Family Drama Makes for a Lousy Dramatist

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An Italian immigrant family, 1912. Public domain.

by Fergus Balfour, playwright extraordinaire and squatter on John DiFelice’s account

Let me tell you my story, man. Don’t you want to hear my story? It’s a good one. I had a crappy childhood, you know? Parents fought all the time. Screamed at each other. Said they hated each other. Constantly threatened to divorce, especially on Arbor Day. We lived in a duplex, like Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty. It was hell, and I lived through it — came out the other end, but all twisted and deformed. My psyche was like a tube of toothpaste that has been run over by an excavator. No, not Crest. Colgate, man, the kind that makes it look like you scrub your teeth with bleach. It ain’t pretty (I mean my situation, not my teeth). But here’s the thing: that was my life and I had to do something with those experiences .

People would often say to me, “Hey, you’re really screwed up. You should be a writer.” That’s what gave me the idea to write a play about my family. The way I figured it, my home life had so much drama, I must be good at writing it. I’m definitely better than that Tennessee Williams cat. I watched a movie called Suddenly, Last Summer, which I only knew as a song by The Motels, sung by that pouty woman who makes Franz Kafka look like he’s killing it in the enjoying life category. She sang that other song, “Only Baloney,” which I later found out is really named “Only the Lonely,” which made me realize I was deaf because my body had walled off my ears so I wouldn’t hear my mom scream at my dad because he bought more novelty items from Time Life Books. I understood her complaint. How many miniature Rolls Royces can one man own? He loves them so.

Robert Osborne introduced the movie which starred Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Cliff, and Elizabeth Taylor. It was all about seabirds and turtles, and how the seabirds swooped, and how the turtles crawled desperately toward the sea, and how the birds ate the turtles with a side of eggs. I’ve seen better drama in a Denny’s commercial.

So, I wrote my first script and took it to a reading held by the Saint Todd’s Home For Wayward Playwrights and Alcoholics, which conveniently represents a single group of people. For those of you who might think I’m a little light on details about how I wrote the play, remember that the only description the gospels ever gave about the death of Jesus is, “And he was crucified.”

I had never felt so confident as I did walking into Saint Todd’s. My script was the first to be read by real actors in what they call a “cold reading.” Mine was called an “ice cold reading” because no one had seen the script beforehand. I was already learning the lingo, worth the price of admission alone.

The host made a few opening remarks, likening what he does to finding a cure for cancer.

The two actors took their seats and were given copies of my manuscript. They looked it over like accountants reviewing someone’s tax forms on April 15th. Lots of raised eyebrows and heavy sighs. I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s not good.

As the actors read my script, I noticed there was a gnome at my reading. He had the hat, the long beard, the four-feet-ten inches of height. I thought I was hallucinating.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t a mythic creature. He was a very real, very accomplished novelist who liked to sit in on readings of drama. He also looked like a garden gnome that you may have in your flowerbed.

The reading ended and I thought it went great. The actors brought my script to life in surprising ways. The female actor, playing my mom, screamed at the male actor, playing my dad, because Dad decided to hang a door a half hour before the Thanksgiving dinner guests arrived. For me, that was the highlight, but there were other great exchanges.

MOM: I swear I’ll never figure you out! You ruined my life!

DAD: You ruined my business!

MOM: You ruined your business!

DAD: You wouldn’t let me take risks!

MOM: Risks? What you need is an exorcist.

DAD: You’re so squirrely, you should be hiding nuts in a tree.

MOM: You’re nuts!

DAD: No, you’re nuts!

MOM: No you’re nuts!

You could cut the tension with a knife. I couldn’t have been more proud. I had captured how it really was in my house growing up.

The host told me to take a seat among the actors on stage for the Q&A.

The novelist raised his hand. I called on him.

He sighed. “I didn’t see the point. Yep. Sure. You should’ve saved the tree. Mm-hmm. I started counting remaining pages four minutes in. Yep. Right.”

What the hell, man?

Then all the other writers in the audience jumped in, piling on the most absurd and misguided feedback.

  • According to these posers, you’re not supposed to have a ton of something called exposition.

Where did these people learn their craft?

I left Saint Todd’s and almost threw my scripts in a trashcan. But then I didn’t. A glorious thought took hold of my mind and it goes something like this: these people don’t know what they’re talking about! Every How-To guide about writing tells you to write what you know. Well, this is what I know. And it’s true, and it’s real life. Real life is two people arguing about something that happened forty years ago until everyone wants to seal their ears shut with spray foam. That’s drama, doggoned!

Wouldn’t you pay to watch that? Wouldn’t you pay to watch my play? What if I threw in some pot brownies? How about then? Everyone loves pot brownies.

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