The Pivotal Character Revisited

In an earlier post I mentioned that although the late drama theorist Lajos Egri was indeed brilliant, many of his dictums on the art of playwriting are extremely dated. That is not to say that his insights were not valid for the plays of his day, but tastes change, particularly when it comes to playwriting and screenwriting.  I made reference to one of Egri’s central tenets: the premise.  I defined this as a thought-provoking idea, usually of social significance, that must be proved or demonstrated; Egri insisted that any play worthy of the name must have one.  However, I pointed out that such premises are rare today because audiences have “seen it all” and don’t like to be preached to (although that hasn’t dissuaded more than a few stubborn playwrights and filmmakers from “preaching to the choir”).

Another of Egri’s insights that you don’t hear mentioned much today is the concept of the Pivotal Character.  According to Egri, without such a character there would be no play: he (or she) sets the action in motion.  As an example, Egri points to  Krogstad, a minor character in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, whose demand that the main character, Nora, repay a loan sets the play in motion. A pivotal character may be a secondary character or, more commonly, the main character or protagonist.  According to Egri, a pivotal character must not only set the drama in motion, he or she must be “necessarily aggressive, uncompromising, even ruthless.”  Ironically, Egri considered Hamlet, whose name is almost synonymous with vacillation, as a pivotal character because he (Hamlet) “ferrets out his father’s murderers . . . to bring the guilty to justice.”

Do I think that Egi’s concept of the pivotal character is dated?  The answer is “yes” and “no”. There are pivotal characters in contemporary drama, but less so than in Egri’s time, because many of today’s dramas don’t have concrete beginnings and endings: there is no action to set in motion because the characters’ lives change little from day to day.  This is particularly true of “slice of life” dramas that periodically fall in and out of fashion.  And as far as characters being “aggressive” and “ruthless,” you are likely only to find those traits in psychopathic villains.   Furthermore, males today—particularly American males—are more likely than not to be depicted as being complex and sensitive. Thus when the pivotal character is a male, you can be certain that Alpha Males need not apply!  And if the pivotal character is an aggressive male, there is a dearth of actors to portray them.  As one American screenwriter not so long ago warned his fellow writers, when choosing their characters, they should keep in mind that “there are no more Lee Marvin’s.”  To which I would add, no Humphrey Bogart’s or John Wayne’s either. So why am I revisiting this concept?

I am doing so because although there are indeed pivotal characters– and should be– in contemporary drama, employing them presents a challenge for both the writer and the actor.   It is essential for both in practicing their art to know the motivation of the characters they write of or portray.  For most characters this is very straight forward.  For example, we can assume that a mother will always protect her children and a father will always protect his family because that is what we expect parents to do.  But when a character is “pivotal,” motivation may not be so clear.   Case in point is the pivotal characters in American “Road films.”  In this genre the main characters, usually seeking a better life, pack up whatever belongings they possess and drive across country, along the way encountering interesting people and embarking on unusual adventures.  The problem is, despite the perception that Americans are very mobile and move around a lot, most would never make so consequential a journey unless they had the offer of an exceedingly good job—and even then it’s not certain that they would actually make such a bold move.  Writers of these films often come up with stronger motivations for the pivotal characters, such as reconciling with a dying relative, searching for a lost child, or collecting a large inheritance or some other large sum of money.  These “stronger” motivations are obviously contrived, but audiences don’t seem to mind as long as the rest of the film is engaging and entertaining.  Let us now look at an example where a writer skillfully met the challenge of the pivotal character and found an actor to capably execute it:  Peter Shaffer’s masterful play Amadeus.

The subject here is the alleged murder of the 18th century Viennese musical genius Mozart by the jealous court composer Salieri.  Mozart, of course, is a historical figure.  Salieri is, too, although a minor one.  In fact there is no real documentation that the two had much interaction, although Salieri had been the music teacher of Mozart’s son and had even conducted some of Mozart’s work.  The drama really doesn’t start until Salieri renounces God and commits himself to undermining Mozart (and possibly committing murder).  This then is the ultimate pivotal act by the pivotal character.  Without Salieri’s treachery, instead of having an engrossing play, all you would be left with would be a faithful biography of Mozart.

