Have you any idea, I wonder, how insane people are who write plays? Call them idealists, or dreamers, or the noblest of them all, but anyone who wakes up one day and says to himself “I think I’ll write a play today” must be nuts.
It isn’t easy being a playwright. First, you have to think of a play you’ve got to write. Then you have to write it. As if that weren’t exhausting enough, I’d say the chances of an unknown dramatist getting his play produced are at least 1,000-to-1 against. Who would back such terrible odds? Only mad dogs and theater-lovers.
I’ve been spending a good deal of time these days writing a biography of John Osborne (who’s driving me nuts), and I was fascinated to learn that when the unknown Osborne sent Look Back in Anger to the Royal Court Theatre, it was one of 750 new plays submitted that season. Imagine! In 1956-before college courses in drama were invented, before drama schools and nonprofit theater existed-there were 750 unknown dramatists in England hoping for the best.
George Devine, the Court’s legendary artistic director, accepted only one of the 750 scripts, however. He handed over Look Back to his young associate director, Tony Richardson, as if holding his breath. “This might have something,” he said with studied cool.
While Osborne anxiously awaited the opening of Look Back , he was given the job of the Court’s first play reader, and studiously read the dog-eared manuscripts that flooded in every day. “My God!” Richardson said to him when he learned about his conscientiousness. “You don’t actually read them, do you?”
Tony Richardson, the director of Look Back , was a brilliant man, but he didn’t exactly read new plays-he sniffed them. His advice to Osborne was to read the first and last pages of each new play, in addition to just one other page chosen at random: “That’s quite sufficient.”
So you see, the playwriting game has never been easy. You have to write the thing, and then you have to somehow get it read . The play reader nowadays is usually an exhausted literary manager whose recurring nightmare is that he’s going to reject a new play entitled Waiting for Godot with the recommendation, “Suitable for television.” Nobody knows who these mysterious, paranoid play readers are; they inhabit the shadows, plowing through thousands of manuscripts every year in search of the mother lode.
But the odds of getting a play successfully produced are so stacked against the poor dramatist, it’s a miracle he doesn’t take a dose of what used to be known in England as “the dolly drops” and put an end to it all. It takes luck to be successful at anything in life, but the theater makes a fetish out of good fortune. If you can get a new play past the stage door, the producer and director have to like it next, then cast and stage it right, and even then you’re in the lap of the gods. Prayer meetings are regularly held, encouraging the fickle public to love the play, as well as those miserable sods called critics. Have you seen them, the critics, crouching in the dark with their squeaky pens and unforgiving, cruel eyes?
What a bunch they are! I wouldn’t be a critic if you paid me. Incidentally, I wrote a quite successful first play in younger days, but I found that I disliked it. The little play was called The Man Who Almost Knew Eamonn Andrews (its equivalent title would be The Man Who Almost Knew David Letterman ). It opened at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh-the Traverse was, and perhaps still is, a powerhouse of new drama-and the reviews were mostly extraordinarily good and generous. But I found that I disagreed with them. It’s highly unusual, I know-I must be the only dramatist in the history of theater ever to disagree with a positive review of his own play.
As Percy Shelley wrote, ” … to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” This imagined thing , the play I wrote from its own wreckage, was never as I hoped and imagined it would be. Though I wrote two or three other plays, I never showed them to anyone. They always seemed to be about two tramps and a tree. But I’d had some success as a journalist by then, and thus seduced by the usual things-money, lust for power, easy sex-I gave up the playwriting game without regrets.
Will I live to regret it? Possibly . Consider this: The 70-year-old Thomas McCormack’s first full-length play, Endpapers , recently opened at the Variety Arts Theatre to a number of sparkling reviews, and let’s hope he agrees with them. Mr. McCormack was the editor, chairman and chief executive at St. Martin’s Press (where he edited such books as Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small ). But in 1997, he left after a lifetime in publishing to do what I assume he always wanted to do, which is to write plays.
His short biography in Playbill informs us that in younger days he wrote a one-act play that gained him entrance to the Albee-Barr Playwrights Unit, where Sam Shepard, A.R. Gurney, Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson were among his colleagues. But then he joined St. Martin’s Press, and life took a different path.
Mr. McCormack’s Endpapers is a smart comedy and backstage story about the hothouse politics and battles within an independent publishing house that’s fighting for its life. I don’t know how St. Martin’s Press is doing lately, but Mr. McCormack’s imagined firm is on the ropes. He knows the publishing world intimately, of course. His play rings true from the confident opening moments, when an amiable editor named Griff is reading a letter of complaint: “To the one who signs himself ‘G.’ I am writing to say I am tired and sick of getting those rejection letters from you. You are not a nice person. So fuck you and all your household pets.”
True, the big ethical issues in Endpapers don’t burn with the ferocious intensity that Jon Robin Baitz conveyed in his memorable publishing play of a few seasons ago, The Substance of Fire . (Though Mr. Baitz’s second act notoriously fell apart). Mr. McCormack drifts into melodrama, too. Who will take over from Josh, the crusty old dying chairman? Will it be Ted, the ruthless shark and pragmatic heir apparent? Or will it be quiet, unpushy Griff, the editor with standards . (“Read on!”, as it were).
That said, there’s much to enjoy in Pamela Berlin’s fizzy production, not least the fun and games that Mr. McCormack enjoys with right-to-life cookbooks and learned tomes by black lesbian abortionists. There isn’t a weakness in the talented ensemble.
“Grover, tell everyone why you quit writing,” the C.E.O. says to his elderly, trusty No. 2.
“Public-spirited, I guess,” Grover replies dryly-not to mention that his first novel came out the same week as The Old Man and the Sea , his second the same week as Doctor Zhivago.
Welcome to the theater, Mr. McCormack!
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.