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Play Writing - Self Criticism

( Originally Published 1915 )

Others may tell him whether his work is good or bad; but only the author himself is in a position to know just what he was trying to do and how far short he has fallen of doing it....Suppose, for instance, that an author's trouble is plot construction. It may be easy to tell him where his plot is wrong and explain to him the principle that he has violated. But if he is to obtain any real and lasting profit, he must find out for him-self how to set the trouble right. Of course, you might construct the plot for him—but then it would be your plot and not his; you would be, not his teacher, but his collaborator; and his working out of your plot would almost surely result in bad Work.—FREDERIC TABER COOPER, The Craftsmanship of Writing.

The paramount danger is haste, with its resultant carelessness....To exhibit the superficial aspects of a situation, to invent melodramatic incidents that obscure the solution, and to express half-baked views in place of thoughtful convictions, if indeed the duty of thinking out the problem be not dodged entirely, is so often quite sufficient to win applause and pelf, that it is perhaps a counsel of perfection to ask our playmakers, in the present infancy of their art, to do more. And yet, more they must do, in time, if our theatre is to be reckoned as a national asset; the appeal to history settles that.—RICRARD BURTON, The New American Drama.

Before the dramatist takes his trusty typewriter in hand or—if he be so opulent—turns his play over to the typist, let him submit it to the most patient and searching process of criticism, beginning with the first fundamentals and not ending till he has taken into account the last details. Let him read his work carefully, read it aloud for the detection of cacophony and other faults still more vital. Preferably, first of all, he should lay the manuscript away for several months and try to forget it. Then he should assume and cultivate the most detached and impersonal attitude possible, putting himself imaginatively in the place not only of the average playgoer, but also of the manager and the actor.

Testing the Amount of Dramatic Material

The fundamental question that he should relentlessly ask concerning his work is, Is this drama? Or perhaps we should word it, How much of this is drama, and how much merely dialogue, narrative, descriptive, didactic? Too often a few bright lines and interesting situations that could readily be condensed into a vaudeville sketch are spread out thin over the surface of a whole evening's performance. Mr. George M. Cohan's "Broadway Jones" occupies four acts when it might as well have been con-fined to three. Mr. A. E. W. Mason's play, "Green Stockings," indeed, was thus condensed after its first production and for some time appeared in three acts while its original "paper" advertised it as "a four-act comedy."

Naturally, few plays are drama from the very start. The exigencies of exposition usually require a preliminary narrative dialogue. Sometimes this extends throughout the entire first act. Too often it never ceases till the final curtain. Purely expository beginnings should be disguised by means of interesting movement, manoeuvres, and characterization. In other words, the exposition should be contrived so as to hold the attention of the spectator with the least possible, if any, voluntary effort on his part. It has previously been pointed out that the exposition may often be sprinkled along in small doses throughout the first act, or even throughout the entire play, instead of being massed at the beginning.

Testing the Interest

In reviewing his completed work, the playwright should be able to determine at exactly what point the emotional interest commences. And, if this point be long delayed, he should labor to condense what precedes it, to shift the order of revelation, and by all available means to maintain attention from the beginning of his play.

Where does emotional—that is, dramatic—interest begin? Briefly, it starts with the struggle that underlies the play. The moment we see persons actually engage in a conflict, with each other, with society, with circumstances, with fate, with themselves—in short, with any conceivable antagonist—that moment, being human, we are inspired with a feeling of suspense as to the out-come of the fight. We are curious as to who shall win, and —meanwhile--as to how the battle will be fought. It behooves the dramatist, therefore, to dispense with use-less preliminaries and let his antagonists come to the grapple with the least possible delay.

Having determined the matter of the dramatic start, the self-criticising playwright will proceed to make certain that he has maintained the initial interest he has aroused. It is distinctly his business not to allow this emotional curiosity to lag. In fact, it is distinctly his business to be constantly heightening it toward his climax. One of the easiest faults to commit in play-writing is that of continually raising and dropping the tension from situation to situation, that is, of presenting a series of incidents, each dramatic in itself but not carrying over the final interest to what follows and proceeding ever up and up on higher levels to the summit. The prognosis for this broken-backed structure is usually most unfavorable. It should be avoided from the scenario stage. In any event, it should be carefully sought out in the final self-criticism and, when found, eliminated even at the cost of an entire recasting and rewriting of the play.

