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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER XI Play Writing

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER XI Play Writing

Play writing, although it may be considered in a literary class preeminently its own, requires the same amount of imagination; originality, and ability, which is necessary for the construction of a work of fiction.

Unless one is familiar with the stage, both from the back of it, and from the view-point of the auditorium, it is probable that he cannot produce a profitable or acceptable play.

The writer of book or magazine fiction may explain its characters and situations in the text, and is not wholly dependent upon dialogue or conversation. In the play, the characters, by action and principally by spoken words, carry the burden of the plot; in fact, the success of the play is as dependent upon what is said as upon the plot itself. A play, then, is virtually a story worked out largely in conversation, with the assistance of scenery and situations. The writer of it, therefore, must explain his situations, and unravel his plot, very largely by the words he places in the mouths of his actors. If, for example, he desires to bring out the characteristics or local color of a town, he must do so from spoken words, which in themselves must explain the situation and be sufficient for the audience to obtain by easy inference an idea of what is taking place. Of course, the costumes worn and the scenery will assist, but they are subordinate to the dialogue itself. The playwright may, at times, allow the actors to think aloud, to speak what are technically known as "asides," but soliloquy must be used very sparingly in the modern drama, for the audience demands active action, not passive action. It is necessary, then, for the playwright to present, by spoken words, and with the assistance of costume, scenery, and situations, the scheme of his play, something which cannot be done unless one is thoroughly familiar with stage conditions.

The writer of a book, or of a story, can present his scheme with the introduction of written explanations, and can move his characters and scenes consistently from one place to another by the introduction of a few words.

On the stage, conditions are diametrically opposite. Explanations, except by conversation, are practically impossible, and lapses are not permitted without the dropping of the curtain.

If the leading character in a book, for example, desires to change his clothes, he can do so almost instantaneously; but on the stage he must be given sufficient time; and, if this change is made while the curtain is up, the author must keep the play moving and interesting to the audience until the leading man returns.

The playwright must provide for all emergencies, and not allow the action to be discontinued for even a moment, except when the curtain is down; and he is required to so arrange his conversation and situations that the several characters will appear and reappear consistently.

Then, it is by no means easy, in the limited number of words which can be spoken during the acting of the play, to present situations, or to explain them; and it is far more difficult to do this on the stage than it is to accomplish the same thing in a book.

A book-writing license allows the author to carry a long conversation, plentifully interspersed with explanation. On the stage long speeches are seldom permissible, and there is neither time nor place for inactive explanations. The action must be rapid, continuous, and self-explanatory. The playwright must not only produce dialogue or speaking parts, but he must create situations which can be so handled by the actors that they will be intelligible to the audience. He cannot leave much to the imagination. He must present his story so that they can grasp it, and follow it without perceptible effort.

Of course, the playwright may not expose the finish of the plot until the last act, but interest must be sustained even though the audience is kept guessing at the result.

As many of the audience arrive late, and as there seems to be no way in sight to remedy this evil, which shows a general lack of culture and breeding, the playwright is often obliged to open his play with insignificant words, spoken by minor characters, and to postpone the beginning of the unraveling of his plot until the middle of the first act. This same condition prevails at the close of the play, when half of the audience is getting ready to leave. Consequently, the great climax should come a few minutes before the dropping of the final curtain.

Some playwrights very ingeniously construct their plays, so that the audience does not realize that one is about to close until it comes to an end with a dramatic snap. Love and sentiment seem to be essential to the success of the majority of modern plays, and practically all profitable ones contain several love-making scenes. The play usually has three leading characters: first, the hero; secondly, the heroine; thirdly, the villain.

For the purpose of relaxing the intensity of the interest, secondary and yet prominent characters are introduced, and these parts are sustained by what are known as male and female juveniles, or young people who are in love with each other, and whose love-making is humorous to some extent. There are usually introduced other characters as fillers: a servant or two, a tradesman, a lawyer, a doctor, one or two mothers, a couple of mothers-in-law, factory hands, a policeman, a judge, or a conservative business man.

