The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 4, No. 4

Why Write for Theater?

by David Ives

In the high school I attended, we had an extraordinary tradition that I doubt existed in many other American schools. This was an all-boys Catholic seminary sandwiched among Chicago's Lithuanian, Irish, and black neighborhoods. Discipline was strong, the syllabus demanding. We would-be priests were groomed for gravitas.
    Paradoxically, at the end of a student's fourth year, he could take part in creating and performing in what was called "The Senior Mock," a show that sent up the school's faculty. All the students attended, near-riotously, and it was considered bad form for a faculty member not to be present. The school's hard-nosed rector had to clear the script beforehand, but he censored only obscenities, stetting even the most merciless satirical slices. I myself played Mr. Hild, the chain-smoking English teacher who coached the track team (while smoking); I also wrote a song mocking a particularly free-thinking religion teacher, and sang it, a cappella, in front of a crowd of six hundred. My classmate Frank Boyle, otherwise somber, portrayed that same hard-nosed rector in a bald cap which he shined onstage with Turtle Wax.
    I wrote my first play when I was nine, but somehow The Senior Mock not only focused my attention on theater in a new way, it gathered up--I now see--all the threads that have gone into theater since Aeschylus. No show I've been involved with in the thirty years since then has been more fundamentally theatrical, or has been fundamentally different. We pimply adolescents didn't stop to think we were doing the same thing as Aristophanes in 400 BC. We just wanted, desperately and joyously, to mirror the world we'd come to know in our four years together, to have a say about it, to hint what we'd change about it, and to celebrate what had made us laugh about it before we left it at graduation. A dozen of us labored over this entertainment we were spinning out of thin air as though we were going to perform it for kings, though we had nothing to gain but glory among our peers--a rich box-office take, since you have to be an idiot to do theater for gold. We were making theater for the best and purest of human reasons: For love. For the hell of it. For fun.
    That same year I saw a matinee of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and, even as I sat there agape in the balcony, I knew there could be no better or more exciting calling. I left the path to the priesthood and forked onto the road to playwriting.
    If you want to work in the art form that most profoundly sets up a glass to human life, then the theater is for you. After all, the world doesn't present itself to us as printed words, or pigment on canvas, or sculpted marble or bronze, or dancers moving to music, or fixed two-dimensionally on looping celluloid, but as human bodies moving three-dimensionally in space and in real time, talking to each other or to us or to themselves, working something out to the music of the human voice. Theater is the living imitation of existence, Shakespeare's "mirror up to nature," because our own lives are a daily imitation of theater. (I myself have never thought it an accident that humanity's greatest genius manifested himself in the theater. And Hamlet in 1602 probably looked little better than our Senior Mock of 1968.) Our lives happen in voices: in inner monologue and outer dialogue, in scenes of interwoven tension and resolution with comic byplay. As drama. As comedy. As a live, local, handmade event. As theater.
    All social interaction is inescapably political, and if you're looking to work in a social (and political) art form, then the theater is also for you. Again, it can't be coincidence that Western drama was born in ancient Athens at exactly the same moment as democracy, because theater and democracy germinate from the same idea: that it's good for people to put their differences aside and pool their talents and experience, so that out of mutual collaboration something fine--maybe something brilliant, maybe even something lasting--can be made. As a playwright, you don't work alone. You've got actors, a director, designers all helping to shape what you write, challenging it, exploring it, saving your ass (and sometimes breaking it). Then--like life--the company disbands and moves on.
    So much for the high road. There are a million other, more mundane reasons to write for the theater. Because your spouse keeps telling you that your life as a podiatrist would make a terrific play. Because you want to commemorate a parent or an uncle or a sibling or a friend. Because you want to resuscitate a failed marriage or affair and make your lost spouse or lover speak again. Because you want to send a letter to the dead by way of the living. Because you're an idiot and you think Hollywood's going to buy your play about you and your hamster and make you rich. Because you saw The Star-Spangled Girl at your community theater and think you can do better. Because you want to see your name in the paper, and crave the admiration of our perceptive, tasteful, well-informed, and ever-encouraging "critics." Because you think the theater provides endless opportunities for getting laid. Because you find actors smart, perceptive, and unimaginably gallant and you want to hang out and have drinks with them on a regular basis. Because you glimpsed two tramps waiting beside a road, or an old man raging on a heath, or saw a man and woman arguing outside the bus window--and you want to imagine out loud what was going on and why and who those vanished people were. Because you have some voices in your head that won't be still. Because you want to do something really difficult--to chase down the elusive element that makes a very, very few plays good or even great and immortal, yet somehow escapes all those many other plays.
    Or because you feel like it.
    Or because you don't have any choice.
    Because you have to.