This process of self-criticism further includes a determination as to whether the structure itself is actually climacteric—always excepting plotless photography—and as to whether the climax—indeed, the plot in general—is illustrative of the theme. Then comes the question of the dénouement. It is perhaps a natural tendency to construct plays so that the interest both culminates and concludes at the same moment. In such a case, however, an appended act merely to tell us that They were married and lived happily ever after, or that, having been definitely conquered, He gave up the struggle, will be a matter of supererogation. Final self-criticism must determine whether a sufficiently important part of the story has been left to be told in the last act. In fact, every act but the last should be concluded in such a way as to carry the spectator's interest over into what is to follow. Where this procedure is found to have been neglected, recasting is again obligatory.

Testing the Characterization

When these matters of story have been disposed of—or, rather, simultaneously with the process—the characterization and its relation to the plot must be painstakingly scrutinized. It is assumed that from the beginning every effort has been made to avoid the conventional. The playwright has modelled upon real life as he knows it, rather than upon the artificialities traditional to, the theatre and fiction generally. It is more than possible, however, that, in the haste of composition, he has admitted to his work defects of probability and complete motivation. He has made A, who is ordinarily a hard-headed, shrewd man of affairs, incredibly commit some carelessness or omit some caution. In other words, everything has not always been taken into consideration when a character has been made to say or do things. With the final self-criticism comes the playwright's opportunity to remedy any such possible oversights, and so to avoid the condemnation that is sure to descend upon even the most trivial improbabilities of conduct among his dramatis personæ. Indeed, the more accurate and thorough the characterization, the more glaring will be the smallest inconsistency.

There must be, then, every attention given to such matters of detail. The entrances and exits of the characters, for example, must be carefully, though not obtrusively, motivated. It is repeatedly necessary to get this or that person on or off the stage; and in our day their comings and goings may not simply happen arbitrarily. In "As a Man Thinks," for example, Dr. Seelig comes home at tea-time and finds his daughter alone in the drawing-room. Several friends have been invited in—they are already late—and so we are prepared for their coming presently. Mrs. Clayton calls to speak with the doctor professionally; this gets her into the house; and then, in order that Vedah and lier father may continue their confidential expository chat a little longer, Mrs. Clayton's desire to see Mrs. Seelig, who is upstairs, gets the former off the stage again. Later, to leave Vedah and Burrill alone together after the apparently casual, but of course carefully calculated announcement by her father of her engagement to De Lota—Dr. Seelig carries the two vases into the library. And, a short time afterward—to give De Lota and Elinor an opportunity for confidential dialogue—Dr. Seelig calls to Vedah and Burrill to come to him in the library.

So it goes. People do not drop in by chance or disappear without reason: every movement is rationalized—made the effect of an obvious, though never obtrusive cause.

Testing the Play for Action

And always what must be borne steadily in mind is the importance of action. A play is a play, and not merely a narrative, by virtue of this element alone. You have a theme: it must be shown in action. You have a story: it must be related in action. You have characters: they must be portrayed in action. Whatever there is in your drama that is worth while must be illustrated concretely by things done, and not merely said.

For an example consider Mr. Rudolf Besier's "Don" in contrast with Mr. George Bernard Shaw's "Fanny's First Play." At bottom, the theme of both is the same: the helplessness of middle-class respectability in the face of the unconventional. But "Don" illustrates this problem in terms of concrete action, while the other piece presents it chiefly in the form of debate. In fact, with Mr. Shaw there is so much scintillant dialogue that there is no time left for the doing of things. When we eliminate this verbal felicity and substitute "the great realities of our modern life—meaning, apparently," as Mr. William Winter puts it, "photographs of the coal-scuttle, and other such tremendous facts of actual, everyday existence," we no longer draw the playgoer's attention away from the fundamental lack of action. Indeed, "Fanny's First Play," as a play, was only what might have been expected of so youthful an amateur as Fanny, and consequently had to be eked out not only with Shavian girdings at middle-class morality, but also with the resurrected device of a satirical prologue and epilogue forestalling the critics.'

