03 February 2006

Writing like Beethoven, Writing like Mozart

Here are a couple of observations on the nature of writing for performance.


Some years ago, I found myself taking a summer course in playwriting from a man I deeply admire and respect as a playwright (and scene designer, and director, and . . . You get the idea. His name is Allen Partridge, he's another Buckaroo Bonzai.) I was toiling away on what was to become Diving In, my only award-winning play (so far!) We students would turn in our pages each day, and receive his teacherly criticism the next day.

One day, Partirdge handed back my pages and he had written in red ink on the top page "Too many notes, Wolfgang!" It was the only note. I queried him and he responded "Watch Amadeus." So I did. Near the beginning of the film, a court official is criticizing Mozart's music. Mozart says "What's wrong with it?" The court official replies "Too many notes."

So I took this up with Partridge, and received the best piece of writing advice I've ever been given. Essentially, why use a paragraph when a well wrought phrase would accomplish the same thing? Economy of word leads to greater emotional impact.

I strive to exercise great economy, but I still tend to write like Mozart.


The way I learned it, when Beethoven went deaf, his music went nuts. Musicians complained about the difficulty of performing his music. The notes were too high, too difficult to reach; his passages were far too complex to play with human hands. And yet, the music is beautiful, challenging and nuanced.

Well, I try to write like Beethoven.

Oh, I don't get ridiculous with the demands I put on a performer. I don't expect them to sprout wings or bleed tapioca pudding.

However, I may write a character who makes an emotional turn "on a dime." I have a certain fondness for repetition in monologues that makes them difficult to memorize. I may even force a performer to say words and relate experiences that are horrible, embarrassing, disgusting, etc. It's only because I respect actors enough to bring my "A" game as a writer.

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