In a conversation with Robert Chapman many years ago, he who was the co-author of the play, Billy Budd, and the director of the Loeb Theatre at Harvard University, I mentioned a playwright whose work seemed limited to me.
Chapman’s immediate response was a brash statement, “He has no subject! He simply has a number of plays.” I mentioned to him that O’Neill, around the year 1930, was known to have made the statement that there was only one subject for the serious American playwright at the time and that was the death of the old God, and the failure of science and materialism to replace Him with a new God in order to satisfy the surviving, primitive, religious instinct to know the meaning of one’s life by and to comfort one’s fears of death with; everything else is parlor room conversation. Chapman raised his eyebrows and turned his head from side to side. Nothing else was said.
A few years later, in the early 1970’s, I received an application to the playwriting program at the Yale school of Drama from Christopher Durang. After reading the material he submitted for admission, I rushed into Dean Brustein’s office and shouted, “I’ve got one! And he already has a subject at the ripe old age of twenty-one.” That subject, I explained to the dean, as I saw it, was a scream for help in a world he know provided none, so he keeps on screaming and laughs at the irony. I never shared my judgment with Durang until many years later, but among his earliest plays at Drama School was a play title, Succor.
These experiences were recalled to me recently while speaking to a very productive American playwright, who in the course of our conversation, told me that he once had had a conversation with Philip Rav, the famous critic connected to “The Partisan Review.” Rahv told him that he considered John Updike a limited novelist and talent because he had no subject. I left my friend and went right to my typewriter to write a paper on John Guare, who, I consider, did indeed have a subject, which was, “I changed my life!”
These sentences above introduce the reader to a topic of discussion and self-examination, a discussion with himself or herself and playwrights among themselves. What is the meaning of a subject, and why might it prove to be the very best friend that a playwright might have, because the subject owns the writer rather than the writer owning the subject?
P.S. Confession time! In 1980 or thereabouts, I announced a national playwriting contest for one winner among college students. Among the submissions were three very special short plays. I wanted to reward the writers of the short plays as well as the winner of the contest. After contacting my sponsor and requesting more prize money, I was rewarded with another $450 dollars, one hundred and fifty dollars for each of the one-act writers. One winner was a freshman from The University of Nebraska who signed his name “Creativity.” That young man was David Boles. A number of years after the contest, David was in Washington, D.C. and heard that I was soon to retire from teaching. He contacted me, applied for admission to the program at Columbia and was accepted for admission by Richard Gilman and the Admissions committee. I taught his first year of classes. After reading his material during that time, I announced to him, “David, you have a subject! Social Injustice.” That subject informed every one of his dramatic pieces.
Thank you for this wonderful and insightful lesson. Authors too often get caught up in the flash and grist of writing and lose focus, and faith — and get lost in creating a canon of work out of a series of pieces that effectively puzzle together to create greater meaning.
Your words are an inspiration, and they will now live forever on the internet to help young Playwrights, yet unborn, focus on mastery and not piecemeal.
It is so nice to read this. I think we all need a purpose in whatever we do and discovering our “subject” early in life can lead us out of darkness when we get lost later in life. Some people never find that spark.
Great article! My father told me that an artist has only so much to say — a subject, as it were — and then he must either repeat himself or just retire.
Oh, I love this article so, Dr. Stein. I have read a lot about and heard a lot about you from David. It is so good to see new work from you again. We have missed reading you. Your advice is sound and has so many applications beyond the theatre. Thank you.
Dear Howard Stein:
I am so thrilled to be in contact with you once again. Your impact on me as one of your dramaturgy students at Columbia University continues to be a major source of my inspiration to keep doing this thing called theatre. Please go to my website to see the work I have begun in new play development with young people ages 3-12. Your article affirms the struggle I face when working with the budding playwrights as they explore what they want to write about in their new first plays. Subject-discovery causes them to dig deep into their psyche to find out what they really believe in or are passionate about. This is the part of the process that excites me most. Please contact me, so that I can hear your thoughts.
correction: GRADES 3-12