Testing the Play for Finish

Finally, there will remain in this process of self-criticism, the ultimate condensation and polishing of the dialogue, and even of the stage directions. It seems almost endlessly possible to eliminate superfluous words and phrases and to improve diction and form. Of course, all must be done with an eye single—in the realistic drama—to that compact and selective kind of speech which yet gives the illusion of the ordinary.

Above all, the dialogue must be kept consistent with the characterization; and the last test, again, will deter-mine whether anybody has been made to say what he would not probably have said in real life.

After everything possible seems to have been done by way of improvement, a final reading aloud will invariably discover unguessed imperfections. In fact, it is doubtful whether any playwright who types his own manuscripts ever does so without numerous pauses to reconstruct a line or to delete a phrase.

Important General Tests

There are, of course, many special considerations other than those mentioned that must enter into the process of final self-criticism. Authors will perhaps ask themselves whether they have provided the sort of leading rôle that will appeal to the particular player or manager that it is hoped to interest; whether opportunity has been provided for necessary changes of costume; whether the scenes and the time-scheme have been devised so as to give occasion for a desirable sartorial display in certain types of drama; whether general ease and inexpensiveness of production have been made possible—in fact, scores of eminently practical considerations will come to mind.

There is the important matter of the unity of tone, since plays, as has been seen, occasionally fail through a shifting viewpoint that fatally confuses the spectator. Then there is the whole problem of preparation, of advance information and suggestion that arouses suspense and makes intelligible what occurs later. And finally, there is the question of repetition and the rigid deletion of what has perchance been twice told to no special advantage.

Digest of Dramatic Rules

Perhaps the beginner will be stimulated by some of the various collections of miscellaneous rules for dramatic composition.

He will at least remember Dumas' "Let your first act be clear, your last act brief, and the whole interesting," and Wilkie Collins's famous "Make 'em laugh; make 'em weep; make 'em wait." For the rest, here are some fragments of advice from many sources, which the amateur dramatist may take for what they are worth:

1. Get a good, simple story.

2. Let it be human and appeal to all kinds of people, the gallery as well as the stalls.

3. Do not let too many important things have "happened" before the rise of the curtain.

4. Center your interest on one or two people.

5.The fewer characters the better.

6. The fewer settings the better.

7. Do not change your scene during an act.

8. Do not have more than four acts.

9. Let there be between eighteen and thirty-five type-written pages to the act.

10.Mere topics of the hour are dangerous themes, since by the time plays are read and produced their subject-matter is likely to be stale. Themes universal and eternal, yet timely, are the ones that are most worth while.

11.Today is the best time to write about; where you live, the likeliest place.

12. Read the master playwrights of today:—Sudermann, Pinero, Thomas, Hervieu, Rostand—these will do to start with.

13. Technique—as in all the arts—must be mastered and forgotten. It must be at the finger-tips, like the mechanics of piano-playing.

14. "The exit of each character must bear the same relation to him that the curtain bears to the plot. Every time a man leaves the stage, the audience should wonder what he is going to do and what effect it will have on his next appearance."

15. See that the play is always moving straight toward its goal : divagation is usually death.

16. Plays that are "enlarged fifth acts,"—that is, that present only the culminating scenes of the story—are usually the swiftest and the most compact.

17. Express as much as possible in pantomime, gesture, and facial play: by so doing you take the audience into collaboration and thus tickle its vanity. It is worth while to develop the significant "business" for the player.

18. If it is consistent with story and characters, give the women opportunities to dress—and more than once.

19. Remember that interior settings are usually less expensive than exteriors. Moreover, entrances and exits are more clear-cut, definite, and effective in interiors.

20. Work to bring about a logical conclusion dimly foreseen and ardently desired, by surprising yet thoroughly convincing means.

