THE WINTER’S TALE or HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLAY

winters-tale-branagh

Judi Dench as Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

In my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN (published on 26th January) one of my characters, Terry, is an actor taking on the role of King Leontes in  THE WINTER’S TALE. Back in the day I had an idea I might like to write a play. I made the mistaken assumption that because I liked writing dialogue in my novels, plays would come easily to me. By the end of the course I felt like someone who walks past a BT engineer when he’s in the middle of fiddling about in one of those dark green wire-filled boxes. You stop and look and think how can he know what he is doing? Writing plays, I had discovered, was much more complicated and technical than I had ever imagined.

However, here are some things that my teacher would undoubtedly have advised against:

  • do not get rid of a character by having him eaten by a wild animal. Exit pursued by a bear? No,no, no – it’s not on;
  • check your geography. If a country is landlocked (Bohemia) do not give it a coastline;
  • don’t just have someone come on stage at the beginning of the second act and say 16 years have passed. It’s clunky;
  • do bother to sketch in a bit of back plot if you decide to hurl your character into a jealous, paranoid, fury that destroys his family and his kingdom;
  • you can’t tell the audience a character has died and then bring her back to life with the words,    ‘It is required you do awake your faith!’. Suppose they haven’t got any?
  • don’t write a speech like this because it will traumatize the actor who has to try and make sense of it and no one in the audience will understand it:

“Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre.

Thou doest make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dream (how can this be?),

With what unread thou co-active art,

And fellow’st nothing. Then ’tis credent … “

And on and on … into greater and greater obscurity.

THE WINTER’S TALE (Act 1.Scene 2.137)

  • do not write one act as if you are a Scorpio and the second act as if you are a Virgo; try for a bit of consistency. Take it from me a mash up of Othello and As You Like It will not work.

All the above are things that Shakespeare does in THE WINTER’S TALE. The plot of which goes something like this. *SPOILER ALERT*. King Leontes the King of Sicilia starts behaving like Tony Soprano without the therapist. He accuses his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, of having an affair with his pregnant wife, Hermione. He puts Hermione on trial which leads to her death, the death of their son and the banishment of his infant daughter, Perdita. Too late it becomes clear he has made a terrible mistake and he and his kingdom are plunged into an endless winter of sorrow and grief. Jump 16 years. Perdita has been raised by a shepherds in Bohemia. She returns to Sicilia and is reunited with her father. Leontes is invited by Paulina to visit a statue of his late wife. When he touches the statue it is warm and it is clear she is not a statue but very much alive. He is reconciled with her and his kingdom returns to prosperity.

The first time I read the play I closed it with these profound words of literary criticism, ‘It’s bonkers and I’ve no idea how you’d act it.’ Then I went to see it and I thought aren’t actors mysterious, magical beings. I heard that speech spoken in a way that I felt the actor understood it even if I didn’t. I still thought it was nuts, and for the most part I found the second act pretty tedious (too many nymphs and shepherds). As soon as women start waving herbs about in Shakespeare it’s either too twee or a death is in the offing and I tend to switch off. But I could also see that it was powerfully nuts.

Then I went to see it again and it really got under my skin. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • It is a really odd play.
  • It is also a very powerful play.
  • It has one of the most tender of lines in it, ‘Oh, she’s warm,’ and one of the most savage, ‘Burn it,’ in reference to the infant Perdita.
  • It has one of the best roles for women in Shakespeare, in the character of Paulina. A woman who will not stop telling Leontes how wrong he is, a woman who is not afraid to speak truth to power. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a role and as you can see from the photo above it attracts some powerful actors.
  • Don’t go and see it if you’ve recently been bereaved; it will break your heart.

In TITIAN’S BOATMAN my character Terry, while struggling with the role of King Leontes, suffers a nervous crisis. Now come on! Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit intrigued by that scenario. Have you seen the play? Or have you read Jeanette Winterson’s novel ,The Gap of Time, a modern day version of it. What did you make of them?

WRITING TIPS FROM TENNESSEE WILLIAMS

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

This is what Tennessee Williams had to say on how to write a play but I think it could apply pretty much to any kind of writing. This is from an entry in his journal dated 5 October 1941:

“I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do – then go ahead and do it with ease.

Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan – til the first draft is finished.

Then Calvary – but not til then.

Doubt and be lost until the first draft is finished

A play is a Phoenix – it dies a thousand deaths.

Usually at night – In the morning it springs up again from the ashes and crows like a happy rooster.

It is never as bad as you think.

It is never as good as you think.

It is somewhere in between and success or failure depends on which end of your emotional gamut concerning its value it actually approaches most closely.

But it is much more likely to be good if you think it is wonderful while you are writing the first draft.

An artist must believe in himself … our belief is contagious. Others say – He is vain – but they are affected.

I have never had much of that faith – I have been a little too honest with myself and people.”

I went to see A Streetcar Named Desire  a while back with Gillian Anderson playing the main role. I had seen clips of the famous Brando film version before but never seen the play all the way through. It is an incredible desolate piece of work. I came away from it thinking how on earth do you write something like that? Tennessee Williams’ journals are riddled with self-doubt, a lot of the time he is terrified and anxious and pursued by ‘blue devils’. He drinks too much coffee and alcohol, he takes too many drugs and does a lot of ‘chasing the nightingales’ his lovely expression for cruising. And he wrote the most extraordinary plays. I like what he has to say here about writing but  I also like the fact that he says he has never had much faith. He’s telling himself what to do but at the same time he’s admitting, Look, I know what I should do but I struggle to do it. So the last line is the one that helps me most.

What do you think of what he writes here? And how’s your life/writing going? Phoenix or Rooster? Faith or Desolation?