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!

Death of a Reviewer

In an earlier post, entitled “What is Criticism?”  I bemoaned the fact that film “reviewers” had all but disappeared.  I defined film reviewers as people who wrote for daily or weekly news outlets, but usually had no background in film or the arts (in contrast with so-called critics).  What they did have, however, was a taste in films which mirrored that of their readers—which explained their tremendous popularity with the public.  Furthermore, they usually made no pretense at all on basing their reviews on anything other than their own taste: their reviews either exhorted their readers to see a particular film or not waste their time and money—there was nothing in between.

Sadly, the last genuine film reviewer that I knew of passed away a few weeks ago.  His name was Edward I. Koch (1924 – 2013); he was also a very colorful former three-term mayor of the City of New York.    “The People have spoken.  Now they must be punished,” he was often quoted as saying after the voters had unceremoniously turned him out of office in the early 1990’s.  Being suddenly out of a job, former Mayor Koch did what many other involuntarily unemployed people do to fill in the time:  he went to the movies, often as many as three times a week.  However, this was not something new to him; he grew up during the Depression when almost everybody did the same—no matter how impoverished they were.  “Karl Marx had it all wrong,” he has been quoted as saying.  “Religion is not the opiate of the masses.  It’s the movies.”

Before long a local publisher of a small weekly neighborhood newspaper heard about Koch’s movie-going habits and invited him to become their rmovie critic.  After haggling over his compensation (they finally settled on $250 a week), the former mayor began his film reviewing career in earnest.  He delighted in disagreeing with the “critics.” “Don’t listen to them.  Listen to me,” he would often say.   Koch’s reviews were straight forward enough:  he either liked a film or didn’t.  He awarded no “stars.”   But that didn’t mean that his reviews were not thoughtful.   He would often go to great lengths to explain what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish, whether he liked the film or not.  Although he professed to have no special knowledge of film, that didn’t inhibit him from pointing out what he considered to be bad writing and bad acting.  Most important, Koch (at least in the reviews of his that I have read) was never dismissive of a film, no matter how much he disliked it.  He appeared to respect the fact that numerous people may have devoted years of their lives in the making of it.  This was in stark contrast to his demeanor in politics, where he was not known to suffer fools gladly.

In 2011 Koch gave up his regular film reviewing duties.  However there was one film that he purportedly wanted to review but never did: a documentary on his life (which he actually screened before his death) that recently opened in New York.

One area in which his loss, I believe, will be especially felt is within the film industry itself: he seemed to like many of the films that he saw.  You can still see his reviews on the internet at mayorkoch.com.  And I recommend that you do so while they are still available.

The State of the Cinema of Today

For several weeks now I have agonized over writing about the above topic.  It is not that I didn’t know what to say, but how to say it.  Then, by chance, I came across a film critic that was unfamiliar to me who happened to say the very things I wanted to say, but far more eloquently.  The piece he wrote began by proclaiming that “cinema, as a fine art, in every country of the world, presents a picture of absolute bankruptcy (italics my own).”  And as for Europe, their “film industries continue uninterruptedly with their programs of popular drivel and their desperate duplications of Hollywood, the European cinema as a creative force in Western civilization is utterly and hopelessly dead.”  However, it was for the American film industry that this critic reserved the most venom.  After quoting a colleague who had uttered in disdain that “in the past five years…not a single picture of the highest order of importance had been produced in the United States,” he flatly stated that “no conceivable mental gymnastics can lead one to imagine that a film art worthy of the name exists here today.”    Our very perceptive critic unequivocally attributed this sorry state of affairs to “the failure of the American film people to apprehend the real powers, capacities and resources of the cinema, beyond those necessary to a standardized, straightforward narrative technique.”  However, he did not hesitate to give “the devil his due,” stating that “Taken for what it is, the American entertainment film stands as the best of its kind in the world….The Hollywood movie is immeasurably superior to its many imitations throughout the world.”

Alright, enough of this charade!  You probably have guessed that these observations were not made recently.    Perhaps, twenty years ago.  Or maybe thirty?  Wrong.  It was actually written 77 years ago–1936!   The name of the critic was Seymour Stern, and the title of his essay was “The Bankruptcy of Cinema as Art”.

Besides being a critic, Seymour Stern had worked closely with D.W. Griffith during the latter’s most productive years.  You can certainly understand Stern’s dismay in seeing how, with the advent of sound, with its cumbersome and unwieldy equipment, cinema was being taken back to the Stone Age.  And as for the mass importation by Hollywood of actors, playwrights and directors from the Broadway stage, who had no background at all in film, this must have been equally distressing.  Remember, Stern worked with Griffith when this celebrated film pioneer was innovating on almost a daily basis.   But it is not so much because of Stern’s acerbic assessment on the cinema of his day—which could very well be applied to the cinema of today– that I call your attention to him, but rather for his intriguing proposals for breathing new life into what he saw as a bankrupt institution.

Stern offered a five point program of what he considered to be radical innovations (for 1936, that is).  They are as follows:

  1. Establish in the United States a university of the cinema, “with the emphasis on the formal and aesthetic problems of the motion picture.”  This, Stern urged, should be subsidized by the government.
  2. “A Theater of the Cinema should be established in at least every large city of the United States.  Here great films of all countries and of all periods should be projected in constant revivals.”
  3. The Film-Art movement should be revived.  “There should be a resurrection of film societies for purposes of discussion of the nature and destiny of the cinema  . . . The chief purpose of these clubs , however, will be to heighten interest in the exhibition of classics and experimental films at the theaters of the cinema.”
  4. “Independent creative film production should be subsidized by the government as the logical fruition of its support of the film university.  The tragic exclusion from the industry of thousands of talented young men and women all over the country in favor of distinctly inferior and even degenerate talent should give the government pause.”
  5. On this point, Stern urges a nationwide campaign against the censorship of the motion picture.  (It should be noted that in 1936, film censorship—whether by government or the industry, itself—was widespread in the United States, as it was throughout the world.)

What is most interesting about Stern’s “radical” proposals is that all of them have been tried or exit today in some form or another not only in the United States, but other countries as well.  America has many comprehensive film production and film studies programs at prestigious universities throughout the country; these are in addition to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which is partly government funded.  And during the 1960’s and 1970’s most major cities had movie theaters (called “art houses”) that exhibited worthy films from around the world, and usually in the format of retrospectives.  Furthermore, film societies have always existed in the United States, but not to the extent they are to be found in other countries.  As for government subsidies for independent film production, they have never been substantial in the United States, but they have been extensively used in most other countries—to mixed results.  On Stern’s last point, although government censorship has virtually disappeared in the United States, self-censorship still exists, primarily in the obtaining of “ratings” for exhibition purposes (e.g., ”R”; “PG,” etc.).  For those of you not familiar with the American motion picture ratings system, these ratings specify who can view certain films, not whether they can be exhibited, similar to what exists in most other countries today.

Utopian as his proposals may have sounded for his time, Stern understood that they in themselves were no panacea; for without people with the extraordinary talent to realize them, they were essentially useless.  He cautioned: “One Intolerance (Griffith’s 1916 monumental film) is worth all the “good” films Hollywood has ever made.”  For Stern, the only remedy for what ailed the movie industry was a creative remedy.  And he concluded by saying, “When this idea [i.e. the creative remedy] is fully understood by those who wish to “revolutionize” the movie in this country, a real revolution will be possible, then, and not before then, will the cinema become the glory, instead of the pointless joke, of American civilization.”