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The Routine of Composition

( Originally Published 1912 )

AS no two people, probably, ever did, or ever will, pursue the same routine in play-making, it is manifestly impossible to lay down any general rules on the subject. There are one or two considerations, however, which it may not be wholly superfluous to suggest to beginners.

An invaluable insight into the methods of a master is provided by the scenarios and drafts of plays published in Henrik Ibsen's Efterladte Skrifter. The most important of these " fore-works," as he used to call them, have now been translated under the title of From Ibsen's Workshop (Scribner), and may be studied with the greatest profit. Not that the student should mechanically imitate even Ibsen's routine of composition, which, indeed, varied considerably from play to play. The great lesson to be learnt from Ibsen's practice is that the play should be kept fluid or plastic as long as possible, and not suffered to become immutably fixed, either in the author's mind or on paper, before it has had time to grow and ripen. Many, if not most, of Ibsen's greatest individual inspirations came to him as afterthoughts, after the play had reached a point of development at which many authors would have held the process of gestation ended, and the work of art ripe for birth. Among these inspired afterthoughts may be reckoned Nora's great line, " Millions of women have done that " — the most crushing repartee in literature — Hedvig's threatened blindness, with all that ensues from it, and Little Eyolf's crutch, used to such purpose as we have already seen.

This is not to say that the drawing-up of a tentative scenario ought not to be one of the playwright's first proceedings. Indeed, if he is able to dispense with a scenario on paper, it can only be because his mind is so clear, and so retentive of its own ideas, as to enable him to carry in his head, always ready for reference, a more or less detailed scheme. Go-as-you-please composition may be possible for the novelist, perhaps even for the writer of a one-act play, a mere piece of dialogue; but in a dramatic structure of any consider-able extent, proportion, balance, and the interconnection of parts are so essential that a scenario is almost as indispensable to a dramatist as a set of plans to an architect. There is one dramatist of note whom one suspects of sometimes working without any definite scenario, and inventing as he goes along. That dramatist, I need scarcely say, is Mr. Bernard Shaw. I have no absolute knowledge of his method; but if he schemed out any scenario for Getting Married or Misalliance, he has sedulously concealed the fact — to the detriment of the plays.'

The scenario or skeleton is so manifestly the natural groundwork of a dramatic performance that the playwrights of the Italian commedia dell' arte wrote nothing more than a scheme of scenes, and left the actors to do the rest. The same practice prevailed in early Elizabethan days, as one or two MS. " Plats," designed to be hung up in the wings, are extant to testify. The transition from extempore acting regulated by a scenario to the formal learning of parts falls within the historical period of the German stage. It seems probable that the romantic playwrights of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both in England and in Spain, may have adopted a method not unlike that of the drama of improvisation, that is to say, they may have drawn out a scheme of entrances and exits, and then let their characters discourse (on paper) as their fancy prompted. So, at least, the copious fluency of their dialogue seems to suggest. But the typical modern play is a much more close-knit organism, in which every word has to be weighed far more carefully than it was by playwrights who stood near to the days of improvisation, and could indulge in " the large utterance of the early gods." Consequently it would seem that, until a play has been thought out very clearly and in great detail, any scheme of entrances and exits ought to be merely provisional and subject to in-definite modification. A modern play is not a framework of story loosely draped in a more or less gorgeous robe of language. There is, or ought to be, a close interdependence between action, character and dialogue, which forbids a playwright to tie his hands very far in advance.

As a rule, then, it would seem to be an unfavourable sign when a drama presents itself at an early stage with a fixed and unalterable outline. The result may be a powerful, logical, well-knit piece of work; but the breath of life will scarcely be in it. Room should be left as long as possible for unexpected developments of character. If your characters are innocent of unexpected developments, the less characters they.' Not that I, personally, have any faith in those writers of fiction, be they playwrights or novelists, who contend that they do not speak through the mouths of their personages, but rather let their personages speak through them. " I do not invent or create " I have heard an eminent novelist say : " I simply record; my characters speak and act, and I write down their sayings and doings." This author may be a fine psychologist for purposes of fiction, but I question his insight into his own mental processes. The apparent spontaneity of a character's proceedings is a pure illusion. It means no more than that the imagination, once set in motion along a given line, moves along that line with an ease and freedom which seems to its possessor preternatural and almost uncanny.'

