The Writing Life: reflections by a working writer. The Writing Life

Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
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After October 31, 2006,
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Monday, October 16, 2006  

Old men as clowns
Absolutely no one knew more about the comic potential of old men, especially when playing opposite young women on stage, than Moliere. What is amazing to me is that so often he played the old man, usually cuckolded, and his wife the young woman. He had the artist's ability to turn personal tragedy and pain into dramatic comedy on stage.

This is the premise of my stage play Sad Laughter and the subsequent screenplay of the same name. First commissioned by the New Rose Theatre, and successfully produced under the title The Comedian In Spite Of Himself, this three-act version of Moliere's story was a critical and financial success -- except that I didn't like it much. The artistic director, who did, let me keep rewriting through the entire run, much to the chagrin of the cast, and so there were six different versions of the play produced, a different one each week! An astounding opportunity for a playwright.

What bothered me was that the story I wanted to tell, about Moliere and his young wife who was possibly his daughter, got buried in a subplot. I wanted to bring it stage center. My contract said the New Rose got a cut of subsequent royalties for five years, so I buried the play that long, not marketing it. Then I took it out, changed the three-act structure to two-act, and moved the personal story forward. I loved the result, though no one was in a rush to do it. I finally directed a college production myself. A scene and monologue from the play have been anthologized respectively in Best Stage Scenes of 1996 and Best Men's Stage Monologues of 1996. The monologue, which ends the play, is probably the best one I've ever written:

MOLIERE: Shed no tears! You rot in one grave as another;
If you don't believe that, don't ever have a mother.
The luck that gets us all got me—
Though I'm better off than most, you must agree.
Consider this: though I am dust, you're glad to pay
Right through the nose to see my plays!
Without me, Montfleury's just a name;
Because of me, he has a kind of fame.
The Archbishop of Paris is no concern of yours
Except for me — I give him the notoriety he deserves.
In other words, why shed a tear for me?
My plays live on until eternity!
Oh, I know — in your age the time is getting short,
Everywhere there's war, famine, a great environmental wart.
Yet you insist your own age is unique:
"Never has civilization reached such a peak!"
But I question this wisdom found on TV and in "Forbes,"
Though maybe that's presumptuous, coming from a corpse.
Still, I don't see our times as different, I confess,
Since in your age, as in mine, it's all a mess.
Though you've reached the moon, discovered strange galactic gasses,
Three hundred years later, the world's still full of asses!

(LA GRANGE enters.)

LA GRANGE: So we hope we've moved you and given you a little fun; In truth,—
MOLIERE & LA GRANGE: — there's not a damn thing new beneath the sun.


Then I converted the play to a screenplay, right after the success of Shakespeare In Love. My agent at the time thought it was the best screenplay he'd ever handled, which if you know anything about Hollywood is close to a kiss of death (i.e. the agent handling Dead Poets Society: "This is the best thing you've ever written. I don't think I can sell it." -- the two sentences that say more about the industry than any two sentences I know. High compliments often mean it's too literary or high-brow.). Actually I later had a couple close calls with it, and I still market it. Eventually someone is going to put Moliere's incredible story on film, and they might as well use my script. Both the screenplay and the stageplay have been published (see previous link), so my rights on my particular take are well protected. I am proud of both play and screenplay, and my late friend Ger thought it was my very best work. But then he was a classically trained actor, which the stage play at least requires.

In both scripts, I also put into Moliere's mouth words from my own heart:

I often play the cuckold on stage, don't I? So maybe I'm just practicing. That's what we live for, isn't it? Perfecting our parts? Fine-tuning our roles? I know I haven't given you much attention lately. I mean, you're right, our life is a rehearsal. My life is a dress rehearsal for a play. Even now, as I hear myself talking, I wonder where I'll be putting this, in what future scene in what future play I'll be standing before someone like you, perhaps before you yourself, the actress, and I'll be the actor, and we'll be talking — in some play, some day — much as we are talking here now. Because that's what my life seems to be, a dress rehearsal for a play. Which, strictly speaking, doesn't really make my life much of a life at all, does it?

Hence my memoir is entitled Dress Rehearsals.

10/16/2006 12:25:00 PM | 0 comments

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