Successful plays have been written, however, with not exceeding four, five, or six persons in the cast, but the majority of them have a dozen speaking parts, and occasionally twice that number. Even the so-called populace is introduced, men, women, and children who merely walk or play, with few of them speaking more than a dozen words.

Besides producing the conversational part of the play, and creating the situations, the author must suggest the clothes to be worn, and mark in the entrances and exits.

To be successful, the playwright must be proficient in climaxing. The curtain should never fall upon a flat or dull line. Something snappy, witty, or of climax quality should close every scene and act. While the great climax comes at the end or close to the end, there should be subordinate climaxes occurring with each change of scene or dropping of the curtain. The first act of a two-act play should end with a considerable climax, and there should be a strong climax at the end of the second act of a three-act play, and at the end of the third act of a four- or five-act play.

The playwright has before him one great obstacle, which it is hard to meet. It is often difficult, if not impossible, properly to balance a play to the satisfaction of the leading man or woman. Often these actors demand what is known as the front of the stage, and most of the speaking parts, particularly the strong ones. Let us suppose, for example, that one of the minor characters introduced is that of an able and far-sighted man of unusual judgment. He can consistently be given strong words to say, and large opportunities. But if the leading actor does not sustain this part, much of what this character could be permitted to speak or act must be eliminated, for if this is not done, the words and opportunities of the leading man will be shadowed.

The playwright, then, is not only obliged to produce an acceptable play from the view-point of the audience, but he must, in many cases, write his words, and arrange his situations, to the satisfaction of the leading actors. Probably half of the successful plays are written especially for some one actor or actress, who demands continuous prominence, even to the sacrifice of the others in the cast.

It is usually essential, therefore, for the playwright to keep the leading actor and actress continually in the lime-light, and in the front of the stage, even if he has seriously to blanket other lights which could consistently shine.

The rapid growth of the stock company is decidedly to the playwright's advantage; for the stock company, while it has its leading men and women, is not likely to employ stars of more than ordinary magnitude.

The manager of the stock company does not always give his leading men and women the strongest parts. Therefore, a play which might not suit a brilliant star, will be acceptable to the stock company.

Unfortunately, comparatively few new plays are brought out by stock companies, at the present time; but with the growth of these organizations, the day is rapidly approaching when stock company managers will be able to own plays of a quality equal to that of those which they now lease.

The most successful plays, as they run, end happily. The hero and heroine get married or their engagement is announced. The villain, who has interfered, receives his deserts. Everything is cleaned up, with virtue winning. The play terminates to the satisfaction of the audience. Occasionally plays have succeeded with sad endings, but, as a rule, it is better to have them close to the pleasure of the audience.

May I not diverge for a while, and attempt to describe the several classes of plays? What is known as the one-act play, or curtain-raiser, is usually presented at a vaudeville house. It seldom has more than three or four characters, often only two. A bell-boy or other stage attache may be employed as a walking part. The action is extremely rapid, the dialogue brilliant (or is supposed to be), and more or less witty, unless the play is tragic; but comparatively few of the latter class are on the boards.

Much license is given to these plays, for the average audience will accept even the grossest exaggerations. They contain but a few thousand words, and occupy a time of not exceeding thirty minutes, many of them being written into as short a period as twenty minutes. The play must start with a rush and end in a hurry; and as there is little opportunity for explanation, the words and situations must be vividly self-explanatory.

The action of practically all of these one-act plays is located in one spot, and usually in one room, or in a garden, grove, or on shipboard.

The so-called monologue can hardly be considered a play. A monologue consists of a continuous train of remarks by one person, who may be seated in a parlor, or standing on the street; and it is not required that the train of words remain on the track. It may be switched on to sidetracks, and run wild. Usually the actor of it illustrates what are supposed to be personal experiences. Practically all successful monologues are of a humorous nature, and most of them describe impossible situations, but with a strain of truth running through them. Usually the vaudeville programme contains what is known as a talking or acting team; two men, two women, or a man and a woman, generally grotesquely dressed, and who may or may not add dancing to their parts. They carry on a dialogue, always humorous (or of an alleged humor). There is no plot involved.

The foregoing plays, if I may call them such, are not technically known as "legitimate." "Legitimate " is hardly the word, but I use it because it is a stage term.

