“Artistically Speaking” an interview with Ken Ludwig by Marilou Donahue
Question: You talk a great deal about how wonderful the comedies of Shakespeare and
the operas of Mozart are. Have they influenced your work, and if so, how?
They have both influenced my work deeply, Shakespeare more than Mozart – I suppose because I know the works of Shakespeare better; and of course, because I’m a playwright, not a musician. (I did, however, major in music theory and composition in college, so music is certainly something I take seriously.)
Shakespeare teaches us everything we need to know about playwriting, every facet, on every level. Alas, we’re made of clay and he wasn’t, so we can never quite take it all in. If you don’t believe in God before you read Shakespeare, you’re bound to afterwards. How else could one human being create these 37 plays, of which at least 27 are masterpieces, in a span of less than 20 years? In his prime, Shakespeare was writing two or more plays in a year of the caliber of Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida. This is beyond human. It’s miraculous.
More specifically, Shakespeare created certain literary archetypes. As Harold Bloom says in his wonderful book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Shakespeare invented how we see ourselves and how we write about ourselves. For example, through Beatrice and Benedick, Shakespeare created the literary tradition of the comic warring couple. Without them, an entire genre of comedy wouldn’t exist. Who are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but Beatrice and Benedick in tap shoes? Who are Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn but the same couple in a courtroom or on a golf course?
In addition to the characters, he created certain types of plots and structure that we continue to play upon even today, simply varying the melody line but remaining inside the genres. My favorite living Shakespearean, Barbara Mowatt of the Folger Shakespeare Library (and co-editor of the complete works in the Folger edition) has reminded me that in each and every comedy, Shakespeare tried something new: some new approach to plot; some new way of looking at the very essence of comedy. So he has given all of us a field – indeed, many fields – within which to invent.
I suppose most of all, I’ve been influenced by Shakespeare’s sense of structure. Plays are half inspiration and half structure, and at least you can learn the structure. Recently I met the Dean of one of our major architecture schools in the United States and he told me that he teaches his students about the structure of buildings by using Wagner’s operas as a metaphor. I told him I felt the same way about Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart’s operas. In these works, one moment inevitably follows the next. It all looks simple. And yet these are all cathedrals, built as solidly as man can make. Is there any more unified, architectural work of art in the universe than Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro? Perhaps Hamlet, but that’s about it.
Question: How involved are you in the casting of your plays and are there special
qualities an actor needs to be successful in your plays?
I get involved in casting – and all other aspects of the production – when the play is having its world premiere and its Broadway (or West End) production. As far as casting goes, all playwrights have casting approval all the time under the standard playwrights’ contract which was negotiated back in the 1930s. So I have a right to pick the cast. As a practical matter, I share that right with the director and the producer, because if we’re not all in agreement, there will be problems down the line.
I take casting extremely seriously. It’s about 80-90% of the ball game as far as production is concerned. If you don’t cast a show well, it will never succeed, no matter how well everything else works. What I look for in actors is charm, inventiveness and, above all, technique. If they don’t have the skills at their fingertips, they’re unlikely to develop them during rehearsals.
Question: You have definite ideas on how farce should be played. Could you tell us
what they are?
I’m not sure about “farce.” I don’t like the term and don’t really know what it means. I do, however, love and admire high comedies (like Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and She Stoops to Conquer) and screwball comedies (like The Merry Wives of Windsor, When We Are Married, See How They Run – and some of those wonderful screen comedies of the 1930s and 40s like To Be Or Not To Be, The Major and the Minor and Midnight).
What I tell actors when I’m directing one of my plays of this sort (or even from the sidelines when I’m not directing!) is that they have to play the story and the emotions on the lines, not between the lines. And they have to keep the motor running, i.e., pick up their cues and move the play along. Also, the biggest rule: never try to be funny in a comedy. Always play the reality of the situation. The comedy will follow naturally.
Question: Besides Shakespeare, if you could hang around any playwright's (s)
studio, living or dead, whom would it be and why?
Great question. For me it would be George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oscar Wilde and Thornton Wilder. (If I were allowed, I’d add two more minor playwrights I’ve always admired, Arthur Wing Pinero and J.B. Priestley.) All of these playwrights really knew their craft. I love that about professionals. It’s not a matter of “pouring your guts out” in an unformed way. It’s a matter writing with understanding and discipline. Letting the invention flow, then channeling it using everything you know instinctively or have ever learned about structure and character and plot.
Please don’t misunderstand me: a play or a novel is ultimately great because it has great things to say about the human spirit. It tells us things that we never saw before but now, suddenly recognize as truth. This insight; this inspiration; this knowledge, (and this genius if you’re Shakespeare or Chekhov), you have to supply yourself, from within. But the rest of it you can absorb and cultivate and learn. The Winter’s Tale is structured like a cathedral. So is Pygmalion, and Uncle Vanya, The Matchmaker and The School for Scandal, The Importance of Being Ernest and She Stoops to Conquer. When I cry at the end of Twelfth Night, it’s because I’ve witnessed a work of art in every sense of the word. I love Viola; but I love the entire work more. I would have loved to be at the elbow of any one of these masters as they wrote these plays.