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HOW TO WRITE A PLAY

by Brander Matthews

The following article is reprinted from The Principles of Playmaking. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919. pp. 31-43.

The title of this paper may seem presumptuous. Who am I that I should presume to proffer instruction in the art of the playwright, as difficult as it is dangerous? If this hurrying twentieth century of ours were only the leisurely eighteenth century, when everybody had all the time there was, a fit name for this paper might be: "A few tentative Suggestions for those who propose to commence Playwrights, garnered from the Experience of an old Playgoer." That may be a more accurate, as it is a more cautious, description of the intent of the present paper; but it is a little too long drawn to serve as a title for an article on a topic of immediate interest to an immense number of ambitious aspirants.

It has been calculated by an imaginative statistician that there are now in these United States nearly one hundred thousand persons--men, women, and children--who are eager to write plays, believing that the stage door is the easiest entrance to the Temple of Fortune and to the Hall of Fame. Whether or not this estimate is scientifically accurate may not be disclosed even when we have the figures of the new census. Quite possibly it is not at all inflated, since it allows only one apprentice playmaker to every thousand of the population. At all events, there are so many of them that advertisements have appeared of late addressed especially to those ignorant of dramatic art and yet ambitious to acquire it. "Playwriting Taught by Mail" is an alluring temptation which is probably charming subscriptions from the pockets of many an eager youth.

Whether or not playwriting can really be taught by mail is a question that need not here be discussed. What is not a question is that it can be taught, even if these advertisers may not be capable of teaching it. Playwriting is an art and every art must be learned; and whatever must be learned can be taught--whether it is the art of painting a portrait, of rhyming a lyric, of making a speech or of writing a play. It is true that the poet is born, not made; but it is also true that after he is born he has to be made. What he has to say may be the gift of God, but how he is to say it depends upon the training of the bard himself. In every artist we can perceive a man with both a message and a method. His message may be innate in him, but his method he has to acquire from others. The painters have recognized this; and they promptly go to school to the older practitioners of the craft that they may imbibe its secrets and be shown how to set a palette and how to bring out on the canvas before them the things they see in the world around them. Every painter is the pupil of one or more painters of an earlier generation; and he is proud of it as a proof that he has served his apprenticeship and learned his trade properly.

Whatever has to be learned can be taught; but it can be taught best by those who have practiced it themselves. The instructors in the art schools are painters, not art critics or historians of art. And, if playwriting is to be taught with the same success that painting has been taught, this can be accomplished only by the older playwrights instructing the younger and laying bare before them the art and mystery of the drama. If a school of playwriting were to be opened the proper instructors would be Mr. Gillette and Mr. Augustus Thomas in the United States, and Sir Arthur Pinero and Mr. Henry Arthur Jones in Great Britain. In France, more than half-a-century ago, there was for a while something very like a school of playwriting kept by a master playwright, Scribe--that is to say, Scribe liked to collaborate and he was hospitable to the young men who brought him suggestions for plays. He showed these young men how their suggestions could be turned to profit on the stage. And in this collaboration the young men could not fail to get an insight into Scribe's method and to discover some of the reasons why Scribe's plays were incessantly reappearing in all the theaters of Europe.

And yet a mere critic, a mere historian of the drama, may on occasion be able to proffer advice, not so much to the point, perhaps, as would be that of the successful playwright, but not without a certain value of its own, however inferior. When anyone has been intensely interested in the drama for more than forty years, and when he has been an assiduous playgoer in many cities, and when he has taken advantage of every opportunity to discuss the problems of playmaking with the many dramatists he has had the good fortune to count among his friends--it may not be unreasonable for him to assume that it is in his power to call attention to a few of the more obvious points which the ambitious young dramatic author must ever bear in mind. He may not be justified in advertising "Playwriting Taught by Mail", but he ought to be able to make a few elementary suggestions.

The first of these obvious considerations for the benefit of the 'prentice playwright is that he ought to devote himself to playgoing. Nearly forty years ago, when I hoped that I might become a professional playwright, I introduced myself to the late Eugene Nus, the author of the French originals of Charles Reade's Hard Cash, Boucicault's Streets of New York, and Tom Taylor's Ticket-of-Leave Man. Though the play plotted as a result of this introduction was never actually written, one remark of the veteran French playmaker may be recalled: "Young man, if you want to write for the theater you must go to the theater". Every writer of plays must be intimately familiar with the theater of his own time and his own country, since that is the only theater where he can hope to have his plays produced. He must understand its organization and its mechanism. He must study earnestly not only the theater itself but the actors--and, above all, the audiences.