Now here is the challenge for the playwright: while the motivation for Mozart is quite clear and straightforward, the motivation for Salieri is not.  Mozart, despite his character flaws, wants nothing more than to be successful in his art; furthermore he sees himself as a dutiful husband, father and son.  Salieri’s motivation is not so clear or uncomplicated.  Salieri is driven by resentment and professional jealousy.  These feelings are understandable; but is it really credible that a devout Catholic would renounce his religion and be so driven by hatred?  Real genius is required on both the part of the playwright and the actor portraying Salieri to make the play succeed.

And succeed they did.   The original Broadway production received the Tony for Best Play, and the motion picture adaptation a few years later received the Oscar for Best Picture.  The actors who played Salieri, Ian McKellen (play) and F. Murray Abraham (film), both received Best Actor awards: the Tony and Oscar, respectively.

 

Who was Lewis Helmar Herman?

If you happened to read the memoirs of successful twentieth-century American screenwriters, you might have come across  anecdotes about how upon being offered their first screenwriting assignment and not having the slightest idea of how to write one—most of them were novelists or playwrights—they headed down to a nearby all-night bookstore and purchased a book on screenwriting.  Most likely the book they purchased was A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Helmar Herman.  First published in 1952, the book is still in print.  But just who was the author of one of the most widely-read books on screenwriting?  Oddly, on the back cover of my copy of the book there is absolutely no information about the author.  Even the Wikipedia has no entry for him—and they have entries on just about anyone.  Given what I believe is Herman’s importance, and spurred by curiosity, I undertook my own investigation on the internet of this very remarkable man.  Unfortunately, my investigation didn’t turn up a great amount of information.  I did learn that he was born in 1905; however, I couldn’t confirm when he died, or if  in fact he was still living—which would make him 111 years old—though my sleuthing has led me to believe that he passed away in New York City some time during the 1990’s.

My investigation revealed some interesting aspects about the man.  Herman was a type of writer who is very rare today:  a writer who makes a living writing plays, books, articles and short stories.  (In my library I have a copy of a book he wrote on American dialects)  Furthermore, in the 1940’s Herman went to Hollywood to write screenplays, which I surmise was only for a few years.  Additional investigation reveals that he most likely headed-up the United States Army’s motion picture center in New York City during the 1950’s.  Unfortunately, for the last thirty or forty years of his life, the trail went cold for me.

But just what is Herman’s importance besides the fact that his book has been so widely read?  Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that during the 1980’s film academics in the United States proclaimed that during the 1930’s. 1940’s and 1950’s American cinema had enjoyed a “classic” period—never to be equaled again—and the secret of its success was indeed “secret.”  This spurred film scholars and a new crop of manual writers and script gurus to delve into the archives of the major film studios in search of Hollywood’s most closely guarded “trade secrets.”  However, what these film scholars and would-be gurus failed to realize or acknowledge was that these supposed trade secrets were hiding in plain sight—in Herman’s all -encompassing 1952 screenwriting manual.

Herman revealed all, particularly the mainstay Hollywood plot gimmicks, particularly “the plant,” “the old switcheroo” and “the weenie”—referred to as “the MaGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock.  Although Herman knew all the gimmicks, he was critical of their overuse by Hollywood.  He complained that “In Hollywood the gimmick is the most overused stock in trade.  It is because of the gimmick that Hollywood pictures stress plot to the detriment of genuine characterization.”  Herman did not simply dwell on gimmicks; he even provided an exposition on a “three-act” structure.

Although Herman worked primarily in Hollywood, he was well aware of foreign (non-U.S.) films, particularly their strengths and weaknesses.  He noted that while American films often opened literally with a “bang,” e.g. someone being shot in the opening scene, European films—and British films in particular—began at a much slower pace.  He noted the following:

It is obvious from their pictures that the British believe the gradual –and therefore natural—development of character is vitally important.  So they begin their pictures with an overall visual exposition of the milieu in which the action will take place . . . .  This done, they go in from the general to the specific, by showing the people who will be involved in the action as they go through their normal workaday lives.  From this they become more specific, and single out the protagonists and antagonists, so as to set them up in their proper relation to each other, and to the story line.

