Focus on a Playwright: Ken Ludwig

by Samuel French

05/06/11 14:22

Ken Ludwig is an internationally acclaimed playwright whose many hits on Broadway, in London’s West End and throughout the world have made his name synonymous with modern comedy. He has won the Laurence Olivier Award, England’s highest theatre honor, as well as three Tony Award nominations and two Helen Hayes Awards. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been performed in at least thirty countries in over twenty languages. His musical Crazy For You ran for over four years on Broadway and in London. Lend Me A Tenor, originally produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and recently revived on Broadway, was called "one of the two great farces by a living writer" by The New York Times. Other plays and musicals include Moon Over Buffalo (Broadway & London’s Old Vic, starring Carol Burnett, Lynn Redgrave, Joan Collins & Frank Langella); Twentieth Century (Broadway, starring Alec Baldwin & Anne Heche); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Broadway); Treasure Island (London, Theatre Royal, Haymarket; 2009 AATE Distinguished Play Award); Shakespeare in Hollywood (commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company, Helen Hayes Award as Best Play); Leading Ladies; Be My Baby (starring Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter); The Beaux’ Stratagem (adaptation with Thornton Wilder at the request of the Wilder Estate); The Three Musketeers (Bristol Old Vic); An American in Paris; Sullivan & Gilbert (Kennedy Center); The Fox on the Fairway; and Sherlock. His anthology, Lend Me A Tenor and Other Plays has just been published by Smith and Kraus. He studied music at Harvard with Leonard Bernstein and theatre history at Cambridge University in England. For more information, please visit kenludwig.com

 

Check out Ken’s plays, available from Samuel French
Be My Baby
The Beaux’ Stratagem
The Fox on the Fairway
The Game's Afoot
Leading Ladies
Lend me a Tenor
Midsummer/Jersey
Moon Over Buffalo
Postmortem
Shakespeare in Hollywood
Sullivan & Gilbert
The Three Musketeers
Treasure Island
Twentieth Century

 

Q. Your newest comedy, THE FOX ON THE FAIRWAY, had its world premiere at the Tony® Award Winning Signature Theatre this past year. It’s a comedic romp into the world of golf. How did you first come up with the idea for this play?

A. About a year and a half ago, I had just finished another play and I didn’t know what to write next. I was out on the golf course playing a round with one of my best friends, Harry Teter who runs the National Theatre here in Washington, DC, and I told him that I didn’t have a good idea yet for a new comedy. He said, "What about golf? The whole world of golf? What could be funnier?"

I liked the idea immediately and started thinking about it. Harry was right: What’s funnier than golf? People walk around in silly costumes, they play an odd game where you try to knock a tiny ball into tiny a hole 500 yards away and you do it with a set of heavy sticks that you carry up and down hills, over bridges and through sand traps.

I decided early on to set the play at a country club, and as I thought about the idea, I liked it more and more. Country clubs contain many of the classic elements that you need for a traditional comedy: There are social classes, there are rules and regulations, members adhere to a very proper etiquette, there are dress requirements and there is a hierarchy among players that is not unlike ranks among royalty (think Shakespeare) or the hierarchies of high society (think Coward and Maugham). Moreover, as I mention in the previous question, farces often thrive on external goals like wagers, and golf tournaments are innately competitive and therefore pressurized in a very comic way.



Q. THE FOX ON THE FAIRWAY is a loving and hilarious tribute to classic farces of the 30s and 40s. Why did you choose those farces to emulate?

A. I’ve always loved the great English farce tradition that began in the 1880s and flowered in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

A farce, essentially, is a broad comedy where the emphasis is more on the story and the plotting than on the emotional journey of the characters. It typically has a broad, physical, knockabout quality and is filled with recognizable characters who find themselves in precarious situations. Great farces are minutely plotted, and part of the joy we take from a great farce comes from the beauty of the play’s architecture. When a complex story ticks along without missing a beat, then fits together perfectly at the end like a Chinese puzzle box, we leave the theater feeling exhilarated. The experience might be described a sort of catharsis through laughter.

Farce on stage begins with Plautus in the 3rd century B.C. Twenty of his plays survive, and several of them were used by Shakespeare as a source of plots and characters in the most overtly farcical of his own plays, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Farce recurs again and again in the history of British stage drama from Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist in the 17th century to David Garrick’s one-act curtain-raisers in the 18th. In fact, all of the comic masterpieces written at the end of the 18th century, like She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith and The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, have strong farcical elements throughout.

The particular tradition that I’m honoring in Fox is a kind of comedy that first appeared in 1885-1887 in three tremendously successful comedies by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (the first playwright in history to be knighted): The Magistrate, The School Mistress, and Dandy Dick. They’re all set in upper-middle-class England amid clerics and judges, teachers and students, youngsters and oldsters, where youth ultimately fools old age and gets what it wants. Close on the heels of these plays, in 1892, appeared what is probably the most successful farce of all time, Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. It is the zany story of an Oxford student who dresses up as his friend’s aunt in order to help the cause of true love and thwart the older generation.

Beginning in 1922 the playwright Ben Travers wrote over a dozen comedies known as the Aldwych farces (because most of them played at the Aldwych Theatre in London), including A Cuckoo in the Nest, Rookery Nook, Plunder and Thark. These featured the same group of actors from play to play, involved amorous uncles, forbidding mothers, opinionated servants and innocent ingénues, and became tremendously popular with the English public. The Travers tradition was then carried on, and indeed enriched, by many of England’s finest dramatists such as J.B. Priestley (in When We Are Married), Terence Rattigan (in When the Sun Shines) and Noel Coward (in Blithe Spirit and Look After Lulu). Along the way there were some outstanding one-offs, like Tons of Money by Evans and Valentine, and See How They Run by Philip King.