He must go to see the successful plays of the season again and again, in the endeavor to discover the causes of their success and the means whereby this success has been attained. The first time he is a spectator at the performance of a play he is likely to be merely a spectator--carried away like the rest of the audience by the story itself, by the interest of the plot, by the excitement of the successive episodes. When he gets home he will do well to analyze his impressions and to ask himself how it was that these impressions were produced. Then he will do well to go again to verify this analysis and to clear up the points that may have been left in doubt. At this second visit he ought to be able to perceive a little more clearly the method of the author--the reasons, for example, why a certain interview is in the fourth act and not in the third; and the reasons why certain parts of the story are shown in action and certain other parts are merely narrated or otherwise explained to the audience. He ought to note especially how the dramatist has conveyed to the spectators the information about what has happened before the play began, not necessary to be shown in action and yet absolutely necessary if the actual story is to be followed with understanding.

Then he may go a third time-and a fourth-until he has mastered the construction of the play; whereupon he may turn his attention from the play to the audience, marking when the spectators are fidgety and when they are swept along by the resistless rush of action. When he perceives that some of the audience are looking at their programs, or whispering to their neighbors, he had better look again at the play to discover, if he can, what made the interest relax at that moment.

Nor should he neglect the failures and devote himself wholly to the successes. Many an interesting lesson can be derived from a failure. The student can at least try to ascertain why it failed. He can let it teach him what to avoid. He can watch the behavior of the scant audience; and this will sometimes be as illuminating as the conduct of the spectators at a successful play. Every dramatist, the mightiest as well as the less significant -- Shakespeare and Molière, no less than Sardou and Belasco -- has always kept his eye on his audience. If he does not desire above all things to interest and to move and to hold the audience, then he has no business with playwriting.

It is his first duty to find out what the playgoers of his own time and his own country enjoy, for that is what he will have to give them in his plays--even if he may be able also to give them something more. When he has learned this art he may express himself and deliver his own message--if he has one; but he has always to keep his audiences in mind and to remember that they have to be interested in the play, or his message will never reach its destination. He has to feel with his spectators, so that he may make them feel with him. This does not mean any "writing down to the vulgar mob"; but it does mean "writing broad for the people as a whole".

Hamlet, for example, is Shakespeare's masterpiece, rich in poetry and lofty in philosophy; but it is also a very amusing play for the gallery-boy, who cares little either for poetry or for philosopy, but who is delighted by the ghost, by the play-within-the-play and by the duel with the poisoned swords. It has been asserted that if Hamlet should be performed in a deaf-and-dumb asylum the inmates would be able to follow the story with interest by means of their eyes alone. A wise critic once declared that the skeleton of a good play is pantomime. Tartuffe for example is Molière's masterpiece, a marvelously rich portrayal of human nature; and it has a pantomime for its backbone. When the Comédie-Française went to London, forty years ago, Sarcey picked out Tartuffe as the one play of all the repertory that produced the most certain effect upon the English playgoers, since its story was so clear that it could be followed even by those ignorant of French.

If the successful play of the hour happens to be published the aspirant will do well to get it and to compare the impression he had in the theater itself with that made by the printed page in the library. This will help to show him how much of the effect of a play is due to the performance--to the acting, to the looks and gestures, to the pauses and to the sense of suspense. And it will probably startle him to discover how little of the effect is due to external literary merit, to mere writing, to rhetoric; and how much of this effect is the result of the story itself, of the building up of the situations so that one seems to arise naturally out of another; and of the bold, sharp constrast of character with character. "Fine writing" is nowadays at a discount; and in the theater action is all important. This is no new discovery, for Aristotle said it many centuries ago, insisting that story and construction were absolutely necessary, whereas poetry was only a decoration or an accompaniment. A good play must have literary merit, of course; but it must be drama before it is literature. It has to succeed on the stage or it will never be read.

The ambitious aspirant will find advantage, also, in analyzing contemporary published plays that he has not seen acted and in trying to guess at their effectiveness in the theater. Sardou once told a reporter how he had studied Scribe's pieces in the endeavor to spy out the secrets of stagecraft. "I used to take a three-act play that I did not know anything about. I read only the first act; and, after this exposition of the story and of the characters, I closed the book and then I tried to build up for myself the rest of the play that Scribe had erected on that foundation. And I was satisfied with myself only when I had, by a sheer exercise of logic, succeeded in constructing a plot pretty close to that which I afterward found in the second and third acts". Scribe is now a little old-fashioned; but today a novice would find it very suggestive if he took Pinero's Mid-Channel, Jones' Liars, or Clyde Fitch's Girl with the Green Eyes, and, after studying the first act very carefully, tried to outline the play that is the necessary conclusion.