Only when these expository preliminaries have been attended to do they begin to get into the action itself.

Herman went on to note how this slow build and slower tempo persisted throughout almost the entire length of a British film, picking up only at the end.  Although Herman understood the logic of this type of slow build, he noted that it did not always produce good results; in fact in some instances he found that there was an almost robot-like adherence to its employment.

Lewis Helmar Herman: the author of the only screenwriting manual you will ever need!

The Writer and Modern Psychiatry

In an earlier post I discussed how the mental health profession has relied heavily on film for teaching examples and the reasons why.  Today I will discuss how the screenwriter draws on (and perhaps should) modern psychiatry, if not for inspiration, at least for authenticity.  For much of the previous century, films incorporated very little insight from psychiatry.  There were two reasons for this: the first was the fact that psychiatry was still in its infancy; the second was  that most writers had very little contact with the mentally ill.  People that were seriously mentally ill, such as schizophrenics, were almost always placed in mental institutions and thus the public had essentially no contact with them.  There was one exception to this, and that was the psychoanalytic theories and techniques of Sigmund Freud.

The influence of Freud was pervasive in 20th century films, particularly in the area of symbolism. In my Screenplay as Literature I wrote about Federico Fellini’s use of Freud’s theories in his films, particularly in his marvelous 8 ½ (1963).  But despite Freud’s popularity with certain filmmakers, audiences and critics could ignore Freud and still enjoy their films.  For example, with 8 1/2 you could know nothing about Freud or understand little about the inner psychological conflicts of the main character, Guido, yet find the film highly entertaining.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, psychiatry and mental health practices in general changed dramatically in the United States.  In short, the mental institutions were emptied out, as their former patients were dumped on the public on the justification that powerful new drugs could control their serious mental illnesses.  Thus, for the first time, the public was introduced to people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder (i.e. manic-depressive).  Then there were the classification of many new syndromes that impair behavior such as attention-deficit and post-traumatic stress syndromes.  Anyone who has watched the television series Law and Order is probably aware of the difficulty that prosecutors have in securing convictions against felons, particularly in the case of murder, due to the proliferation of evermore “syndromes” that can be offered up as a defense

These advances have provided writers with much new material, plot and character wise.  The cable television series Homeland is an intriguing example of this.  In this series the main character, a high-ranking officer for an American spy agency, suffers from bi-polar disorder, for which she takes powerful medications.  It is indeed a breakthrough to depict people with mental illness able to excel in high-powered jobs.  What is fascinating about this series from a writing point of view is that we are never sure when the main character becomes infatuated with a new man if this is a symptom of her bi-polar disorder or actual love.  The same could be said when she becomes stubbornly insistent on her work-related insights—is this genius, or the failure of her medications to work properly?  In any event I am sure that qualified psychiatrists are employed to act as consultants to the show.

The real challenge today may not be serious mental impairments such as schizophrenia, for which people may be institutionalized, but impairments that are referred to as personality disorders. The better known (to the public) of such disorders are paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, and anti-social.  The latter is particularly important for writers of crime shows because it is estimated that up to thirty percent of imprisoned criminals are diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder (by the way, people who are diagnosed with this disorder are alternately called sociopaths and psychopaths).

Why are personality disorders a challenge for the writer?  They are because most of the characters that writers write about, particularly the most interesting, may be covered by such diagnoses.  Why is this a problem?  It is a problem because it difficult to incorporate the concept of free will.  People diagnosed with a personality disorder may not be capable of making valid choices, such as between good and bad and rational and irrational.   So the problem for the writer when dealing with characters that appear to have one of these disorders is the following:  when trying to determine what the character is going to do next, do you consult a book on dramaturgy and plotting or a psychiatric manual?

