How to Write a Play
by Édouard Pailleron
You ask me how a play is made, my dear Dreyfus. I may well astonish you, perhaps, but on my soul and honor, before God and man, I assure to
you that I know nothing about it, that you know nothing, that nobody knows anything, and that the author of a play knows less about it than any
You don't believe me?
Let us see.
Here is a capable gentleman, a man of the theater, a dramatist acclaimed a score of times, at the height of his powers, in full success. He
has written a comedy. He has bestowed upon it all his care, all his time, all his ability. He has left nothing to chance.
He has just finisht it, and is content. According to the consecrated expression, it is "certain to go." But as he is cautious, he does not
rely entirely upon his own opinion. He consults his friends--fellow-workers, skillful as he, successful as he. He reads to them his piece. I will
not say that they are satisfied--another word is needed--but at any rate, with more reason than ever, it is "certain to go."
He seeks out a manager, an old stager who has every opportunity for being clear-headed, because of his experience, and every reason for being
exacting, because of his self-interest. He gives him the manuscript, and as soon as the manager gets a fair notion of the piece, this Napoleon of
the stage, this strategist of success, is seized by a profound emotion, but one easy to comprehend in the case of a man who is convinced that
five hundred thousand francs have just been placed in his hand. He exults, he shouts, he presses the author in his arms, he rains upon him the
most flattering adjectives, beginning with "sublime" and mounting upward. He calls him the most honied names: Shakspere, Duvert and Lauzanne,
Rossini, Offenbach--according to the kind of theater he directs. He is not only satisfied, he is delighted, he is radiant--it is "certain to
Wait! That is not all. It is read to the actors--the same enthusiasm! All are satisfied, if not with the play--they have not heard it yet--at
least with their parts. All are satisfied! It is "certain to go."
Thereupon rehearsals are held for two months before those who have the freedom of the theater, who sit successively in the depths of the dark
hall and show the same delirium. Even the sixty firemen on duty who, during these sixty rehearsals, have invariably laught and wept at the same
passages. Yet it is well known that the fireman is the modern Laforêt of our modern Molières, as M. Prud'homme would say, and that when the
fireman is satisfied--it is "certain to go!"
The dress rehearsal arrives. A triumph! Bravos! Encores! Shouts! Recalls! All of the signs of success--and note that the public on this
evening of rehearsal with the exception of a small and insignificant contingent, will be the public of the first performance the next night. It
is "certain to go," I tell you! Certain! Absolutely certain!
On this next night the piece is presented. It falls flat! Well, then?
If the author knows what he is doing, if he is the master of his method, explain to me then why, after having written twenty good pieces, he
writes a bad one?
And don't tell me that failure proves nothing--you would pain me, my friend.
I do not intend to deny, you must understand, the value of talent and skill and experience. They are, philosophically speaking, important
elements. But in what proportions do they contribute to the result? That's what, let me repeat, nobody knows, the author as little as anybody
The author in travail with a play is an unconscious being, whatever he may think about himself; and his piece is the product of instinct
rather than of intention.
Believe me, my dear Dreyfus, in this as in everything, the cleverest of us does what he can, and if he succeeds, he says that he has done
exactly what he tried to do. That's the truth. In reality an author knows sometimes what he has tried to do, rarely what he has done;--and as to
knowing how he did it, I defy him!
Then if it is good, let him try again! I cannot recede from this view.
In our craft, you see, there is an element of unrebeginnable which makes it an art, something of genius which ennobles it, something of the
fatally uncertain which renders it both charming and redoubtable. To try to pick the masterpiece to pieces, to unscrew the ideal, to pluck the
heart out of the mystery, after the fashion of the baby who looks for the little insect in the watch, is to attempt a vain and puerile thing.
Ah! if I had the time--but I haven't the time. So it's just as well, or better, that I stop. To talk too much about art is not a good sign in
an artist. It is like a lover's talking too much about love; if I were a woman I should have my doubts.
Well, do you wish me to disengage the philosophy of this garrulity? It is found whole and entire in an apolog of my son--he too a philosopher
without knowing it. He was then seven. As a result of learning fables he was seized with the ambition of writing one, which he brought to me one
fine day. It is called the 'Donkey and the Canary.' The verses are perhaps a trifle long, but there are only two. That's the compensation. Here
The canary once sang; and the ass askt him how he could learn this to do?
"I open my bill," said the bird; "and I say you, you, you!"
Well, the ass, that's you--don't get angry. The canary, that's I. When I sing I open my bill and I say, "you, you, you!"
That's all that I can tell you.
Édouard Pailleron (1834-1899) was a comic dramatist of more aspiration than inspiration; and yet he succeeded in writing one of the most
popular pieces of his time;--the 'Monde où l'on s'énnuie.'