What these plays have in common is not only their wildly funny stories and characters, but a firm sense of their own innocence. Their authors were very aware of the sexy, often bitter French farces by Georges Feydeau written in the decades around 1900; but that’s not what they wanted. They wanted the extravagant plots, the colorful characters and the hilarious dialogue without the adultery and pessimism. Thus emerged the very specific tradition of British farce.

In The Fox on the Fairway I’ve tried to touch base with some of the specific characteristics of this genre in order to sustain what I consider to be an important yet endangered tradition. Many of the above-mentioned classics had sporting themes, for example, probably because professional sports have a jaunty yet competitive edge that can bring out the best (and worst) in all of us. Some of the older farces revolve around bets; many of them concern marriages on the brink of disaster; some involve authority figures brought down to earth; and all of them concern young love fighting for survival. I’ve written this play not only as an homage to the earlier tradition, but also as a reminder of the values that this wonderful old tradition embodies, things like innocence, humor, good sportsmanship and honor. The idea is to embrace these values with a sense of joy. If we do, there may be hope for us yet.


Q. You have written for musicals (SULLIVAN & GILBERT), adapted classics (THE BEAUX’ STRATEGEM) and tackled thrillers (POSTMORTEM), but often comedy and specifically the physical nature of farce seems to be something many of your plays revolve around. Is there something inherent in the nature of farce that motivates you to write this type of work?

A. One of my favorite parts of great plays is their architecture. Farces need, above all, terrific architectural plotting. Not only do they need a beginning, middle and an end, they also have to be minutely structured from moment to moment so that they tick right along like a well-oiled clock. One of my favorite examples of that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In nine scenes, spread over five acts, Shakespeare tells four separate stories with four individual plots (five, if you include Pyramus and Thisbe as its own story). It includes six sets of lovers, a play-within-a-play, mistaken identity, a magic flower and a magical transformation or two and never once, in the entire play are we confused. It is an absolute miracle of construction. All of the great physical comedies in our history function that way to some extent. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is another play that is perfectly plotted. So are most of the great farces by Georges Feydeau. I’ve always admired that aspect of playwriting and farces give me the opportunity to indulge myself in that direction.


Q. We’ve been throwing the word "farce" around a bit here. Can you talk to us about how you approach writing a comedy like BE MY BABY or TWENTIETH CENTURY, and how that differs from undertaking a farcical project like LEND ME A TENOR or THE FOX ON THE FAIRWAY? How (if at all) does your process change?

A. I’ve written several plays that are not farcical (though they often contain moments of broad comic action) and they all, therefore, tend to focus more on character and ideas. Two of the best examples are BE MY BABY and SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD. BE MY BABY is the rather quiet, introspective story of an older couple taking care of and ultimately adopting an infant. It involves a journey from Scotland to America and a parallel journey within the two main characters whereby they find themselves and find each other. SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD is about a mortal falling in love with an immortal and the inevitable heartbreak that ensues. She can’t follow her loved one to the immortal realm and he makes the ultimate self-sacrifice and erases her memory. I tell the story in the buoyant atmosphere of movie- making in the 1930s using a sort of uber-context of a Shakespeare comedy; but the underlying sadness of the love story remains. This play also contains a sub-plot concerning censorship and the legacy of World War II, but the whole, I think, is treated in a manner comporting with the tone of the principal plot. When I write these kinds of plays, I simply don’t think about farcical complications because they are just not part of the landscape. In fact, farcical complications would end up spoiling this kind of play.



Q: When and/or how did you know that you wanted to create plays? Were you ever going to or did you pursue a totally different career?

A. I wanted to be in the theatre since I was six years old. Of course, as a student I thought the only way to be in the theatre was to be an actor and so I acted in grade school, high school and college. It was only about mid-way through college that I realized I wanted to write plays as opposed to being in them.

I applied to law schools at the end of college, got into Harvard Law School and decided to go in the interest of making a living to support my writing habit. I then practiced international law for a short time while I was writing my earliest plays. In fact my routine was to get up at 4am every morning, shower, and write from 4:30 to 8:30am, then put on my suit and go off to the law firm. I was able to financially stop doing two jobs and just focus on writing after LEND ME A TENOR became a hit on Broadway.



Q: What inspires you to take on a new project? Are there any new projects you’d like to tell us about that you are working on now?

A. I’m lucky enough now in my career to able be focus only on projects that are in my heart. Usually these come from ideas I’ve developed on my own, by living and just thinking about life and art. Sometimes new projects come from an outside source, like when I was asked to write the book for the musicals CRAZY FOR YOU and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, or when I was commissioned to write a swashbuckler for the Bristol Old Vic and I wrote my adaptation of THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

I’ve recently finished two new plays − a comedy/mystery, and a comedy set on the Jersey shore for a large cast of characters in the hopes that it will be interesting to high schools and colleges in particular.

I like writing plays like that have a sort of outside purpose to them. I’m a great admirer of JB Priestly who wrote a mystery for a particular community theatre that asked him for a play that answered their specific set and casting needs. I like that aspect of being a playwright. The word "wright" means someone who makes things out of raw materials. A "wright" is a craftsman.

At the moment, I am working on a commission to write a children’s play called THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and I’m about to start writing book entitled HOW TO TEACH YOUR CHILDREN SHAKESPEARE for Crown Publishing. Finally, I have an idea for a new comedy that I can’t wait to start writing.

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