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.

 

What Makes a Good Screenplay?

One aspect of my book The Screenplay as Literature that came in for pointed criticism was my brief treatment of the subject of “what makes a good screenplay.”  Here the critics were right.  Not because what I had written was not valid, but because the subject really had no place in a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature—just as the subject of “what makes a good novel” would have no place in a book entitled “The Novel as Literature.”  The question is much too subjective; and the variety of reasons why a screenplay may be considered good, may have nothing at all to do with whether or not it should be considered as Literature in the first place.

Certainly we would be inclined to think that a screenplay that is turned into a good film would be considered good. Screenplays (or versions of the same) are written for various purposes, and why they are good depends on the purpose for which they are written.  For example, a screenplay written on speculation, that is, for the purpose of being sold, might be written one way; whereas a screenplay written to be directly filmed might be written in another way (e.g. a shooting script).  Some writers may write a screenplay that leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader (or director); others may write in a manner that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Sergei Eisenstein once remarked that a shooting script is “an instrument to transpose a fact, abstracted into a concept, back into a chain of concrete single actions.”   But it doesn’t have to be that way: that is, a screenplay doesn’t have to be taken to the shooting script level; furthermore, a shooting script doesn’t have to break down a concept into concrete single actions:  it can remain on a metaphorical level.

Arguably there is no right or wrong way to write a screenplay, although there are certainly conventions.   So do I have any advice for the aspiring or working screenwriter?  Yes, I do, which follows.

My most important advice for the screenwriter is that it doesn’t matter how you get there—that is, to a completed screenplay—just get there!  Do what works for you.  Start at the end and jump to the beginning.  Or start in the middle and jump to the end: it really doesn’t matter.  The important thing is to start—to start writing.  The late French writer-director Eric Rohmer wrote that “To shoot a film is always to shoot something.”  For, as he said, “one never makes a film out of nothing.”  And it is the something that is the most critical—and elusive—element: no one can tell you where or how to find it.  In most cases it simply happens.  Ingmar Bergman wrote that for him a film begins as “something very vague—a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation    It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street.”  According to Michelangelo Antonioni, “A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order. . . . to recognize an idea out of the chaos of feelings , reflections, observations, impulses which the surrounding world stirs up in us.”  Lajos Egri (who I discussed in an earlier post) states that you can begin your work “with a character or incident, or even a simple thought.”  Tennessee Williams related that his renowned play A Streetcar Named Desire began simply as a vision of “a woman in her late youth . . . sitting alone by a window with moonlight streaming in on her desolate face.”

Once you have found that something—that beginning–what comes next?  Again, it is what works best for you.  Ingmar Bergman and Erich Rohmer early in their careers would write their first drafts in the form of novellas.  In the case of Rohmer, he would often write in the first person, but in subsequent drafts and the final film, this first person narration would disappear almost entirely or be conveyed through the dialogue of the other characters.

Today, screenplay writers tend to write master scene screenplays, that is, screenplays that are not broken down into shots.  This is in contrast to the detailed shooting script that Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote for the break-through Last Year at Marienbad (1961) because he could conceive of it in no other way than through concrete images.  Again, what is important is what works for you: what turns your formless inspiration into a completed work.  Furthermore, with script formatting software you can always edit your first draft in whatever form you feel is most acceptable for the intended reader.

It should never be forgotten by the screenplay writer that film is a collaborative art.  Don’t be afraid to avail yourself of the talents of the costume designers, music composers, special effects and stunt coordinators, and numerous technical advisors that will be associated with the film.  You don’t have to think of everything—but you could.  In that vein the very successful American screenwriter and novelist William Goldman remarks that in comparison to the novel, the screenplay gives him a certain freedom from research.  The screenplay has few conventions and even fewer rules—and rules can be broken.  It is a literary form that allows its practitioners complete freedom to express themselves—but only if they should choose to avail themselves of this freedom.

 

 

 

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!