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!

 

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