A recent cable television series provides an interesting example of a dilemma such as this.  Here, during the first two seasons, one of the main characters does the following:  is unfaithful to her husband, destroys the marriage and family of her lover without remorse, steals drugs from a hospital for her own personal use, willingly participates in illicit drug dealing, lies to her lover (now her second husband) about who got her pregnant, and finally is perfectly comfortable in having him go to prison for a crime that she committed.  You wouldn’t be overreaching if you concluded that this character exhibits many of the characteristics of a psychopath. Keep in mind that she is very sympathetically portrayed (her first child died due to a tragic accident).  And I neglected to mention that her lover/new husband is a classic narcissist.  The question we have to ask ourselves is the following:  is this a story about a woman who desperately wants to get her chaotic life in order or the unfolding of a horrendous train wreck or both?

As a disclaimer I wish to make it clear that I do not purport to be an expert on mental health issues.  My intent is simply to highlight the challenges that these issues present for writers today.  No matter what your opinion is about modern psychiatry, the examples of its relevancy and practice confront us on a daily basis and can no longer be hidden-away behind the locked gates of mental institutions.

The Premise Revisited

In earlier posts I defined the “premise” as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated; furthermore, such propositions are often of a profound nature with social significance (e.g. “poverty breeds crime”).  That is the way that the premise has been used in plays and films, although I pointed out that premises in those two mediums are somewhat rare today.  However, in American television, not only is the premise not rare, the word has taken on an entirely different meaning.  The meaning in this instance is almost synonymous with a “gimmick”: something that distinguishes one television show from another; and often such premises are quite outlandish.  Thus we have had shows about genial genies, flying nuns, talking horses and favorite Martians.  My personal all-time favorite for silliness is “My Mother the Car”, in which a car is the reincarnation of the main character’s deceased mother.  As the premises of these shows cannot really be proved because they are fantasies, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to enjoy them.

However, for “serious” series shown predominately on cable television, there are some more subtle—and also insidious—premises that viewers must also accept beforehand; and they fall into two broad categories.  The first, for shows dealing primarily with criminals or persons engaging in criminal behavior, is that” bad people can do bad things—e.g. brutality and murder—and be not so bad people.”  The second is that “good people—e.g. non-criminals—can do bad things—e.g. infidelity and substance abuse—and still be good people”.  Weighty premises such as these in plays and films we would expect to be conclusively proved or demonstrated by the end of the production.  But because these series often go on for years, it is not reasonable to expect their viewers to wait that long to see if the premises of these shows prove to be true.  Thus, the audience must “buy in” to them from the beginning.  I must say that for the shows of the first type—and I have seen many—the criminals, despite their professed devotion to their families, appear to me to be little more than brutal thugs.  And as for the second type, the ones dealing with so-called good people, in the end the main characters strike me as totally self-absorbed, caring little about the people they hurt as the a result of  their selfish pursuits.  So why do I watch such shows if I fail to “buy-in” to their premises?  That is a good question.

Well, for one thing, I like to keep up on what is going on in the arts and entertainment.  And you have to admit that many of these shows are well produced with top-notch talent.  Or perhaps I simply find them to be a guilty pleasure.  Then again maybe the real reason I watch them is because they make me nostalgic for a simpler time, when cads were cads and criminals were criminals; and it was not politically incorrect not to like them.

Who Was Lajos Egri?

A few years ago, when I began to reacquaint myself with the study of the screenplay, I was surprised to see the name of Lajos Egri being associated with screenwriting manual writers and film studies programs located primarily on the West Coast of the United States.  I noted that he was particularly highly regarded at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.  This both puzzled and surprised me because Egri, the author of a very old book on playwriting, was rarely ever mentioned on the East Coast of the United States; furthermore, I considered his work extremely dated when I first read it decades ago.  This prompted me to re-examine this very interesting man and his work.  I now share this re-examination with you.

