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Play Writing - The Play And Its Writer

( Originally Published 1915 )

Let us ask this direct question of every man and woman who reads these pages: Have you taken any pains to satisfy yourself that you possess this Inborn Talent? If not, do so without delay, before you scatter futile ink over another sheet of wasted paper. And it is not a question of having or not having the creative instinct, but of having it in sufficient degree to make its development really worth while. For the Inborn Talent in a writer may be compared to the grade of ore in a mine—the question is not simply whether there is any precious metal there at all, but whether it is present in paying quantities. It is well to find out, if you can, just how richly your talent will assay, and then work it accordingly.—FREDERIC TABER COOPER, The Craftsmanship of Writing.

I would not willingly say one word which might discourage those who are attracted to this branch of literature; on the contrary, I would encourage them in every possible way. One desires, however, that they should approach their work at the out-set with the same serious and earnest appreciation of its importance and its difficulties with which they undertake the study of music and painting. I would wish, in short, that from the very beginning their minds should be fully possessed with the knowledge that Fiction [of which genus the drama is, of course, a species] is an Art, and that, like all other arts, it is governed by certain laws, methods, and rules, which it is their first business to learn.—SIR WALTER BESANT, The Art of Fiction.

"A play," declares Mr. H. Granville Barker, "is anything that can be made effective upon the stage of a theatre by human agency. And I am not sure," he adds, in revolutionary good measure, "that this definition is not too narrow."

To most people, however, the definition that is possibly too narrow would seem amply comprehensive. At any rate, in spite even of Mr. Barker's earnest efforts to prove his proposition by means of homemade examples, the playgoing public continues to differentiate, if somewhat hazily, between "a play" and mere wise, verbose, or witty dialogues, or simple galleries of passive types.

After all, even if Aristotle, being human and not omniscient, did err in the matter of the ten pounds of lead, which Galileo proved would not fall a whit faster than a single pound of the same metal, still the Stagyrite was and remains fairly sound in the less scientific, more ćsthetic matter of the drama, in which he was naturally somewhat more adept. Moreover Mr. Barker—and others—have not succeeded in demolishing the Aristotelian view with quite the same degree of success that attended Galileo's experimentation.

Fundamentals of the Drama

Aristotle, then, in discussing the nature of a play, insisted primarily upon plot. "Drama" etymologically indicates action; and the action in a play must, first of all, tell a story. This includes a unified sequence of events, having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is represented by means of individuals imitating the personages taking part in the story.

Story and people, therefore, are two fundamental elements of a play. They depend upon each other—in fact, the delicacy and the harmony of their interrelations present the main problem of the dramatist. For it should be noted that neither element alone is sufficient. Story, indeed, cannot exist without people, or at least symbols of people; while people merely, not involved in any story, cannot constitute a play. "Drama," says Professor A. W. Ward, "is not reached till the imitation or representation extends to action."

As without a plot there can be no drama, so without a procedure from cause to effect there can be no plot. The third fundamental to be remembered, then, is logic. It applies not only to the element of story, but also to the element of people, in their characterization. In fact, logic is, in a sense, the binding principle which cements the plot and the people in a play. Another name for this principle is "probability;" still another, "consistency;" neither of these terms, however, is so satisfying, because not so inclusive, as "logic."

The Endowments of the Playwright

The aspiring playwright should first introspectively consult his creative equipment for the purpose of discovering whether it includes aptitudes in line with the. three essentials of the drama so far mentioned. Is he gifted with the ability to imagine stories? Is he not only something of a born plot-maker, but also a sound, if intuitive, psychologist? Has he that power of observation which enables him unerringly to single out and to classify the traits, regular and eccentric, of human nature? And, finally, is he endowed with a relentlessly logical thinking apparatus, which will never allow itself to be thrown out of gear or off the track, no matter how much pressure may be brought to bear upon it by the power of mental habit or the tyranny of precedent?

The probably successful playwright must have this triple gift. He needs to be, in fact, a combination of the scientific and the artistic type of mind. The science of humanity is the foundation of the art of the drama, and it is in both fields that the dramatist must be an expert.

Manifestly, not all men and women can be made into playwrights. Life is infinitely too short. Writers for the stage must be born saturated with drama, oozing drama from their finger-tips, living their lives largely in an imaginative realm of the mimetic, thinking in terms of drama, seeing all life, indeed, from the special angle of its effective theatrical representation.