Most authors, however, who have any real gift for character-creation probably fall more or less under this illusion, though they are sane enough and modest enough to realize that an illusion it is. A character will every now and then seem to take the bit between his teeth and say and do things for which his creator feels himself hardly responsible. The playwright's scheme should not, then, until the latest possible moment, become so hard and fast as to allow his characters no elbow room for such manifestations of spontaneity. And this is only one of several forms of afterthought which may arise as the play develops. The playwright may all of a sudden see that a certain character is superfluous, or that a new character is needed, or that a new relationship between two characters would simplify matters, or that a scene that he has placed in the first act ought to be in the second, or that he can dispense with it altogether, or that it reveals too much to the audience and must be wholly recast.' These are only a few of the re-adjustments which have constantly to be made if a play is shaping itself by a process of vital growth ; and that is why the playwright may be advised to keep his material fluid as long as he can. Ibsen had written large portions of the play now known to us as Rosmersholm before he decided that Rebecca should not be married to Rosmer. He also, at a comparatively late stage, did away with two daughters whom he had at first given to Rosmer, and decided to make her childlessness the main cause of Beata's tragedy.

Perhaps I insist too strongly on the advisability of treating a dramatic theme as clay to be modelled and remodelled, rather than as wood or marble to be carved unalterably and once for all. If so, it is because of a personal reminiscence. In my early youth, I had, like everybody else, ambitions in the direction of play-writing; and it was my inability to keep a theme plastic that convinced me of my lack of talent. It pleased me greatly to draw out a detailed scenario, working up duly to a situation at the end of each act; and, once made, that scenario was like a cast-iron mould into which the dialogue had simply to be poured. The result was that the play had all the merits of a logical, well-ordered essay. My situations worked out like the Q.E.D.'s of Euclid. My characters obstinately re-fused to come to life, or to take the bit between their teeth. They were simply cog-wheels in a pre-arranged mechanism. In one respect, my two or three plays were models — in respect of brevity and conciseness. I was never troubled by the necessity of cutting down — so cruel a necessity to many playwrights.' My difficulty was rather to find enough for my characters to say— for they never wanted to say anything that was not strictly germane to the plot. It was this that made me despair of play-writing, and realize that my mission was to teach other people how to write plays. And, similarly, the aspirant who finds that his people never want to say more than he can allow them to say — that they never rush headlong into blind alleys, or do things that upset the balance of the play and have to be resolutely undone— that aspirant will do well not to be over-confident of his dramatic calling and election. There may be authors who can write vital plays, as Shakespeare is said (on rather poor evidence) to have done, without blotting a line; but I believe them to be rare. In our day, the great playwright is more likely to be he who does not shrink, on occasion, from blotting an act or two.

There is a modern French dramatist who writes, with success, such plays as I might have written had I combined a strong philosophical faculty with great rhetorical force and fluency. The dramas of M. Paul Hervieu have all the neatness and cogency of a geometrical demonstration. One imagines that, for M. Hervieu, the act of composition means merely the careful filling in of a scenario as neat and complete as a schedule. But for that very reason, despite their undoubted intellectual power, M. Hervieu's dramas command our respect rather than our enthusiasm. The dramatist should aim at being logical without seeming so .

