Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Playwriting Books - The Real, The Rare, The Imaginary

I've been wanting to write about how I find most playwriting books unsatisfactory. You see, most playwriting books are written for the broadest possible audience -- geared toward people who've never written a play before, nor have thought much about dramatic structure. Which is understandable; publishers will sell the most books and make the most money if they publish for neophytes.

But, see, if you've taken a playwriting class or read one or two standard playwriting texts, you already know all the stuff that's in them -- Drama is Action, Drama is Conflict, Drama is Choices, Dialogue Reveals Character, etc. (Of course, sometimes it takes years of practice to fully integrate these lessons into one's own writing. But at least one has been exposed to these fundamental principles.) Also, the typical playwriting book will teach you how to write a play that is impeccably crafted and formatted, but that is not the same thing as teaching you to write an interesting play.

So what I want is not a book on Playwriting 101, but Playwriting 202 or 303. My ideal playwriting book would also take into account the way that some plays these days have a really freewheeling structure and others are structured on intricate, formal lines -- rather than assuming that every play will tell a realistic, linear, chronological story. It would also include examples of scenes from classic and modern-classic plays that, in the opinion of the author, do not work, in addition to examples of scenes that do.

This book would include such chapters as:
  • Unconventional Punctuation and Layout: Pretentious or Poetic?
  • If "Drama is Conflict," Is There a Place for Direct Address? If "Drama is Storytelling," Why Do You Need All That Dialogue? An Investigation
  • Realism and Magical Realism: When Should an Angel Crash through the Ceiling?
  • Political Correctness and the Theater: Colorblind Casting, Race-Specific Roles, And All That Tricky Stuff
  • Writing the One-Act Play: The Art of the Gimmick
  • Structural and Linguistic Tricks: Can a Play Be "Too" Clever?
OK, most of these questions have no "right" answer, which is why most playwriting books don't choose to address them. No one wants to issue a definitive ruling on any of these questions. But, you must understand, I like really opinionated books. I want the author to set himself up as an authority. Even if the author ends up arguing a point that I vehemently disagree with, I want him to support his arguments well and make them as forceful as possible, so that I can take even more pleasure in arguing against him. I want a playwriting book written by a well-read, witty, but fundamentally cranky person. (The same goes for etiquette manuals. I hate how etiquette books have gone from saying "Use this fork, don't use these slang words, and for heavens sake don't slouch," to saying "It doesn't matter how you eat and talk and gesture, as long as you are friendly and considerate!" The whole point of an etiquette book is to learn exact codes of behavior!)

This is all influenced by my just having read Stephen Sondheim's guide to lyric-writing, Finishing the Hat. Sondheim writes such direct and straightforward prose -- he's eighty years old, he's a certified genius, he's got nothing left to prove, so he's just going to call everything like he sees it. He's incredibly opinionated, and not afraid to provoke disagreement; for instance, plenty of people are taking issue with his claims that Alan Jay Lerner and Ira Gershwin were bad lyricists. However, it is these kind of pronouncements that make the book such a compelling read, and a future classic. Sondheim offers precepts, and arguments, and refuses to accept received wisdom, and doesn't repeat the same-old same-old. I guess I want a playwriting book that will do the same.

As a postscript, however, let me say that I recently heard of a playwriting book that sounds like the exact opposite of the "ideal" book I just described, and which I am now clamoring to read. It is The Human Nature of Playwriting, written in 1949 by Samson Raphaelson. I saw it mentioned on the Onion AV Club, recommended by TV critic Todd VanDerWerff. Writes VanDerWerff:
Samson Raphaelson was the screenwriter for, among others, The Shop Around The Corner, and in the spring of 1948, he met with a bunch of students at the University of Illinois to teach a class that was ostensibly about being a playwright, but ended up being about much more, like why we construct fictions, and the worth of personal experience in made-up stories. The book The Human Nature Of Playwriting collects nearly everything said in the classroom, and it becomes so much more than a writers’ guide. Raphaelson and the students almost become characters, the experiences that make up their plays become very real, and the bonds they form are unshakable. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue any sort of career as any kind of writer.
Well, it is so rare to see a playwriting book recommended in a mainstream publication (OK, The Onion AV Club likes to think of itself as "alternative" rather than "mainstream," but it's not a specialty theater website, is my point) that my interest was piqued at once.

Unfortunately, The Human Nature of Playwriting is long out of print, revered by all who read it, frequently stolen from university libraries, and thus available only for the high, high price of $350 on Amazon.com. Damn!

As described by VanDerWerff, Raphaelson's gentle, humanistic playwriting book sounds like the opposite of the cranky, opinionated playwriting book that I described above. But it also sounds sui generis, possessed of a unique, honest voice... and I guess that's what I really look for in everything I read, be it plays or playwriting manuals or etiquette books. Most playwriting books in existence are impeccably crafted (and somewhat boring), and they'll teach you how to write an impeccably crafted (but perhaps boring) play. Maybe I'd rather have messy, opinionated books and messy, soulful plays.

1 comment:

Galen said...

I have a photocopy of an OCR scan of The Human Nature of Playwriting and would be happy to send you a copy if you like. It isn't of top visual quality, but readable. (I re-read it all the time.) If you'd be interested, please send your address to galensaysyes@gmail.com.