(last edited September 23, 2008)

William Archer/Introductory

Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer (1912)

  • CHAPTER I Introductory









There are no rules for writing a play. It is easy, indeed, to lay down negative recommendations -- to instruct the beginner how not to do it. But most of these "don'ts" are rather obvious; and those which are not obvious are apt to be questionable. It is certain, for instance, that if you want your play to be acted, anywhere else than in China, you must not plan it in sixteen acts of an hour apiece; but where is the tyro who needs a text-book to tell him that? On the other hand, most theorists of to-day would make it an axiom that you must not let your characters narrate their circumstances, or expound their motives, in speeches addressed, either directly to the audience, or ostensibly to their solitary selves. But when we remember that, of all dramatic openings, there is none finer than that which shows Richard Plantagenet limping down the empty stage to say --

"Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried"

-- we feel that the axiom requires large qualifications. There are no absolute rules, in fact, except such as are dictated by the plainest common sense. Aristotle himself did not so much dogmatize as analyse, classify, and generalize from, the practices of the Attic dramatists. He said, "you had better" rather than "you must." It was Horace, in an age of deep dramatic decadence, who re-stated the pseudo-Aristotelian formulas of the Alexandrians as though they were unassailable dogmas of art.

How comes it, then, that there is a constant demand for text-books of the art and craft of drama? How comes it that so many people -- and I among the number -- who could not write a play to save their lives, are eager to tell others how to do so? And, stranger still, how comes it that so many people are willing to sit at the feet of these instructors? It is not so with the novel. Popular as is that form of literature, guides to novel-writing, if they exist at all, are comparatively rare. Why are people possessed with the idea that the art of dramatic fiction differs from that of narrative fiction, in that it can and must be taught?

The reason is clear, and is so far valid as to excuse, if not to justify, such works as the present. The novel, as soon as it is legibly written, exists, for what it is worth. The page of black and white is the sole intermediary between the creative and the perceptive brain. Even the act of printing merely widens the possible appeal: it does not alter its nature. But the drama, before it can make its proper appeal at all, must be run through a highly complex piece of mechanism -- the theatre -- the precise conditions of which are, to most beginners, a fascinating mystery. While they feel a strong inward conviction of their ability to master it, they are possessed with an idea, often exaggerated and superstitious, of its technical complexities. Having, as a rule, little or no opportunity of closely examining or experimenting with it, they are eager to "read it up," as they might any other machine. That is the case of the average aspirant, who has neither the instinct of the theatre fully developed in his blood, nor such a congenital lack of that instinct as to be wholly inapprehensive of any technical difficulties or problems. The intelligent novice, standing between these extremes, tends, as a rule, to overrate the efficacy of theoretical instruction, and to expect of analytic criticism more than it has to give.

There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side, and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing, his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are about as valuable as those of Zadkiel or Old Moore.[1]

What, then, is the excuse for such a discussion as is here attempted? Having admitted that there are no rules for dramatic composition, and that the quest of such rules is apt to result either in pedantry or quackery, why should I myself set forth upon so fruitless and foolhardy an enterprise? It is precisely because I am alive to its dangers that I have some hope of avoiding them. Rules there are none; but it does not follow that some of the thousands who are fascinated by the art of the playwright may not profit by having their attention called, in a plain and practical way, to some of its problems and possibilities. I have myself felt the need of some such handbook, when would-be dramatists have come to me for advice and guidance. It is easy to name excellent treatises on the drama; but the aim of such books is to guide the judgment of the critic rather than the creative impulse of the playwright. There are also valuable collections of dramatic criticisms; but any practical hints that they may contain are scattered and unsystematic. On the other hand, the advice one is apt to give to beginners -- "Go to the theatre; study its conditions and mechanism for yourself" -- is, in fact, of very doubtful value. It might, in many cases, be wiser to warn the aspirant to keep himself unspotted from the playhouse. To send him there is to imperil, on the one hand, his originality of vision, on the other, his individuality of method. He may fall under the influence of some great master, and see life only through his eyes; or he may become so habituated to the current tricks of the theatrical trade as to lose all sense of their conventionality and falsity, and find himself, in the end, better fitted to write what I have called a quack handbook than a living play. It would be ridiculous, of course, to urge an aspirant positively to avoid the theatre; but the common advice to steep himself in it is beset with dangers.

