Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

December 6, 2000:
From one playwright to another
A tribute to Bill McCleery

By Dan Berkowitz '70

William T. McCleery died on January 16 in Princeton, at the age of 88. According to his son Sam, Bill was still active, going to his office at Mudd Library, attending parties until shortly before his death. In the dank New Jersey winter, he contracted bronchitis, which developed into pneumonia, and his body was simply unable to fight it off.

He was hospitalized for several days, and at some point it became apparent the end was near. Family and friends gathered at his bedside. Suddenly, the doctor bumped into the "privacy curtain" surrounding the bed, and it fell. Bill looked up and proclaimed, "Well, I guess it's finally curtains for McCleery!"

Being able to crack a joke on one's deathbed is a consummation devoutly to be wished, as Shakespeare might have said. But it was typical of Bill McCleery, whose sense of humor was sly but potent, and who was invariably sunny, optimistic, and with a good word for everyone. By his example, he taught me a number of invaluable lessons, and hardly a day goes by that I don't put at least one of them into practice.

The obituary in the New York Times mentioned his two Broadway plays in the 1940s, Hope for the Best with Franchot Tone and Jane Wyatt, and Parlor Story, with Walter Abel; his Broadway-bound A Play for Mary, starring Helen Hayes and her daughter, Mary MacArthur, which was canceled when the younger woman suddenly contracted polio and died; his stage adaptation of the novel Good Morning, Miss Dove, also starring Helen Hayes; and his dozen plays for TV, featuring such actors as Cornelia Otis Skinner, Rosalind Russell, and Hume Cronyn.

It didn't mention his years of teaching a playwriting workshop at Princeton, and how he acted as mentor to generations of aspiring young writers, including me. When Bill taught playwriting (and I use the term loosely -- can you ever actually "teach" someone how to write a play...?), he probably talked about stuff like plot and character and the unities and all that. I don't remember.

What I do remember was that this was an old pro, a guy who'd been around for a while, been through a lot, and survived with equanimity intact. The kind of guy who advised, "You have to be half-crazy to go into show business. Of course, what that means is that eventually you realize you're in a profession run by half-wits." The kind of guy who dropped the idea of a sequel to Hope for the Best titled Expect the Worst because "I can imagine the reviews already..." The kind of guy who explained why craftsmen call themselves "playwrights", not "playwrites": "It's because plays are not written, they are wrought." Pause, shrug. "Sometimes overwrought."

He might have been describing my first stab at a play, the tale of a totally bald, Gauloise-smoking, French-accented android named Richelieu, who lived in a cave resembling an Egyptian tomb of the 18th dynasty. What can I say? I was young. It was a phase.

When I read aloud the scene in which the android, shackled to the wall, is threatened by several thousand dancing creatures resembling the frozen insides of cranberry sauce cans -- but with legs -- Bill's comment was a thoughtful "Have you thought of the casting?"

That, too, was typical of Bill McCleery: Though his esthetic was very old-fashioned -- in one of his plays, he actually wrote a stage direction indicating a character was "dressed for motoring" -- he was respectful of others' work, no matter how outré, or in my case, just plain dumb, it might be. He never put anyone down, but rather took pains to look for the positive, focusing on what would help tell your story in a better way.

I remember sending him my first screenplay a few years ago. He wrote back an effusive letter, extolling its virtues, telling me how proud he was, and so on. Then, respectfully, he suggested a change in wording for the very last line. It was a small change but, of course, a masterstroke. It compressed the line, gave it a more natural rhythm, made it more economical, which in turn made for a much stronger -- and funnier -- ending to the script.

Which was a good example of one of his most valuable lessons: though he may have said plays are wrought rather than written, he definitely believed the good ones were rewritten, over and over and over again. And, equally important, made leaner. He constantly cut and trimmed his own scripts, eliminating an unnecessary word here, worrying over a contraction there, striving for the simplest and most direct way of saying something.

His spareness of language was a legacy of his years in journalism. He had been a reporter for the Associated Press, an editor for Life, PM, and Ladies' Home Journal, and the founding editor of University: A Princeton Quarterly. Back in his New York editing days, he was the guy who gave Lillian Ross and Shana Alexander their first reporting jobs.

Bill the editor didn't spare Bill the writer. It wasn't unusual to be given one of his scripts to read, and find it filled with penciled cross-outs and corrections. And he firmly believed it was never too late to rewrite. The last time I saw him, he gleefully told me he had rewritten his Match Play -- at that point more than 20 years old -- to allude to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

All this is not to imply that Bill was without flaws. Indeed, as is often the case with a mentor, some of the most potent lessons I learned were what not to do. He could, for example, be alarmingly naive. I directed the premiere of Match Play in 1978 at Summer Intime, the professional summer theater on the campus; veteran Equity actors filled all three roles. And I remember my shock when, midway through the first rehearsal, he sidled up to me, and plaintively whispered that one of the actors had emphasized the wrong words in several of his lines. This guy has written for Broadway, I thought -- doesn't he realize it's only the first day, and actors don't always get it right away? Of course, this was before I had become a produced playwright myself, and learned that sometimes the actors never get it...

I learned, too, that, yes, it is possible to rewrite too much -- an overwrought rewrite, you might say. There's a road outside Princeton which cuts through open fields in a straight line for about a mile. Suddenly, without warning, and for no reason, it makes a 90 degree turn to the left. You've just about recovered when, again for no discernible reason, the road makes a 90 degree turn to the right. You're going where you were originally headed again, albeit a little shaken.

The early drafts of Bill's plays always had a few spots like that. You'd be cruising along nicely, when one of the characters would do something a little crazy, or out of character, or whatever -- then, after a bit, you'd get back on track. I found these spots delightful: they were startling, they gave the actors delicious moments to play, and -- Bill being Bill -- they never strayed so far from the through line that the play got lost. But they could be interpreted as rough spots, twists in the road. And as Bill listened to people (and he did listen to everybody), the curves would get a little less curvy with each rewrite, until finally that twist in the road had become as smooth and straight -- and boring -- as an interstate.

With Match Play, I found a way to solve the problem. I didn't tell Bill I had saved the original script, along with all the succeeding rewrites. Each day at rehearsal, I'd pick a moment and innocently say, "Didn't she used to do such-and-such here instead of this? Why don't we try that?" Invariably, the earlier version was quirkier and funnier. As with most good writers, Bill's instincts were usually better than those of his advisers.

But he continued to listen to everyone, because, in the end, he was just too nice, too considerate to tell people to pipe down. When Sam reached me, he told me it was his father who -- in between deathbed jokes, no doubt -- had made a list of people to be called when he died, so they wouldn't have to learn about it from the papers.

Bill felt one of the greatest sins was to impose, whether it be on friends, or on the audience who comes to see your play. In an age when "edgy," confrontational, often obscurant work is all the rage, the plays of Bill McCleery are, I suppose, out of fashion. They're too well-crafted, too "accessible", too... nice. Just like their author.

Someday, I hope, someone will say the same about me.


Dan Berkowitz is cochair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and the West Coast liaison for the Dramatists Guild of America. This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Dramatist magazine.