playwrighting is not literature


Why are you dissing playwrighting, you ask.

What makes you say literature is better than playwrighting, I retort hotly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love literature, I read literature daily, particularly capital-L Literature (as opposed to the body of written works of a language, period, or culture literature). But Playwrighting it ain’t.

Here’s the deal – and you’re welcome to share the concept if a) you do it as-written and b) you tell the world this is my hobby-horse –

playwrighting is to lit

Many of the same skills are needed on both sides of the latter case – understanding of perspective, ability to sketch and compose, mastery of certain techniques and form and forms – but an oil painting is a complete entity. You can go look at an oil painting, supposing that you have access, like it’s in a museum or art gallery or you know some really, really wealthy folk, and you can glance at it or stand in front of it for eight hours or more, depending on what time you got there. You can be  ignorant or cognizant of its oeuvre, everything that came before it to make it an admirable or execrable example of that oeuvre (yes, I like using that word, I say it aloud whenever I type it) and use that knowledge to further appreciate or detest the painting, and also to bore your friends to tears or make them laugh (those artists, man, I tell you they got up to some hijinks in their day) (and yes, I know that there are living artists, I know living artists, and guess what? this is “their day”) (Lordy, another digression, it’s early, the coffee hasn’t quite hit).

Architectural drafting, on the other hand, requires not only knowledge of its own form, materials, techniques, but also at least a rudimentary knowledge of the arts and crafts of all of the people who will build and design around the implicit building, the tradespeople, artisans, craftspeople who will not only erect the building but also choose its specific components, materials, furnishings.

SO. (I write “so” in all caps, or both caps, to make the point that I’d like this argument finally to be understood in its entirety.)

A novel, poem, essay, magazine article, biography, newspaper column (I’m waiting to see how long it will be before this column is obsolete via that example) is readable, apprehensible in and of itself. To be fully appreciated, a playscript requires that one spend up to exponentially more time than the 73-or-so pages in the 5×8” booklet might appear, on the surface, to merit. Reading a playscript requires imagination, well-supported by at least a rudimentary knowledge of theater, i.e., what a stage can look like, how it might be dressed, what the characters might look like and sound like and walk like (if they can walk) and wear, how long the silences might last, what a soundscape might sound like and how it might resonate in a given theatrical space, what the transitions between scenes might encompass, I could go on forever, or almost so, but you’re beginning to get the idea.

Which brings me to the current state of new-play development.

Wha’?, you ask.

The single most efficient manner for theaters and play-development entities to consider works for their seasons or programs is to read playscripts. Given the accessibility afforded to playwrights by submitting via the Internet, theaters/programs are receiving on the order of 500 works when they’d expected 100 at the most.  In the case of development opportunities, many of the works received are inchoate (yes, I love that word as well), potential, unformed. Even back in the Dark Ages, when only 100 or so manuscripts were received, readers were hard-pressed to give each work the time and imagination required to wonder what that work might become with the other 4/5 of the creative team in place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that a playwright is worth only 20%, far from it, since the playwright was the one in the room when the page was blank  (thank you, Kia Corthron, for this concept) – a play WOULD NOT EXIST were it not for that playwright’s efforts, possibly making those efforts a bit higher on the crucial-scale than those of other team members.

But plays are meant to be played, and to play a play one must have a space and people and a guide and help for the audience in the form of some sort of costumes and decoration and soundscape. In today’s college-heavy and overwhelmed-literary-manager landscape, however, plays are mostly read.


Yes, modern playwrights are adapting to this skewed universe by writing lots and lots of stage directions – and that’s a whole ‘nother column in and of itself, what stage directions were, are, and want to be – to make their plays accessible to a reader, and then playwrights like Jen Silverman and Naomi Wallace write such gorgeous stage directions that at least one local theater – with the permission of the playwright, I hasten to add – incorporated the stage directions into the spoken scape of the play.

AND. (See, that all-caps thingie again.)

That can happen only because the team who build a play from its blueprint permit their imaginations free reign while reading, because there IS a team necessary for the making of a play. Just like there’s an architect and construction crew and artisans for that literal building.

Don’t believe me? Go out and read a blueprint, why dontcha?












2 thoughts on “playwrighting is not literature

  1. If I can say, what hath he wrought, then I can use wright as a noun. English is a living language! Heck, most people use “comprise” to mean its diametric opposite – which is now meaning #2 in the dictionaries. I stand by “wrighting.”

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