Lajos Egri was born in Hungary in 1888.   He immigrated to the United States when he was eighteen years old and earned a livelihood working in the New York City garment industry.  He is purported to have written his first play when he was ten years old.  In New York he also wrote plays, but was not a well-known playwright.  In 1942 Egri published a manual on play writing entitled How to Write a PlayThis manual was revised and republished in 1946 under the title The Art of Dramatic Writing, which was, as far as I can discern, revised at least once more. At some point, I am not sure when, Egri opened a school for writing in a small office in midtown Manhattan (New York).

We do not know much about this school of Egri’s. I was only able to find two pertinent references to it: one is an article in the New York Times (1961), and the other is a reference by one of his students—a very young Woody Allen. The New York Times article describes how one of his students, a sixty-three year-old grandmother, had her first play produced on Off-Broadway; it received mixed reviews and ran for only a few weeks. (By the way, sixty-three years was considered old in those days.)    Allen, while generally praising Egri, described the other half dozen or so students in his class as “real losers–some fat house wife, a salesman.  There was no one in the class under forty-five years of age and nobody knew what they were doing…”

Sometime in the early 1960’s Egri moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to offer writing classes (in his home) until his death in 1967.  The edition of his book that I own states that Egri “now resides in Los Angeles, California, where he is teaching and working with members of the film industry.”  However, I was not able to substantiate that he had any impact on Hollywood during the few years that he lived in Los Angeles.

By now I am sure that some of you suspect that I am sitting behind my computer screen, smirking at this obscure, humble immigrant: this tailor by trade who eked out a meager living by mentoring would-be playwrights with precious little talent and less chance of success.  After all, he wasn’t a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.    Totally Wrong!   Lajos Egri was a man I could admire.  He was absolutely brilliant!

Every hundred or so years–if we are so fortunate–a person comes along who can see things that no one else can see.  A person who sees order where others can only discern chaos.  A person who perceives simple, but profound truths where others can only perceive confusion.  A person who is able to see the forest despite the trees.  Lajos Egri was such a person.

What Egri did was to set out to uncover the secrets of successful play writing.  His methodology was straight forward: he saw every play possible (from the classics to the Broadway fare of his day) and he read all the major books on playwriting that were in print at the time.  Then, he formulated his discoveries in a very simple and direct way.  His major discovery was that although the authors of most books on playwriting used different terminology and proposed differing theories, they were essentially saying the same thing: which is that all plays must possess what Egri termed a premise.  Whether they talked about a “theme,” “thesis,” “root idea,” “goal,” “aim,” “driving force” etc, they were really talking about a “premise.”  And whether this was true or not, that is, that other authors writing on dramatic art actually meant the same thing, is unimportant.  What is important is that Egri believed that it was true.

To understand Egri one has to understand Henrik Ibsen, a Nineteenth Century Norwegian playwright who was a major influence on him.  Ibsen, in the late Nineteenth century, introduced a type play that served as a major model for succeeding playwrights for the next sevent-five years: plays which took place in a realistic milieu and employed idiomatic dialogue—but more importantly, plays that prove and/or demonstrate a socially-significant premise.  In his The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri uses Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as his main teaching example and thoroughly analyzes the play.  The major tenet that Egri derives from Ibsen is that all plays must have a well-formulated premise.   For Egri, the “premise” was “a tyrant” that demanded that the playwright go in only one direction: its absolute proof.   The approach that Egri recommends for writing a play is to start with a well-formulated premise and then select the characters that will prove it.  For example, according to this methodology, if your premise was “Poverty breeds crime,” and your protagonist is a young man who grows up in poverty and then becomes a criminal, the young man cannot have a brother who becomes a priest, because that would undermine the premise.  Nor can he have friends who are the sons of rich men, but turn to crime for the thrill of it.

