In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”
About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.
The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.
Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.
Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.
Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.
It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.
Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.
Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.
I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.
Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.
Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.
*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.
(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)