In 1962, I decided to write a play. However, what did I, in all of my 25 years of maturity, know? I had studied Journalism at NYU, but didn’t want to work on a newspaper. When I graduated, I took a job in Public Relations. There had been three PR jobs in three years, each one better, more responsible than the one before. I had a knack for it and it had brought me to Paris. I partnered with a French advertising guy and we were going to bring PR to Europe. Since nobody knew what PR was in those days, we thought we might have a chance.
When I lived in Paris, I ran a theater for a minute and a half at The American Student and Artists Center on the Boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. I planned to stage neglected American plays by O’Neil, Odets, Saroyan, and Tennessee. Sitting with the guys over beers at Le Select, I mentioned doing an original American play. Some weeks later, my great pal and leader of the pack, Matt Carney, joined me there. He had a friend who had written a play and asked if I would read it. There was an original idea, a limited cast, and an abstract set. We had a stage and all kinds of artists who would create and build a set and hordes of would-be actors. Sadly, there were too many distractions – the van Goghs in Amsterdam, playing Americans in European films, running the bulls in Pamplona.
I have always regretted not doing that play when I had the chance. What it did do was stimulate me into writing my first play. Young and Eager, written when I was 25 years old, was about America and the Public Relations ethic that has had such a profound effect on every aspect of American life. I wrote the farce in six days; on the seventh, I rested. It was all instinct but my instincts weren’t bad and I had a good ear so the dialogue was pretty good. When I returned to New York I re-wrote the play. This time it took me five months. At the same time, to help out a fellow cast member in Camino Reale, directed by Jose Quintero, in which I had a role, I took moments from Eli the Fanatic, a short story by Philip Roth and adapted it for the stage. The scene worked well and I was hooked. I couldn’t leave Eli, unfinished and so I wrote a full two-act play based on a 12 page short story. It was met with a show-biz saga involving Philip Roth, the rights, option, money, and my first producer Sidney Bernstein who was and is the best one I have ever met before or since.
One of the little perks of that glorious moment in the sun was that it attracted The William Morris Agency, major players in the entertainment world; I was flavor of the month. A big time comedian wanted to buy, Young and Eager, tour it on the summer circuit and bring it to Broadway. It would change the play. I said, “No.” The great man called me, “You don’t want to sell me your play?” I was embarrassed. I told him I had parts I wanted to re-write and that I’d call him. You don’t know how many times I’ve kicked myself for not selling that play. Over the years, I would take it off the shelf, change a few lines and put it back. The energy went somewhere else and so did William Morris. Nothing happened with or for Young and Eager.
Last year, I thought about all of the plays I’ve written over the years that are now sitting on shelves, gathering dust, not going anywhere, for reasons that we all know and love. Why not take the plays down, dust them off, push the button and voila, send them to regional, community, university, and high school theaters; somewhere, somebody, someplace might want them. I took down Young and Eager. I’d cut and paste, a little tuck here, a snip there and it would be good as new, ready to send out to a secondary world. I’d give myself a birthday present, a new and shiny Young and Eager. That was my plan. As my grandfather used to say, “Man plans…God laughs.”
I started by changing a little, then a little more. Then it hit me. Who was I kidding? I needed a rewrite. I wrote Young and Eager 50 years ago and it was a young man’s play. I was now rewriting it as a much different writer, experienced, toughened, with no more illusions. I poured myself into the rewrite and finished in time for my birthday. I think I fulfilled the potential that was always there but that until now I couldn’t reach.
In rewriting, cut and paste will not do it. It’s not about saving time and using the short cuts the computer makes available. Your instincts, good as they are, will only take you so far. Rewriting is labor intense. It’s not that playwrights consciously want to avoid the work. Most believe they have been “touched,” have the “gift,” and don’t have to practice; it’s all inspiration.
Playwriting isn’t a job. It’s what you have to do. If that’s not the way you feel, you haven’t got the time, or aren’t willing to make the time, don’t do it, it will be too hard. Learn the craft and practice and don’t shortchange your rewrite. Hopefully it won’t take 50 years. Now, I have to see if all those buttons work and if anybody picks up on the other side. I guess it was ever thus, but I do feel refreshed.