How to Write a Play
Introduction by William Gillette
The impression has always prevailed with me that one who might properly be classed as a genius is not precisely the person best fitted to
expound rules and methods for the carrying on of his particular branch of endeavor. I have rather avoided looking the matter up for fear it might
not turn out to be so after all. But doesn't it sound as if it ought to be? And isn't a superficial glance about rather confirmatory? We do
not--so far as I know--find that Shakspere or Milton or Tennyson or Whitman ever gave out rules and regulations for the writing of poetry; that
Michael Angelo or Raphael was addicted to formulating instructive matter as to the accomplishment of paintings and frescoes; that Thackeray or
Dickens or Meredith or George Sand were known to have answered inquiries as to 'How to write a Novel'; or that Beethoven or Wagner or Chopin or
Mendelsohn paused in the midst of their careers in order to tell newspaper men what they considered the true method of composing music. These
fortunate people--as well as others of their time--could so easily be silent and thus avoid disclosing the fact that they could not--for the
lives of them--tell about these things; but in our unhappy day even geniuses are prodded and teased and tortured into speech. In this case we may
be more than grateful that they are, for the result is most delightful reading--even tho it falls a trifle short of its purpose as indicated by
the rather far-reaching title.
There are no workable rules for play-writing to be found here--nor, indeed, any particular light of any kind on the subject, so the letters
may be approacht with a mind arranged for enjoyment. I would be sorry indeed for the trying-to-be dramatist who flew to this volume for
consolation and guidance. I'm sorry for him any way, but this additional catastrophe would accelerate my sympathy, making it fast and furious.
Any one sufficiently inexperienced to consult books in order to find out how to write a play will certainly undergo a severe touch of confusion
in this case, for four of the letter-writers confess quite frankly that they do not know--two of these thereupon proceeding to tell us, thus
forcibly illustrating their first statement. One author exclaims, "Have instinct!"--another, "Have genius!" Where these two necessaries are to be
obtained is not revealed. Equally discouraging is the Dumas declaration that "Some from birth know how to write a play and the others do not and
never will." That would have killed off a lot of us--if we had seen it in time.
One approaches the practical when he counsels us to "Take an interesting theme." Certainly a workable proposition. Many dramatists have done
that--wherever they could find it. The method is not altogether modern. Two insist upon the necessity of a carefully considered plan, while two
others announce that it is a matter of no consequence what one does; and another still wants us to be sure and begin work at the end instead of
the beginning. Gondinet--most delightful of all--tells us that his method of working is simply atrocious, for all he asks when he contemplates
writing a play is whether the subject will be amusing to him. Tho that scarcely touches the question of how to write it, it is a practical hint
on favoring conditions, for no one will dispute that one's best work is likely to be preformed when he him self enjoys it. Sardou comes nearest
to projecting a faint ray of practical light on the subject when he avers that there is no one necessary way to write a play, but that a
dramatist must know where he is going and take the best road that leads there. He omits, however, to give instructions about finding that
road--which some might think important.
The foregoing indicates to some extent the buffeting about which a searcher for practical advice on play-writing may find himself subject in
this collection of letters. He had better go for mere instruction to those of a lower order of intellect, whose imaginative or creative faculties
do not monopolize their entire mental area.
But that will hardly serve him better, for the truth is that no one can convey to him--whether by written words or orally--or even by signs
and miracles--the right and proper method of constructing a play. A few people know, but they are utterly unable to communicate that knowledge to
others. In one place and one only can this unfortunate person team how to proceed, and that is the theatre; and the people to see about it there
are situated in front of the foot-lights and not behind them.
A play or drama is not a simple and straight-told story; it is a device--an invention--a carefully adjusted series of more or less ingenious
traps, independent yet inter-dependent, and so arranged that while yet trapping they carry forward the plot or theme without a break. These traps
of scene, of situation, of climax, of acts and tableaux or of whatever they are, require to be set and adjusted with the utmost nicety and skill
so that they will spring at the precise instant and in the precise manner to seize and hold the admiration--sympathy--interest--or whatever they
may be intended to capture, of an audience. Their construction and adjustment--once one of the simplest--is now of necessity most complicated and
intricate. They must operate precisely and effectively, otherwise the play--no matter how admirable its basic idea--no matter how well the author
knows life and humanity, will fail of its appeal and be worthless--for a play is worthless that is unable to provide itself with people to play
_to_. The admiration of a few librarians on account of certain arrangements of the words and phrases which it may contain can give it no value as
drama. Such enthusiasm is not altogether unlike what a barber might feel over the exquisite way in which the hair has been arranges on a corpse;
despite his approval it becomes quite necessary to bury it.
The play-writer's or playwright's work, then, supposing that he possesses the requisite knowledge of life as it is lived to go on with, is to
select or evolve from that knowledge the basic idea, plot or theme, which, skillfully displayed, will attract; and then to invent, plan, devise,
and construct the trap wherein it is to be used to snare the sympathies, etc., of audiences.
But audiences are a most undependable and unusual species of game. From time immemorial their tastes, requirements, habits, appetites,
sentiments and general characteristics have undergone constant change and modification; and thus continues without pause to the present day. The
dramatic trap that would work like a charm not long ago may not work at all to-day; the successful trap of to-day may be useless junk
It must be obvious, then, that for light and instruction on the judicious selection of the bait, and on the best method or methods of devising
the trap wherein that bait is to be displayed (that is to say the play) but one thing can avail; and that one thing is a most diligent and
constant study of the habits and tastes of this game which it is our business to capture--if we can. To go for information about these things to
people sitting by their firesides dreaming of bygone days, or, indeed, to go to anyone sitting anywhere, is merely humorous. The information
which the dramatist seeks cannot be told--even by those who know. For the gaining of such knowledge is the acquirement of an instinct which
enables its possessor automatically to make use of the effective in play-writing and construction and devising, and automatically to shun the
ineffective. This instinct must be planted and nourisht by more or less (more if possible) _living_ with audiences, until it becomes a part of
the system--yet constantly alert for the necessary modifications which correspond to the changes which the tastes and requirements of these
An education like this is likely to take the dramatist a great deal of time--unless he is so fortunate as to be a genius. Perhaps the main
difference between the play-writing genius and the rest of us is that he can associate but briefly with audiences and know it all, whereas we
must spend our lives at it and know but little. I have never happened to hear of a genius of this description; but that is no argument against
the possibility of his existence.
As to the talented authors of these letters, they know excellently well--every one of them--how to write a play--or did while still
alive--even tho some of them see fit to deny it; but they cannot tell _us_ how to do it for the very good reason that it cannot be told. Their
charming efforts to find a way out when cornered by such an inquiry as appears to have been made to them are surely worth all their trouble and
annoyance--not to speak of their highly probable exasperation.
William Gillette (May, 1916)