So-called legitimate plays are of several kinds: first, the farcical comedy, which is nonsensical from start to finish, has little or no real plot, and is usually without consistency. It is, as a matter of fact, a form of continuous vaudeville, with just enough plot for excuse to hold it together. It is supposed to be humorous throughout, and every spoken word is intended to represent wit or sarcasm. If there are any sober characters, they are used as a background for frivolity.

Many of these plays are written especially for one actor or actress, so as to bring out their particular mannerisms and exceptional capabilities.

These farcial comedies are usually produced with a large number of supernumeraries, men and women who dance and perform other antics, and who are dressed in spectacular costumes.

The extravaganza is not far removed in quality, or in substance, from the farcial comedy, except that it is more extreme, is more elaborately staged, and is allowed more license. Its spoken lines may rhyme. It is likely to present hardly the semblance of a plot. The action runs riot, and the actors run amuck. Some singing is introduced, but the success of the thing (I label it "thing " because it can hardly be called a play), is due almost entirely to the eccentric acting of the leading characters, to the costuming, and to an exposure of anatomy, principally of the hosiery end of women.

Of course, the farcical comedy and extravaganza have to have playwrights, who must be proficient in erratic originality, and be able to produce situations rather than commendable dialogue.

The musical comedy and comic opera are somewhat synonymous. Most of the spoken words are presented in song, usually with considerable spectacular effects, including the ballet. Some of them are genuine works of the highest art, with music which will not offend the ear of the masters of music.

The Gilbert and Sullivan operas represent a distinct class of stage production, and they have contributed enormously to the pleasure of the people. There are others as good, or nearly so; but the majority of the so-called musical comedies, or comic operas, are merely vaudeville shows, strung out, and elaborated with music which should outrage the taste of an intelligent audience; yet they succeed, because they are eye-pleasing, and because they have a swing and a go which gratifies the public taste. The excuse for their existence may be in the remark of the great composer who said that all music is music.

The regular comedy is a play of two, three, four, or five acts, with as many or more scenes, and which is half-serious and half-light, with interjections of wit and humor. It is not intended to be heavy. The spoken words are conversationally brilliant and up-to-date, and the situations change rapidly. There is a distinct plot, which is worked out to a climax. The villain is introduced, and the hero gets the better of him frequently, at any rate, before the play closes. Dancing and spectacular scenes are not introduced, except occasionally, and then in a subordinate way.

The average comedy has at least six speaking parts, and sometimes double that number; and many of them are the work of master playwrights. They are, commercially speaking, the most successful plays.

The plot is not particularly intense, but the action and situations are, at least, apparently natural.

The villain, if there be one, sustains the second, third, or fourth part in relative importance, although he sometimes ranks with the leading man. Many of these comedies are society plays, and quite a number of them present country and farm-life conditions.

What is known as the melodrama is a play of great intensity, with harrowing situations, several hair-breadth escapes, and a strong plot. The hero and heroine invariably meet with disaster, and this condition prevails until the close of the play.

There are introduced one or more villains of the deepest dye, whose business it is to ruin the hero, or heroine, or both of them. Virtue is placed upon a pedestal and surrounded with the white clouds of purity; the villain is in evening dress, and, for a while, remains unscorched by the fire of retribution ; but the fire is there, although it is for stage purposes kept from premature bursting.

Firearms play important parts. The hero or the heroine is probably close to death or capture once or several times during the play. The villain is usually master of the situation until the last act, and often until the very close of the play, when he commits suicide, or meets with a violent death, or is arrested, and the curtain goes down with the hero and heroine clasped in each other's arms, the mother-in-law reconciled, and the villain either dead, dying, or handcuffed to an officer who is about to incarcerate him.

Usually this play has a streak of comedy running through it, with one or more characters enlivening the scenes and introducing more or less fun; but as a whole it is intense.

It is said that one writer of this class of plays has accumulated more than a million dollars, although most of his productions were presented at second-class theaters and in the small country towns. His leading characters always represent abject poverty, and have to struggle to keep soul and body from separation. The leading actor sustains, or, rather, assumes, the part of a farmer, a laborer, or sailor, or that of an underpaid under-clerk. The leading actress portrays, or attempts to, the character of a maid, a salesgirl, or poor seamstress, who is attractive physically if not mentally. The hero is a modern Adonis, but never dressed like one; at any rate not until the last scene of the last act.