It may be asked why, if I have any guidance and help to give, I do not take it myself, and write plays instead of instructing others in the art. This is a variant of an ancient and fallacious jibe against criticism in general. It is quite true that almost all critics who are worth their salt are "stickit" artists. Assuredly, if I had the power, I should write plays instead of writing about them; but one may have a great love for an art, and some insight into its principles and methods, without the innate faculty required for actual production. On the other hand, there is nothing to show that, if I were a creative artist, I should be a good mentor for beginners. An accomplished painter may be the best teacher of painters; but an accomplished dramatist is scarcely the best guide for dramatists. He cannot analyse his own practice, and discriminate between that in it which is of universal validity, and that which may be good for him, but would be bad for any one else. If he happened to be a great man, he would inevitably, even if unconsciously, seek to impose upon his disciples his individual attitude towards life; if he were a lesser man, he would teach them only his tricks. But dramatists do not, as a matter of fact, take pupils or write handbooks.[2] When they expound their principles of art, it is generally in answer to, or in anticipation of, criticism -- with a view, in short, not to helping others, but to defending themselves. If beginners, then, are to find any systematic guidance, they must turn to the critics, not to the dramatists; and no person of common sense holds it a reproach to a critic to tell him that he is a "stickit" playwright.

If questions are worth discussing at all, they are worth discussing gravely. When, in the following pages, I am found treating with all solemnity matters of apparently trivial detail, I beg the reader to believe that very possibly I do not in my heart overrate their importance. One thing is certain, and must be emphasized from the outset: namely, that if any part of the dramatist's art can be taught, it is only a comparatively mechanical and formal part -- the art of structure. One may learn how to tell a story in good dramatic form: how to develop and marshal it in such a way as best to seize and retain the interest of a theatrical audience. But no teaching or study can enable a man to choose or invent a good story, and much less to do that which alone lends dignity to dramatic story-telling--to observe and portray human character. This is the aim and end of all serious drama; and it will be apt to appear as though, in the following pages, this aim and end were ignored. In reality it is not so. If I hold comparatively mechanical questions of pure craftsmanship to be worth discussing, it is because I believe that only by aid of competent craftsmanship can the greatest genius enable his creations to live and breathe upon the stage. The profoundest insight into human nature and destiny cannot find valid expression through the medium of the theatre without some understanding of the peculiar art of dramatic construction. Some people are born with such an instinct for this art, that a very little practice renders them masters of it. Some people are born with a hollow in their cranium where the bump of drama ought to be. But between these extremes, as I said before, there are many people with moderately developed and cultivable faculty; and it is these who, I trust, may find some profit in the following discussions.[3] Let them not forget, however, that the topics treated of are merely the indispensable rudiments of the art, and are not for a moment to be mistaken for its ultimate and incommunicable secrets. Beethoven could not have composed the Ninth Symphony without a mastery of harmony and counterpoint; but there are thousands of masters of harmony and counterpoint who could not compose the Ninth Symphony.

The art of theatrical story-telling is necessarily relative to the audience to whom the story is to be told. One must assume an audience of a certain status and characteristics before one can rationally discuss the best methods of appealing to its intelligence and its sympathies. The audience I have throughout assumed is drawn from what may be called the ordinary educated public of London and New York. It is not an ideal or a specially selected audience; but it is somewhat above the average of the theatre-going public, that average being sadly pulled down by the myriad frequenters of musical farce and absolutely worthless melodrama. It is such an audience as assembles every night at, say, the half-dozen best theatres of each city. A peculiarly intellectual audience it certainly is not. I gladly admit that theatrical art owes much, in both countries, to voluntary organizations of intelligent or would-be intelligent[4] playgoers, who have combined to provide themselves with forms of drama which specially interest them, and do not attract the great public. But I am entirely convinced that the drama renounces its chief privilege and glory when it waives its claim to be a popular art, and is content to address itself to coteries, however "high-browed." Shakespeare did not write for a coterie: yet he produced some works of considerable subtlety and profundity. Molière was popular with the ordinary parterre of his day: yet his plays have endured for over two centuries, and the end of their vitality does not seem to be in sight. Ibsen did not write for a coterie, though special and regrettable circumstances have made him, in England, something of a coterie-poet. In Scandinavia, in Germany, even in America, he casts his spell over great audiences, if not through long runs (which are a vice of the merely commercial theatre), at any rate through frequently-repeated representations. So far as I know, history records no instance of a playwright failing to gain the ear of his contemporaries, and then being recognized and appreciated by posterity. Alfred de Musset might, perhaps, be cited as a case in point; but he did not write with a view to the stage, and made no bid for contemporary popularity. As soon as it occurred to people to produce his plays, they were found to be delightful. Let no playwright, then, make it his boast that he cannot disburden his soul within the three hours' limit, and cannot produce plays intelligible or endurable to any audience but a band of adepts. A popular audience, however, does not necessarily mean the mere riff-raff of the theatrical public. There is a large class of playgoers, both in England and America, which is capable of appreciating work of a high intellectual order, if only it does not ignore the fundamental conditions of theatrical presentation. It is an audience of this class that I have in mind throughout the following pages; and I believe that a playwright who despises such an audience will do so to the detriment, not only of his popularity and profits, but of the artistic quality of his work.