It is sometimes said that a playwright ought to construct his play backwards, and even to write his last act first. This doctrine belongs to the period of the well-made play, when climax was regarded as the one thing needful in dramatic art, and anticlimax as the unforgivable sin. Nowadays, we do not insist that every play should end with a tableau, or with an emphatic mot de la fin. We are more willing to accept a quiet, even an indecisive, ending. Nevertheless it is and must ever be true that, at a very early period in the scheming of his play, the playwright ought to as-sure himself that his theme is capable of a satisfactory ending. Of course this phrase does not imply a " happy ending," but one which satisfies the author as being artistic, effective, inevitable (in the case of a serious play), or, in one word, " right." An obviously makeshift ending can never be desirable, either from the ideal or from the practical point of view. Many excellent plays have been wrecked on this rock. The very frequent complaint that " the last act is weak " is not always or necessarily a just reproach; but it is so when the author has clearly been at a loss for an ending, and has simply huddled his play up in a conventional and perfunctory fashion. It may even be said that some apparently promising themes are deceptive in their promise, since they are inherently incapable of a satisfactory ending. The playwright should by all means make sure that he has not run up against one of these blind-alley themes.' He should, at an early point, see clearly the end for which he is making, and be sure that it is an end which he actively desires, not merely one which satisfies convention, or which " will have to do."

Some dramatists, when a play is provisionally mapped out, do not attempt to begin at. the beginning and write it as a coherent whole, but make a dash first at the more salient and critical scenes, or those which specially attract their imagination. On such a point every author must obviously be a law unto himself. From the theoretical point of view, one can only approve the practice, since it certainly makes for plasticity. It is evident that a detached scene, written while those that lead up to it are as yet but vaguely conceived, must be subject to indefinite modification.' In several of Ibsen's very roughest drafts, we find short pas-sages of dialogue sketched out even before the names have been assigned to the characters, showing that some of his earliest ideas came to him, as it were, ready dramatized. One would be tempted to hope much of an author who habitually and unaffectedly thus " lisped in dialogue for the dialogue came."

Ought the playwright, at an early stage in the process of each act, to have the details of its scene clearly before him? Ought he to draw out a scene plot, and know, from moment to moment, just where each character is, whether He is standing on the hearthrug and She sitting on the settee, or vice versa? There is no doubt that furniture, properties, accidents of environment, play a much larger part in modern drama than they did on the Elizabethan, the eighteenth century, or even the early-Victorian stage. Some of us, who are not yet centenarians, can remember to have seen rooms on the stage with no furniture at all except two or three chairs " painted on the flat." Under such conditions, it was clearly useless for the playwright to trouble his head about furniture, and even " positions " might well be left for arrangement at rehearsal. This carelessness of the environment, however, is no longer possible. Whether we like it or no (and some theorists do not like it at all), scenery has ceased to be a merely suggestive back-ground against which the figures stand out in high relief. The stage now aims at presenting a complete picture, with the figures, not " a little out of the picture," but completely in it. This being so, the playwright must evidently, at some point in the working out of his theme, visualize the stage-picture in considerable detail ; and we find that almost all modern dramatists do, as a matter of fact, pay great attention to what may be called the topography of their scenes, and the shifting " positions " of their characters. The question is: at what stage of the process of composition ought this visualization to occur? Here, again, it would be absurd to lay down a general rule ; but I am inclined to think, both theoretically and from what can be gathered of the practice of the best dramatists, that it is wisest to reserve it for a comparatively late stage. A playwright of my acquaintance, and a very remarkable playwright too, used to scribble the first drafts of his play in little note-books, which he produced from his pocket when-ever he had a moment to spare — often on the top of an omnibus. Only when the first draft was complete did he proceed to set the scenes, as it were, and map out the stage-management. On the other hand, one has heard of playwrights whose first step in setting to work upon a particular act was to construct a complete model of the scene, and people it with mannikins to represent the characters. As a general practice, this is scarcely to be commended. It is wiser, one fancies, to have the matter of the scene pretty fully roughed-out before details of furniture, properties, and position are arranged.' It may happen, indeed, that some natural phenomenon, some property or piece of furniture, is the very pivot of the scene; in which case it must, of course, be posited from the first. From the very moment of his conceiving the fourth act of Le Tartu f e, Molière must have had clearly in view the table under which Orgon hides ; and Sheridan cannot have got very far with the Screen Scene before he had mentally placed the screen. But even where a great deal turns on some individual object, the detailed arrangements of the scene may in most cases be taken for granted until a late stage in its working out.