Egri gives a very interesting but bizarre example of this “tyranny” of the premise.  He presents the premise that if a girl cannot find any other means of support, she will turn to prostitution.  The protagonist he chooses to prove this premise is named Irene, an attractive young woman who lives in a small town and comes from a good family.  She goes to New York to become a dancer, fails at that and then sinks into prostitution.  But we know that not every girl who comes to New York and fails to succeed as a performer (or some similar endeavor) becomes a prostitute—or at least we would like to believe so. There must be something else she could do?  Egri’s answer is that in order to prove your premise you must choose a girl who under these circumstances does just that—becomes a prostitute.  Furthermore, Egri urges that you, the playwright, must make Irene try every conceivable way to avoid prostitution.  But, according to Egri, she must fail! Otherwise you will not be able to prove your premise.  In fact, he goes so far as to say, “If, for any reason, we feel that prostitution wasn’t the only way out for Irene, you have failed as a craftsman and as a dramatist.”  (Italics by Egri.)   To be fair, it must be understood that Egri is not saying that any girl would do this, only a girl with  Irene’s ( mostly selfish and vain) character traits.

The premise, as Egri defines it, is also a capsule summary of the plot.  But it was not in plotting where Egri excelled the most: it was in his treatment of character.  On this subject Egri broke with Aristotle, who decreed that character was secondary to plot.   What is more important, Egri asks:  plot or character?  That is a pointless question, Egri would answer, because plot emanates from character.  If you have chosen your characters well, and fully understand them, then they have no choice but to take the path that you have destined for them—the path that proves your premise.  On the subject of character, Egri acknowledges that  the great Russian playwright Chekhov “has no story to tell, no situation to speak of, but his plays are popular and will be so in time to come, because he permits his characters to reveal themselves and the time in which they lived.”  Regrettably, Egri never fully explains how the success of Chekhov’s essentially “premise-less” plays relates to his own seemingly contradictory theories.

One area in which Egri particularly excelled—and in which other manual writers usually completely ignore—was in his analyses of why certain “bad” plays succeed at the box office.  And in this vein, his analysis of Tobacco Road, a play about an impoverished dysfunctional family in the American Deep South during the 1930’s is particularly insightful.  “The play has characters, but no growth,” he points out.  But these were not ordinary characters.  These were characters that you could smell.  “Their sexual depravity, their animal existence, capture the imagination,” Egri astutely observes:”The most poverty-stricken New York audience feels that its fate is incomparably better. . . . The audience, mesmerized, flocked to see these animals who somehow resembled human beings.”  But Egri’s penetrating analysis didn’t stop there.  He notes that Jeeter Lester, the central character, is “a weak-kneed man, without the strength to live or die successfully.  Poverty stares him in the face, his wife and children starve,” yet he does nothing. ”Is he a weak or a strong character?” Egri asks.  “To our way of thinking he is one of the strongest characters we have seen in the theater in a long time,” he answers. “Lester stubbornly maintains his status quo, or seems to maintain it, against the changes of time….in his weakness he is exceptionally strong, and condemns himself and his class to slow death rather than change.”

Egri had some very sage advice for the aspiring writer:  “If you are interested not in writing good plays, but in making money quickly, there’s no hope for you,” he warned. “Not only won’t you write a good play; you won’t make any money. . . . . write something you really believe in,” he advised.  And lastly, “Don’t write for the producers or for the public.  Write for yourself.”

Egri was indeed brilliant, and I have incorporated certain of his concepts, particularly those dealing with character, in my own work.  His conceptualization of premise has been embraced by both critics and industry professionals alike.  Yet Egri is dated, terribly dated.   Plays and screenplays with Egri-styled premises are rare today.  Audiences are too sophisticated; they have seen it all.  There is little you can prove to them that they don’t already know.  And they don’t like to be preached to.  As a further illustration of this, Ibsen (who Egri greatly admired) is rarely performed today, while Chekhov is continually revived.

If you write like Egri would have you write, your work may very well be criticized as being didactic and contrived, with wooden characters as well.  On the other hand, If you write like Chekhov, critics might very well say that your work is unfocused and diffuse.  The creative processes of both approaches are different, although one is not necessarily better than the other.

Every writer—novelist, playwright and screenwriter alike—should read Egri, if for no other reason than to be able to defend their work should it be criticized for not adhering to his dogma.  As to why Egri is so widely embraced on the West Coast of the United States, I think it has more to do with the fact that for a long time his manual on playwriting was the only one to be found in bookstores, not because he had lived and worked in Los Angeles for the last few years of his life.