Some people may exclaim: "Why should the dramatist concern himself about his audience? That may be all very well for the mere journeymen of the theatre, the hacks who write to an actor-manager's order -- not for the true artist! He has a soul above all such petty considerations. Art, to him, is simply self-expression. He writes to please himself, and has no thought of currying favour with an audience, whether intellectual or idiotic." To this I reply simply that to an artist of this way of thinking I have nothing to say. He has a perfect right to express himself in a whole literature of so-called plays, which may possibly be studied, and even acted, by societies organized to that laudable end. But the dramatist who declares his end to be mere self-expression stultifies himself in that very phrase. The painter may paint, the sculptor model, the lyric poet sing, simply to please himself,[5] but the drama has no meaning except in relation to an audience. It is a portrayal of life by means of a mechanism so devised as to bring it home to a considerable number of people assembled in a given place. "The public," it has been well said, "constitutes the theatre." The moment a playwright confines his work within the two or three hours' limit prescribed by Western custom for a theatrical performance, he is currying favour with an audience. That limit is imposed simply by the physical endurance and power of sustained attention that can be demanded of Western human beings assembled in a theatre. Doubtless an author could express himself more fully and more subtly if he ignored these limitations; the moment he submits to them, he renounces the pretence that mere self-expression is his aim. I know that there are haughty-souls who make no such submission, and express themselves in dramas which, so far as their proportions are concerned, might as well be epic poems or historical romances.[6] To them, I repeat, I have nothing to say. The one and only subject of the following discussions is the best method of fitting a dramatic theme for representation before an audience assembled in a theatre. But this, be it noted, does not necessarily mean "writing down" to the audience in question. It is by obeying, not by ignoring, the fundamental conditions of his craft that the dramatist may hope to lead his audience upward to the highest intellectual level which he himself can attain.

These pages, in short, are addressed to students of play-writing who sincerely desire to do sound, artistic work under the conditions and limitations of the actual, living playhouse. This does not mean, of course, that they ought always to be studying "what the public wants." The dramatist should give the public what he himself wants--but in such form as to make it comprehensible and interesting in a theatre.

Footnote 1: It is against "technic" in this sense of the term that the hero of Mr. Howells's admirable novel, The Story of a Play, protests in vigorous and memorable terms. "They talk," says Maxwell, "about a knowledge of the stage as if it were a difficult science, instead of a very simple piece of mechanism whose limitations and possibilities anyone may see at a glance. All that their knowledge of it comes to is claptrap, pure and simple.... They think that their exits and entrances are great matters and that they must come on with such a speech, and go off with another; but it is not of the least importance how they come or go, if they have something interesting to say or do." Maxwell, it must be remembered, is speaking of technic as expounded by the star actor, who is shilly-shallying -- as star actors will -- over the production of his play. He would not, in his calmer moments, deny that it is of little use to have something interesting to say, unless you know how to say it interestingly. Such a denial would simply be the negation of the very idea of art.

Footnote 2: A dramatist of my acquaintance adds this footnote: "But, by the Lord! They have to give advice. I believe I write more plays of other people's than I do of my own."

Footnote 3: It may be hoped, too, that even the accomplished dramatist may take some interest in considering the reasons for things which he does, or does not do, by instinct.

Footnote 4: This is not a phrase of contempt. The would-be intelligent playgoer is vastly to be preferred to the playgoer who makes a boast of his unintelligence.

Footnote 5: In all the arts, however, the very idea of craftsmanship implies some sort of external percipient, or, in other words, some sort of an audience. In point of sheer self-expression, a child's scrabblings with a box of crayons may deserve to rank with the most masterly canvas of Velasquez or Vermeer. The real difference between the dramatist and other artists, is that they can be their own audience, in a sense in which he cannot.

Footnote 6: Let me guard against the possibility that this might be interpreted as a sneer at The Dynasts -- a great work by a great poet.

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Edited September 23, 2008 (diff)