One proviso, however, must be made; where any important effect depends upon a given object, or a particular arrangement of the scene, the playwright cannot too soon assure himself that the object comes well within the physical possibilities of the stage, and that the arrangement is optically 1 possible and effective. Few things, indeed, are quite impossible to the modern stage; but there are many that had much better not be attempted. It need scarcely be added that the more serious a play is, or aspires to be, the more carefully should the author avoid any such effects as call for the active collaboration of the stage-carpenter, machinist, or electrician. Even when a mechanical effect can be produced to perfection, the very fact that the audience cannot but admire the ingenuity displayed, and wonder " how it is done," implies a failure of that single-minded attention to the essence of the matter in hand which the dramatist would strive to beget and maintain. A small but instructive example of a difficult effect, such as the prudent playwright will do well to avoid, occurs in the third act of Ibsen's Little Eyolf. During the greater part of the act, the flag in Allmers's garden is hoisted to half-mast in token of mourning; until at the end, when he and Rita attain a serener frame of mind, he runs it up to the truck. Now, from the poetic and symbolic point of view, this flag is all that can be desired; but from the practical point of view it presents grave difficulties. Nothing is so pitifully ineffective as a flag in a dead calm, drooping nervelessly against the mast ; and though, no doubt, by an ingenious arrangement of electric fans, it might be possible to make this flag flutter in the breeze, the very fact of its doing so would tend to set the audience wondering by what mechanism the effect was produced, instead of attending to the soul-struggles of Rita and Allmers. It would be absurd to blame Ibsen for overriding theatrical prudence in such a case ; I merely point out to beginners that it is wise, before relying on an effect of this order, to make sure that it is, not only possible, but convenient from the practical point of view. In one or two other cases Ibsen strained the resources of the stage. The illumination in the last act of Pillars of Society cannot be carried out as he describes it; or rather, if it were carried out on some exceptionally large and well-equipped stage, the feat of the mechanician would eclipse the invention of the poet. On the other hand, the abode of the Wild Duck in the play of that name is a conception entirely consonant with the optics of the theatre; for no detail at all need be, or ought to be, visible, and a vague effect of light is all that is required. Only in his last melancholy effort did Ibsen, in a play designed for representation, demand scenic effects entirely beyond the resources of any theatre not specially fitted for spectacular drama, and possible, even in such a theatre, only in some ridiculously makeshift form.

There are two points of routine on which I am compelled to speak in no uncertain voice — two practices which I hold to be almost equally condemnable. In the first place, no playwright who understands the evolution of the modern theatre can nowadays use in his stage-directions the abhorrent jargon of the early nineteenth century. When one comes across a manuscript bespattered with such cabalistic signs as " R. 2 E.," " R. C.," " L.C.," " L.U.E.," and so forth, one sees at a glance that the writer has neither studied dramatic literature nor thought out for himself the conditions of the modern theatre, but has found his dramatic education between the buff covers of French's Acting Edition. Some beginners imagine that a plentiful use of such abbreviations will be taken as a proof of their familiarity with the stage; whereas, in fact, it only shows their unfamiliarity with theatrical history. They might as well set forth to describe a modern battleship in the nautical terminology of Captain Marryat. " Right First Entrance," " Left Upper Entrance," and so forth, are terms belonging to the period when there were no " box " rooms or " set " exteriors on the stage, when the sides of each scene were composed of " wings " shoved on in grooves, and entrances could be made between each pair of wings. Thus, " R. I E." meant the entrance between the proscenium and the first " wing " on the right, " R. 2 E." meant the entrance between the first pair of " wings," and so forth. "L.U.E." meant the entrance at the left between the last " wing " and the back cloth. Now grooves and " wings " have disappeared from the stage. The " box " room is entered, like any room in real life, by doors or French windows ; and the only rational course is to state the position of your doors in your opening stage-direction, and thereafter to say in plain language by which door an entrance or an exit is to be made. In exterior scenes where, for example, trees or clumps of shrubbery answer in a measure to the old " wings," the old terminology may not be quite meaningless ; but it is far better eschewed. It is a good general rule to avoid, so far as possible, expressions which show that the author has a stage scene, and not an episode of real life, before his eyes. Men of the theatre are the last to be impressed by theatrical jargon; and when the play comes to be printed, the general reader is merely bewildered and annoyed by technicalities, which tend, moreover, to disturb his illusion.

