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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
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
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.
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.