The villain is always bold, bad, and terrible, and wants to marry the heroine. In order to get rid of the hero, who is virtue personified, he plots his ruin or death. He may throw him overboard or attempt to have him cut up with a buzz-saw. He may plan a defalcation, which involves the hero. He may have him discharged and bring him to the verge of starvation. He may imprison the girl, or hold her in some den, her promise to marry him being her key to freedom. Although the hero may occasionally thwart him, the villain continues to be the winner until the final curtain is about to descend.

The play always works out to the complete satisfaction of the hero and heroine, and to the audience. With one crash, the villain is suppressed and virtue is surrounded with rainbows. The stormy clouds, no matter how black, are sun-kissed at the close.

Habitual attendants of theaters will remember the old lines spoken by the poor mother, who rushes upon the stage with disheveled hair and calico dress, and screams at the top of her voice, "My child, my child, who will save my child? " The villain has pursued, and may grab her child; then, with a burst from the orchestra, the drum in tremendous evidence, the hero rushes upon the stage, and with one blow knocks the villain to the ground, even though he possesses the physique of a pugilist, and the hero has the face and frame of a consumptive.

Exaggeration to the limit of the possible is permissible. But is there such a word as exaggeration in the dictionary of life? Often we discover deeper pits and more terrible anguish in life than the mind of man, even that of the melodrama maker, can conceive, or the pen can place upon paper.

The success of the melodrama is largely due to the fact that in it virtue gets its reward, and gets it quickly, and things turn out as they should, but do not, always, in the action of reality.

There are, however, several melodramas upon the boards which are of the highest grade, and portray the tragic side of real life consistently and vividly.

Tragedy is not a frequenter of the modern stage, with the exception of those written by Shakespeare and by other great masters. It is likely to be founded upon some historical event, and its characters may represent those who have lived, or they may be created by the playwright. Battle scenes are often reproduced, and kings, queens, and other rulers play prominent parts. There may be an arena for the slaughter of the innocent. The populists may rise against the government. Little or no comedy is introduced, and only an occasional laugh or smile is aroused. The presentation of these plays usually requires a large number of supernumeraries, soldiers, sailors, savages, warriors, and the inevitable mob. Probably the greatest play ever written, other than those of Shakespeare, and even rivaling Shakespeare, is of this class, and is very near to being historically correct.

The problem play is an important modern form of the drama. During the last few years there has been introduced upon the stage a class of plays, known as problem plays, which are supposed to be used by the author for the vivid solution of some psychological or other problem, usually one which is close to the public eye. Capital and labor are allowed to clash, and the divorce question is much in evidence. Unfortunately, some of the problem plays are essentially immoral or unmoral, and are given as an excuse for the presentation of uncontrolled passion. They create the suspicion that the playwright did not produce them for any motive except a financial one. It is a fact that the average father and mother will allow their children to view, from the auditorium, scenes which they would make every effort to keep them from meeting with upon the street.

I heartily welcome the portrayal of sin, and even of many things which Mrs. Grundy would call "improper," if there is a moral and uplifting object back of them. Nevertheless, in common with others who would uplift the stage and make it one of civilization's greatest educators, I am opposed to the presence of respectably dressed sin.

Many other classes of plays depend upon their immoral coloring for success. But let me say here, and emphatically, that no play ever met with more than transient success, or added any real reputation to its writer, unless it was either pure in tone or pictured vice that it might the better present virtue.

The would-be playwright, unless familiar with the stage, not only from the auditorium, but from behind the scenes, should not attempt to produce a play until he has become conversant with stage craft, and been in close contact with actors and actresses, that he may learn their ways, and what can and cannot be presented in play form. He should spend considerable time on the stage itself, although he need not take part in the play. He should be familiar with scenery, and with the handling of it. He should read most carefully printed plays, and, if possible, the manuscript of plays which are not published. He should practice the writing of conversations and dialogues; and he must, by experience, learn how to make his dialogue largely self-explanatory, to handle his story by spoken word, not by written explanation.