21. "The essence of the play's entertainment is surprise—the pleasant shock which breaks the crust of habitual thought in which each spectator is imprisoned and releases him into a new and more spacious world."

22. Base all your work ultimately upon Spencer's principle of the economy of attention.

23. Strive to people situation with character and to make situation significant as an opportunity for character to express itself. Character should always dominate situation. Character is destiny.

24. Avoid the didactic: —a play should point its own moral without the aid of a raisonneur.

25. Settings should be characteristic and suggestive of the persons and the theme of the play. The first setting ought, in some measure, to strike the keynote.

26. Ponder Ibsen's avowed purpose in play-writing:—to evoke "the sensation of having lived through a passage of actual life."

27. Remember proportion: the minor, however interesting per se, is pernicious when it distracts attention from the major matter.

28. "Plays aren't written; they're rewritten." "It's a wise author that knows his own play on its first night."

29. "In the matter of local color, of atmosphere, the playwright cannot spend too much pains. He must be effective in all these superficial things."

30. The first rule of the stage, as of oratory, is—to paraphrase Danton—De l'action, encore de l'action, toujours de l'action. The constant desire of the spectator is to see something happen.

"These few precepts" it will hardly be necessary to analyze or discuss. For the most part, they are repetitive of what has already, and more than once, been counselled in detail. Some of them, of course, merely repeat each other. Others challenge instant antagonism. They are drawn, as was said, from various sources and are offered simply with the thought that, as they stand, they may stimulate helpful reflection.

Finally, perhaps the most vital rule that could be phrased would be Avoid haste. Sir Arthur Wing Pinero declares that one play a year is enough. Monsieur Edmond Rostand takes as long as nine years—at least in the case of "Chantecler." Whatever else he produces, we may be sure, will not lack maturest consideration. Shakespeare wrote his three dozen dramas, in addition to his other works, in about twenty-five years.

" `Stop Thief,' " says Mr. George M. Cohan,' "was one of the most logical, smooth-running farces ever produced on any stage. Moore rewrote it six times before it was approved by us. He must have written at least five entirely new plays before we accepted `Stop Thief; but he is one of the few playwrights who work on the theory that the other fellow is likely to have some ideas, and that the author does not know everything. He is willing to take advice and suggestions—and for that reason, if for no other, I believe he will prove a greater success, and eventually become a greater craftsman, than those who will not.

"Reizenstein threw away—not literally, of course—the first manuscript of On Trial.' . . . I told Reizenstein to write an entirely different story into his scenes, and in three or four weeks he came back with the play as it was later produced. . . . Had Reizenstein been an older and accepted playwright, he might have turned up his nose when we asked him to rewrite what some of them choose to call their `soul's blood.' . . . McHugh literally ripped the manuscript [of "Officer 666"] to pieces, changing it here, there, and everywhere, and then changing it again, until the play as produced would never have been recognized as the original."

Of course, many playwrights have won success while working at incredibly high speed. "La Dame aux Camellias was composed in eight days, to anticipate a pirated version of the novel from which it was taken. Dion Boucicault wrote four hundred plays in fifty years, one piece having been composed in forty-eight hours. Lope de Vega wrote dramas at the rate of forty-four a year until he had become responsible for more than two thousand titles.

On the other hand, when Mr. Edward Sheldon produces three plays in a single season, and only one of them is really worth while, the fact appears significant. Mr. Augustus Thomas, too, apparently suffers now and then by haste, as "Mere Man" and "The Model," to say nothing of a few other plays, would seem to indicate; and the late Clyde Fitch gave the impression of owing most of his deficiencies to the speed with which he turned out his frequently inconsequential trifles of entertainment. After all, it is much easier to scribble off new pieces at white heat than it is to subject a single drama to the long and relentless pressure of hard thinking that such an enterprise deserves and requires. As for success, one good play will certainly land its author high above what he could gain from a dozen comparative failures.


1. Apply the tests of this chapter to the text of some modern play. What are your conclusions, specifically?

2. Frankly say what defects you find in your own manuscripts, after self-criticism.

3. Indicate which points you think may be amended, and how.


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