Lajos Egri: a very wise  man–and a name you should know!

Playwright versus Dramatist

Today I am going to define two words in a sense that they are not commonly used; the two words are playwright and dramatist.  Usually, the terms are used synonymously, but for the point I wish to illustrate, I intend to give each a separate meaning.  I will define a playwright as someone who is drawn to the theatre as a medium of creative expression—and more specifically, as a medium of creative expression that comes from within him or her—but not necessarily autobiographical.  This person has decided that he primarily wants to write plays rather than novels or poetry and will usually endeavor to learn as much as possible about the theatre before seriously undertaking an actual writing project.  A dramatist is also drawn to the theatre and also chooses to express himself exclusively through this medium; but unlike the playwright, the dramatist does not find his material from within himself, rather he looks for material that he can dramatize, that is, to put in a form that makes for good theatre, and he often finds this material in novels, biography (history) and current events.  An example of such a dramatization would be a play from the 1950’s called The Caine Munity Court Martial.  This play was based on a novel entitled The Caine Mutiny, in which the actual court martial dramatized in the play comprised only a small part.  In fact, court trials real or fictional, have often been favored by dramatists.  Compulsion (a 1957 play based on the Leopold and Loeb trial, not the recent play based on the author’s life) and Inherit the Wind (the Scopes “Monkey” trial) are some examples of the former (coincidentally, the actual defense lawyer depicted in both plays was the great Clarence Darrow).

On the Broadway stage throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Tennessee Williams was the preeminent playwright of his day; no one doubted that the plays which he wrote came from within (although they were not necessarily autobiographical).  Audiences flocked to each new work by him to see what new insights he had for them on the human condition.  But that does not mean that his plays were invariably critical or box-office successes; most were not.  At the same time there were many plays performed on Broadway written by what I have defined above as dramatists.  Many of these plays were written by two person writing teams and were hugely successful.  The fact that today most of these plays are now forgotten, as well as the dramatists themselves (while the works of Tennessee Williams are still performed), should not detract from their dramatic and entertainment value.  Today, little original drama is performed on Broadway, whether it be the work of playwright or dramatist.  Most of the latter now work in television, where there is a huge demand for this entertainment fare.

You probably would think that I hold the work of playwrights in higher esteem than I do of that of dramatists.  Not true.  The creative process may be somewhat different, but one is not necessarily better than the other.  And the line between the two is not always clear; nor are the two mutually exclusive.  For example, Jean Giraudoux did not write Tiger at the Gates (Le guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu) because he felt that the Trojan War provided sure-fire dramatic material: instead he was looking for a vehicle through which to dramatize his brilliant insights and ideas.  And the same could probably be said of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

And now this brings us to film.  Here we also have the equivalents of playwright and dramatist.  And most filmmakers, directors and screenwriters belong to the latter category.  But again, the distinction is not always clear.  Why do I believe that this distinction is important?  Because it determines how we must critique them.  I came to this realization years ago while conducting a screenwriting workshop at the New School of Social Research in New York.  I found that when working with participants who were truly writing from within my role was almost that of a therapist.  I would often say things to them like, “You’re not the only naïve young woman to come to New York from a small town and be taken advantage of.”  Or, “You’re not the only young man to face disappointment and be treated unfairly.  Get over your self-pity.”  When people write autobiographical fiction, they often tend to justify bad life choices and change the way things really happened in order to make themselves come off better.  So it was not uncommon for me to ask them if they were really being honest with themselves.  With writers who were more of the dramatist variety, my method of working with them was on more of a detached—from the material, that is–professional level.  If they were writing a thriller, I might suggest that they put in more plot twists or point out that their story was too predictable.  And this brings me to my next insight:  When dealing with “playwrights” we must critique not only the Work, but the writer as well!  In such instances, the only way to improve the work is to improve the writer.