Sarcey quotes Sardou as insisting on the fact that "the true character, the distinctive sign, of the man born for the theatre, is to see nothing, to hear nothing, which does not immediately take on, for him, the theatrical aspect: " `This landscape he admires, what a beautiful setting! This charming conversation he listens to, what pretty dialogue! This delicious young girl that passes, how adorable an ingénue! Finally, this misfortune, this crime, this disaster one describes to him, what a situation! what a scene! what drama! The special faculty of dramatizing everything constitutes the power of the dramatic author.' . . . Unfortunately, it must be at once admitted that this thing is not easy or common. We are forever passing by dramatic incidents and situations which do not strike us at all, because they are affairs of ordinary life; but which others, gifted with a special vision, perceive, and from which they extract the drama we never even suspected

"To see a true thing and to feel that it would be effective on the stage, that is the first part of this special gift Sardou talks about; to imagine the dramatic form which would reveal this true thing, that is, to find a means of giving it verisimilitude in the eyes of twelve hundred people assembled before the footlights, is the second and last part which makes up the whole. And there is nothing rarer in the world than this gift."

In insisting on this element of congenital endowment as being necessarily fundamental to all training in play-making, we might go further and say that the successful dramatist, even our latter-day species, must be a poet. So, indeed, he was usually named a century or two ago, not because he wrote in verse, but because he dealt in an art-form closely related to poetry pure and simple. The drama aims primarily at the emotions. A story acted out by characters, however logical it may be, if it fails to arouse the feelings of the audience, is not a play. Drama today is oftenest written in prose; but, if it is to succeed, it does not confine itself to a purely intellectual appeal. Rather are we accustomed to believe that drama rises above mere spoken dialogue and pantomime to its own peculiar plane solely when it produces a distinct emotion-al reaction.

This, then, is drama, reduced to its elements: A unified and logical story told in action by its own characters and making a sustained emotional appeal. Its proper construction requires a certain innate poetic ability specialized in the direction of what is effective for the stage—the expression of life in terms of concrete action, the visualization of truth. Without the power to embody the abstract, without a mentality combining the clearest thinking with the deepest feeling, the aspirant to honors in writing plays will probably fall short even of mediocrity.

Underlying and infusing all worthy dramatic writing is the individualized and emphatic personality of the dramatist. Personality is, after all, the prime requisite. Are you a man or a woman gifted with a mental, moral, and spiritual constitution that sufficiently differentiates you from the mass of humanity to make your viewpoint, your utterances, your creative endeavors of whatsoever sort, inherently attractive merely because they have in them the flavor of yourself? If so, you may safely begin to take stock of your other native endowments with a view to determining your fitness to write plays. The ability to effect mere rearrangements of antiquated situations and characters is far from sufficient. Ibsen, Brieux, Pinero, Shaw, Rostand, Maeterlinck, Barrie—these are personalities constantly revealing themselves through the mimic world they create. There is no set formula for the process. The style is the man, and it can be neither mistaken nor imitated. What the men and women on the stage say and do, or refrain from saying and doing, in some mysterious manner reveals the sympathies and antipathies, the tastes, the foibles, and the ideals of their creator; and him we, like, abhor, or are indifferent to, according as he is strong and sincere, feeble and disingenuous, or commonplace and dull.

Endowment Plus Preparation

If, however, the self-consulting aspirant thinks he finds the necessary endowment present—in germ, as is most likely, rather than in total development—there will still remain by way of preparation the mastering of a considerable number of time-tried technical processes. The drama, like all other arts or crafts, has its body of doctrine gained from experimentation. One must know as many facts about ways and means before broaching the construction of a play, at least as one must know, for instance, before beginning to build a house.

To set forth as simply and concretely as possible these basic tenets of the art of dramatic composition will be the aim of the chapters to follow.


1. Formulate your own definition for the drama.

2. Quote as many definitions as you can from authorities.

3. Make a list of the elements generally agreed on.

4. What elements in these definitions seem to you to be not properly included?

5. Are one's native mental and emotional endowments generally in plain evidence at the age, say, of from twenty-five to thirty?

6. What sort of experiences and exercises are likely to reveal to oneself his own native gifts?

7. Compare the necessity for native gifts in the playwright and in the painter; in the poet; in the novelist.

8. Restate in your own words the qualities that the present author holds must be inborn in the truly successful playwright.

9. Would you add to or subtract from this list? Why? Io. What relation does intelligent study bear to native endowment?


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