Most performances begin at eight o'clock and end at ten-thirty o'clock, and the action of the play, which is to occupy the entire evening, must contain sufficient dialogue to sustain it for about two and a half hours, deducting, of course, the between-acts periods, which will consume from fifteen to twenty minutes, if the play has as many as three acts.

When a play is accepted, the theatrical manager sends for the playwright, or communicates with him by mail, and suggests additions, omissions, or changes. Comparatively few plays are presented as originally written. Even if the play has decided merit, it may be too long or too short in parts, or it may need other revision. These changes are made by the writer of it, with the assistance of the theatrical manager or stage manager, or the leading actor or actress, who will appear in it. It is then placed in rehearsal, and the playwright invited to be present. The rehearsal is held with a darkened auditorium, but upon a lighted stage, usually without scenery. The actors and actresses are in street costume, and begin by merely repeating lines. Later, a full-dress rehearsal is given, when the play is presented exactly as it will be before an audience.

Most plays are first presented in some provincial city or town, where they may be "tried upon the dog," if I may speak in theatrical vernacular.

Several changes may be necessary after a dress rehearsal, and these revisions may continue for a week or more, or even after the play has been staged in the theater of a large city.

The stage manager has the play typewritten into parts, one for each actor, but no one actor has the entire manuscript.

Let us suppose that the actor bears the name of "Smith." The manuscript he receives reads something as follows:

"Jones: 'Hark, I hear a gun.' "The foregoing line is spoken by the one who precedes Smith. This is his cue, and he begins to speak his allotted lines as soon as Jones has said "gun."He then waits for another cue, and proceeds.

He remains in his dressing-room, or what is known as the green room, which is located under or at the side of the stage, until a few minutes before his entrance. The call-boy notifies him that it is about time for him to appear. He steps behind the scenes, and waits for his cue.

No inexperienced playwright should present his play to the buyers of plays, until it has been read by one or more skillful dramatic editors or competent actors. If they approve of it, he should then send it to a theatrical manager, or place it in the hands of some dramatic agency. I would advise him, however, to present his play direct to the dramatic manager before employing an agency, for the latter demands a percentage, which the playwright should avoid, if possible. The chances are the play will be rejected several times before accepted, if it is accepted at all.

The play is copyrighted, either by the manager, who handles it, or by the playwright himself, the copyright fees being relatively inexpensive

Comparatively few successful plays remain in any one theater for more than a few months at a time. They go on the road, eventually, anyway.

The playwright receives his remuneration in one of the following ways: First, the theatrical manager buys it outright. Secondly, he gives the author a sum agreed upon, with a small royalty. Thirdly, the playwright receives a royalty only; and these terms usually prevail. The royalty is usually based upon the gate receipts, from which the expense of production and the cost of running the play may or may not be deducted. The owner of the play frequently sells playing rights, or allows certain companies to present it throughout the country, in which case the author shares the income with him.

As the price paid varies so much, I do not care to present definite figures. The author may be paid a hundred dollars, or several thousand dollars, for the play outright, or he may receive a gate-receipt royalty.

To sum up, let me say emphatically that play writing is not likely to be successful, unless the writer has a strong imagination, and is proficient in creating situations and climaxes. Further, he is not likely to succeed unless he has experienced stage craft. He must have sufficient literary ability properly to write out his dialogue or conversation. He must understand men and things sufficiently well to present them upon the stage, vividly, realistically, or in caricature. Unless he proposes to devote his time to the writing of tragedies, dramas, or melodramas, he must have a keen sense of humor.

Quite a number of successful plays have been taken from published works of fiction, or from historical novels, in which case the playwright adapts the work to stage purposes; but if he is not the author, he must obtain the author's consent, and share with him in the profit.

The plot and characters in the book may be followed closely, or departures made from them. If the book has been a great seller, the play is more likely to be successful than it would have been if it had not been published in book form.

Comparatively little in the book can be reproduced literally upon the stage. The dialogues and conversations need to be altered and adapted to stage presentation.