Illustrative of this insight is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.  In this celebrated film, Fellini found an apt subject for his burgeoning cinematic talent:  himself.  His alter-ego in the film, Guido, also a filmmaker, states that he wants to make an honest picture, one without lies.  And how did Guido first attempt to do this?  The same was as Fellini: by making a film in which his protagonist—really himself—instead of facing up to his personal crisis directly, abstracts it—that is, reflects on it on a much broader basis: e.g. mankind, including the Catholic Church, attempting to leave the earth in a gigantic spaceship in order to start over again (the actual reason for the ridiculous rocket-launching platform set).  And, as pre-production on the two films progressed—Fellini’s and Guido’s—both became more autobiographical, and consequently less abstract and more honest.  Thus by confronting his inner demons (without reservations), Fellini’s work steadily improved; hopefully the work of his alter ego, Guido, will improve in the same manner.

Playwright, Heal thyself!

 

The Importance of Theme

In my book The Screenplay as Literature, I gave a brief treatment on “theme” in cinema and how the term differs from “premise.”  In this work I defined “theme” as a thought-provoking idea that pervades the entire production—an idea that is often simple and profound.  I pointed out that a “theme” and its meaning should always be self-evident to the audience—even if only on an subconscious level—not demanding proof or demonstration, but development instead.   This I contrasted to a “premise,” which I defined as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated.  Subsequently, I became dissatisfied with my earlier treatment of this important topic, primarily because my book did not included a suitable example of a film with a full-blown theme; I had endeavored to include one, but for reasons I cannot go into here, I was compelled to drop the chapter dealing with such an example (the film, by the way, was Hiroshima Mon Amour).

Sometimes the theme of a film is related to its premise.  For example in the very harrowing Soviet film Come and See (1985), set during World War II in Russia, the premise is that war brutalizes its victims:  robbing them of their humanity, and for the young, also robbing them of their youth, even their childhood.  This is really a subset of the theme, which, in this instance, can be stated in a number of ways:  The Apocalypse of Our Time, War is Hell, and Man’s Inhumanity to Man. (By the way, the title of the film is a Biblical reference to the destruction wrought by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)  In this monumental film the theme is developed by depicting scenes of greater and greater brutality and horror.  The premise, on the other hand, is demonstrated (or proved) by a “coming of age” story in which the protagonist, a young, adolescent partisan, is thoroughly brutalized by his wartime experiences (shockingly, his hair turns prematurely gray at the film’s end).

Sometimes this dramaturgical concept of a theme is confused with the way the term is commonly employed in the film industry.  In this instance, “theme” or “action-theme” is used to describe what a film “is about.”  Thus “a secret agent prevents a terrorist organization from detonating a stolen nuclear weapon and destroying a major city” might well be the “theme” of a James Bond film.  And sometimes a filmmaker endeavors to make what his film is about rise to the level of a theme in the higher sense.  The British film Love Actually (2003) is such an example.  Here, in the opening scene at London’s main airport, Heathrow, we are told (by a voice-over) that love is all around us; and we are shown various couples (lovers, families) who obviously share love.  The film then goes on to depict various relationships (ten in all) from all strata of society (including one involving a Prime Minister and another involving a couple who meet on the set of a porno film) which end in committed relationships and  marriage. or hopefully will.  The film ends where it began, Heathrow airport, where we see many of those same couples coming together (if they have not already done so).  Love Actually is a very clever and well-made film.  But in the end it is just a film about love; its contrived love stories never rise to level of “theme”.  We just don’t feel the love.

Some of the more intriguing examples of theme are to be found in some rather unexpected places.  The films of Charles Chaplin, a comedian and director whose film career began in the silent era and spanned several decades, provide just such an example.  Chaplin’s signature hapless tramp, with his little mustache, battered hat, cane and clumsy gait clearly embodied the indomitableness of the human spirit.  No matter how much he was beaten down by the vicissitudes of life–and beaten down he was–he always picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked off into the sunset with his peculiar gait, ready for whatever life would throw at him next.   In the early days of silent films, the actors had no names.  But theater owners had only to put a cardboard representation of the little tramp in front of their theaters and the audiences would come–because they knew who he was.  He was them!