theatre so well for decades. After some thought, it occurred to me that formalized play development may have served American Theatre well, but certainly not this playwright. The undeniable truth is: This playwright has parchment-thin skin and needed to find another way to approach the developmental process. It would need to be internal.
Firstly, I would never presume to assert that my way of thinking in regards to anything in this rant is the right way of thinking. I only know what works for me—me and me alone. As a playwright I have found that structured play development and workshopping goes against my general good feelings. To object to anything in this rant would be tantamount to objecting to my nature. I’m dwelling, but I don’t know how to make this more clearly: This is my personal journey and should not in any way be confused with “advice.”
I do not gladly suffer open readings of my work where feedback is invited by the general public. These are quite dreadful affairs, in which casual spectators and weekend scriveners participate, yet aren’t invested enough to deserve any say-so. By that I mean: Financial or personal stake one entity has in an asset, security, or transaction, or an interest in which there is a fixed right to present or future enjoyment and that can be conveyed to another. I do no less than a dozen rewrites (or tweakings), most often more, before deciding the piece is finished—‘though it is never finished, really.
My first play, Flowers Out Of Season, underwent extensive workshopping at the now defunct Circle Repertory Company in NYC. The process was in several steps over a two year period. At first there was a reading of the script attended by the actors and playwrights associated with the Rep. I could not attend that one, so an audio recording along with pages of notes were mailed to me. I took every word to heart. Remember, this was my first play. So, I rewrote to please and re-submitted the script.
Nearly a year later I was invited to attend a workshop to work on my play for possible inclusion in the following season. Paul Zindel would also be attending to workshop his new play, Amulets Against the Dragon Forces. There was only one spot open in the next season. You can well imagine my excitement and my dread. He was Paul Zindel, author of one of the most beautiful plays in American Theatre and I wasn’t even Edward Crosby Wells yet—just Edd Wells. I had recently directed that beautiful play in a community theatre in southern New Mexico, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. I knew I didn’t have a chance of obtaining that slot, but when all else fails Hope remains. My play underwent many more changes, had a staged reading and caused somewhat of a riot. Half loved it and half, it seemed, hated it vehemently—and me along with it. After I was convinced that it was no good or, at best, of little consequence I returned home with tail between legs, as it were, and a very different script. Months later I learned that the open spot was filled by Paul Zindel. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. Marigolds is just so damn personal and beautiful. I could not help but respect its author.
Fast forward twenty years. Flowers opened in Chicago and during the dreaded talkback after the show, I was asked about what I was thinking during the writing process. I said something stupid like, “I don’t remember. It felt like I was channeling it.” Well, I wasn’t channeling it and the reason I didn’t remember hit me in the face like that proverbial ton of bricks. It wasn’t my play. It was created by others because I did not trust my instincts.
I, most generally, approach the play script as dramatic literature first and then as a performance piece—contrary to popular dramaturgical thinking and to the majority (if not all) of contemporary playwrights.
About a dozen years ago I had several plays published and licensed through a company in Dallas. When they went bankrupt and the rights returned to me, you cannot imagine how happy I was. I could rewrite (or tweak) each of them several more times with the benefit of years of new experience and personal growth. That is what I consider "development:" Discovering the best within, by and for myself—developing the playwright. To quote Arthur Miller “I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self.” Playwright, develop thy self!
The artist as painter comes to mind. He or she finishes the canvas and it is done. Only the heart, mind and soul of the artist went into the work. No group thinking was involved. One hand held the brush. You like it, you buy it—or you don't. That's my attitude, only I'm so much less arrogant than expressing that point of view would lead most to believe. I am humbled by my Muse. I am grateful for what talent I have been given; it is a priceless gift. When all is said and done, when one watches or reads an ECW play one can be sure every word of it was written and intended by the playwright. If you think it is bad, it is my bad. If you think it is good, it is my good.
As Robert Patrick, author of Kennedy’s Children which earned Shirley Knight a Tony award, wrote me in an email, "I listen only to the actors. If they have trouble saying or understanding a line, I assume it ain't written fluently or clearly enough. Other than that I have never found anyone else's aesthetic opinion of my unproduced work to be of any interest whatsoever. I find it interesting that as far as I know, playwriting is the only art in which total outsiders feel competent to criticize. Imagine asking a panel to suggest changes in a collage, a chorale, or a mobile."
When I travel to different cities to work on first productions, I work extremely hard with the casts and directors. I listen and I'm ruthless with my work. I am my harshest critic and will do whatever it takes to make it work. It is there, in that communal and collective experience, I succumb to anything close to developing my work. Still, I must “feel” that it works.
"Developing" and "workshopping," from my point of view, reduces the potential of Art to the lowest denominator of commerce—as if commerce was a valid reason for a life's work. “Don't be seduced into thinking that,” quoting Arthur Miller, “that which does not make a profit is without value.”
When I speak to an audience through my work, I have something to say, something to express, something I want them to feel. I have tremendous respect for an audience and I would not want to confuse them with the voices of others. When some do not understand a metaphor, a shift in time or place or a theatrical device that I may have employed, it is the responsibility of the audience to find and create an understanding. The inquisitive mind finds joy in the process. It is, for me, to cheat an audience if I were to explain it all away.
Work that does not create questions, that is non-problematic, that answers all possible confusions and hands us a smooth and linear play on a platter was most likely "developed." That is, of course, not a bad thing. Oftentimes it is to be desired. I can only speak from my own approach to the process of crafting a play.
“I think in this country,” quoting A.R. Gurney, “we're committed to developing plays, and many plays I've seen have been rewritten too much. The scenes are tight, the play ends at the right time, you know exactly what the scene is about, but it seems flat; you can almost see that too many hands have been on the play. The individual voice is gone.”
I do agree that a mediocre play in the hands of a committee can be made into a seeming masterpiece or a cash cow and its “author” into the next cause celeb. I have put “author” in quotations because I feel the playwright no longer truly owns the piece—not like a painter owns the work on the canvas or a composer owns the symphony. Art should be the expression of the soul of the artist and not the product of collective surgery.
On the subject of new play development Edward Albee said in a September 1994 interview for American Theatre: "It is to de-ball the plays; to castrate them; to smooth down all the rough edges so they can't cut, can't hurt. It's to make them commercially tolerable to a smug audience. It's not to make plays any better. Most playwrights who write a good play write it from the beginning."
I'm "old school" in the way I approach playwriting. And, as I stated earlier, it seems to be contrary to the mainstream. I do not seek to convert others to my way of thinking, but rather to confirm like-thinking in others—to let you know you are not the only one. My life's goal is not to see everything I write produced, but to see that everything I write is intended—and that it is an expression of my Being.
—ECW, Denver 4/8/2008