To say this is to emphasize the fact that the art of the dramatist is very like the art of the architect. A plot has to be built up just as a house is built--story after story; and no edifice has any chance of standing unless it has a broad foundation and a solid frame. What the characters say is less important than what they do, and still less important than what they are. After the steel frame is once erected there will be time enough to consider the decoration and to design the stained-glass windows. The story, the plot, the theme--these are the essential things. Voltaire says somewhere that the success of a play depends on the choice of its subject. And whether a subject is good or not depends on the audience. Subjects that were excellent for Sophocles and for Shakespeare are no longer satisfactory to modern spectators, who have a very different outlook on the world from that of the Athenians or the Elizabethans. The spectator today wants to see himself on the stage--himself and his fellows--the kind of folks he knows by personal experience. And it is only by choosing a subject of this sort that the novice can give his work what the late Augustin Daly used to call "contemporaneous human interest".

A play needs to have a theme; this theme must be interpreted by a story; and the story must be stiffened into a plot. The plot may be simple and straightforward, free from conmplications and complexities; but it must deal with a struggle. It must show the clash of contending desires. This marks the sharp difference between the novel and the play. Alone in the library we are often glad to read a novel which sets before us merely a group of characters, revealing themselves by word of mouth; but in the theater, when we are assembled together, we are bored if we are not shown a definite action, a steadily moving story in which we can follow the strife of opposing forces. A novel may delight us by merely exhibiting human beings; but a play is not likely to please us unless we can sympathize with the effort of one of those human beings to attain a definite purpose. On the stage we want to see somebody wanting something and either getting it or not getting it. We want to see a fight, fought to the finish.

When Mr. Gillette set out to put Sherlock Holmes into a play he instinctively seized upon the shadowy figure of Professor Moriarty, the astute leader of a band of criminals--a figure only glimpsed vaguely in a far corner of one of the least known of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Mr. Gillette put this figure in the forefront of the play he was composing, and set him over against the incomparable detective, thus providing Sherlock Holmes with a foeman worthy of his steel. The resulting play was a duel of wits between the wrong embodied in Moriarty and the right personified by Sherlock Holmes. And a very large part of the success of the Lion and the Mouse was due to the ease with which the audience was able to follow the bitter contention between the heroine and the plutocrat, each of them knowing his own mind and each of them feeling justified in his own conscience. It may be noted, also, that The Taming of the Shrew is one of the least intellectual of Shakespeare's plays, it is primarily a farce, with an abundance of violent fun; but it keeps the stage after three centuries because the story is vigorously dramatic, since it sets before us an unmistakable contention of opposing forces, resulting in the conquest of a woman's will by a man's.

One piece of advice to the novice can properly be offered by a student of stage history. Begin modestly. Begin by imitating the successful playwrights of your own time and your own country. Be satisfied, at first, if you can succeed in doing only what these predecessors have done--even if you believe you have it in you to do better. Don't try to be precocious. As Margaret Fuller said: "For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life". The great dramatists have never exhibited any undue precocity; they have always begun modestly by imitating. Shakespeare's earliest pieces are merely his juvenile attempts to write the kind of play that Marlowe and Kyd, Lyly and Greene had made popular. Molière's earliest plays are imitations of the imporvised comedies of the Italian strollers. In these early efforts of Shakespeare and Molière it is scarcely possible to perceive even the promise of the power to which they ultimately attained. Henry Arthur Jones began by writing comediettas and melodramas; and Sir Arthur Pinero made an equally unambitious beginning with curtain-raisers.

The really important dramatist is, of course, a man who has something to say and who has learned how to say it. In his immaturity he is not likely to have much to say of any great significance; and he can, therefore, concentrate his attention on learning how to say what little he has to utter. An anecdote is told of Courbet, the French painter, which brings out this point. A very ambitious young fellow came to him for advice enlarging upon the lofty projects he had in mind. Courbet listened and then answered: "Go home and paint a portrait of your father". The young man protested at this humble task, proclaiming his desire to paint great historical scenes. "Exactly", said Courbet, "I understand--you want to become a historical painter. That is why I tell you to go home and paint a portrait of your father."

This is excellent advice for beginners in every art. Like the aviators, they must be content to fly along the level ground for a little distance before they attempt to soar aloft into the blue empyrean.

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