Theatre in Wales

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The Wisdom of Playwrights

Summing It Up

Dramatists On Art and Craft , Theatre of Wales and Elsewhere , September 11, 2020
Summing It Up by Dramatists On Art and Craft Part of the job of the writer in a media-saturated era is to be an explicator of the self. Choice or skill have little to do with it. Festivals, events, readings beckon- all have gone in 2020. Writers have always had opinions on their art and dramatists have always spoken. Much of it is forgettable commentary. But some- the ones that pin the essence of the art- are worth the remembering.

Eric Bentley is best known to posterity as a Brechtian but he was also translator of the Journal of Friedrich Hebbel. In 1839 Hebbel was writing:

“Bad playwrights with good heads give us their scheme instead of characters and their system instead of passions. There are dramas without ideas in which people take a walk and meet with bad luck on the way.”

In 1847 he was cutting to the heart of composition:

“To present the necessary in the form of the accidental: that is the whole secret of dramatic style” and in 1859 the role of the underpinning intelligence:

“Ideas are to drama what counterpoint is to music: nothing in themselves but the sine qua non for everything.”

Shaw exuded words by the barrel-load. A contemporary in Ireland said just as much in fewer words. J M Synge wrote an introduction to “the Playboy of the Western World”. The date was 21st January 1907.

“On the stage one must have reality and one must have joy; and that is why the modern intellectual drama has failed, and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality. In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or an apple.”

Brecht, ever a contrarian, had a strain of hedonism. On 6th February 1926 he wrote in the Berliner Boersen-Courier:

“All those establishments with their pretty lighting, their appetite for large sums of money, their imposing interiors, together with the entire business that goes on inside them: all this doesn't contain five pennyworth of fun...And nobody who fails to get fun out of his activities can expect them to be fun for anybody else.”

In the modern era Simon Stephens has been both playwright and advocate of the craft. In an address at the award of the Bruntwood Prize in Manchester he told his audience:

“The secret of playwriting is in the spelling of the noun playwright. It comes from the word wrought, not from the word write…Where our characters went to school counts for nothing if they aren’t doing things, on stage, in the present tense.”

We gather in theatre to experience vital movement across space. Simon Stephens was in the Observer of 30th August 2009:

“Dramatic narrative needs present tense action...common tendency in apprentice playwrights to write about ancient family secrets which are revealed four fifths through the play, often in a drunken confessional speech. This is theatrically inert. Another problem is that people see life as 'something that happens to them. It is the playwright's task to change the question from 'Why is this happening to me?' to 'Why am I doing this?'

David Mamet titled one of his treatises on writing “Three Uses of the Knife.” Over and over dramatists urge the apprentice to cut, in particular the words that they most like. When Francis Bacon encountered Samuel Beckett he reflected: “In painting we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough.”

Maturity is the move to viewing the self objectively; thus Kierkegaard. The task in making art is to disperse the shallowness of private opinion. Kaite O'Reilly, as well as running a career in theatre on two tracks, maintains the best blog of Wales about writing, intended for writers. From the entry of 23rd August 2011:

“I think we need to keep juice in our work, especially during the dehydrating process of revising and rewriting. We mustn’t cook it so dry our work becomes unappetising or inedible. It’s wise to leave the work alone for a while when the material becomes too familiar, as we all know familiarity breeds contempt.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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