A still more emphatic warning must be given against another and more recent abuse in the mat-ter of stage-directions. The " L.U.E.'s," indeed, are bound very soon to die a natural death. The people who require to be warned against them are, as a rule, scarcely worth warning. But it is precisely the cleverest people (to use clever in a somewhat narrow sense) who are apt to be led astray by Mr. Bernard Shaw's practice of expanding his stage-directions into essays, disquisitions, monologues, pamphlets. This is a practice which goes far to justify the belief of some foreign critics that the English, or, since Mr. Shaw is in question, let us say the inhabitants of the British Islands, are congenitally incapable of producing a work of pure art. Our novelists — Fielding, Thackeray, George Eliot — have been sufficiently, though perhaps not unjustly, called over the coals for their habit of coming in front of their canvas, and either gossiping with the reader or preaching at him. But, if it be a sound maxim that the novelist should not obtrude his personality on his reader, how much more is this true of the dramatist! When the dramatist steps to the footlights and begins to lecture, all illusion is gone. It may be said that, as a matter of fact, this does not occur: that on the stage we hear no more of the disquisitions of Mr. Shaw and his imitators than we do of the curt, and often non-existent, stage-directions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. To this the reply is twofold. First, the very fact that these disquisitions are written proves that the play is de-signed to be printed and read, and that we are, therefore, justified in applying to it the standard of what may be called literary illusion. Second, when a playwright gets into the habit of talking around his characters, he inevitably, even if unconsciously, slackens his endeavour to make them ex-press themselves as completely as may be in their own proper medium of dramatic action and dialogue. You cannot with impunity mix up two distinct forms of art — the drama and the sociological essay or lecture. To Mr. Shaw, of course, much may, and must, be forgiven. His stage-directions are so brilliant that some one, some day, will assuredly have them spoken by a lecturer in the orchestra while the action stands still on the stage. Thus, he will have begotten a bastard, but highly entertaining, form of art. My protest has no practical application to him, for he is a standing exception to all rules. It is to the younger generation that I appeal not to be misled by his seductive example. They have little chance of rivalling him as sociological essayists; but if they treat their art seriously, and as a pure art, they may easily surpass him as dramatists. By adopting his practice they will tend to produce, not fine works of art, but inferior sociological documents. They will impair their originality and spoil their plays in order to do comparatively badly what Mr. Shaw has done incomparably well.

The common-sense rule as to stage directions is absolutely plain; be they short, or be they long, they ought always to be impersonal. The playwright who cracks jokes in his stage-directions, or indulges in graces of style, is intruding himself between the spectator and the work of art, to the inevitable detriment of the illusion. In preparing a play for the press, the author should make his stage-directions as brief as is consistent with clearness. Few readers will burden their memory with long and detailed descriptions. When a new character of importance appears, a short description of his or her personal appearance and dress may be helpful to the reader; but even this should be kept impersonal. Moreover, as a play has always to be read before it can be rehearsed or acted, it is no bad plan to make the stage-directions, from the first, such as tend to bring the play home clearly to the reader's mental vision. And here I may mention a principle, based on more than mere convenience, which some playwrights observe with excellent results. Not merely in writing stage-directions, but in visualizing a scene, the idea of the stage should, as far as possible, be banished from the author's mind. He should see and de-scribe the room, the garden, the sea-shore, or what ever the place of his action may be, not as a stage-scene, but as a room, garden, or sea-shore in the real world. The cultivation of this habit ought to be, and I believe is in some cases, a safeguard against theatricality.

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