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 Play. This 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!
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Douglas Garrett Winston