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A playwright, also known as a dramatist, is a person who writes dramatic literature or drama. These works are usually written to be performed in front of a live audience by actors. They may also be closet dramas or literary works written using dramatic forms but not meant for performance.

The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who has wrought words, themes, and other elements into a dramatic form, someone who crafts plays. The homophone with write is in this case entirely coincidental.

Early playwrights and Playwriting Theory[]

The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are the Ancient Greeks. These early plays were written for annual Athenian competitions among playwrights[1] held around the 5th century BCE. Such notables as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes established forms still relied on by their modern counterparts. For the Greeks, the playwright was "poeisis" the act of making plays. So the "poet" had a different connotation than it does today.

Aristotle's Poetics[]

In the 4th Century BCE, Aristotle wrote his Poetics, the first play-writing manual. In this benchmark text, Aristotle establishes the principle of "action" or "praxis" as the basis for all drama. Aristotle establishes a hierarchy of elements for the drama beginning with Plot (mythos), Character (ethos), Thought (dianoia), Diction (lexis), Music (melopeia), and Spectacle (lusis). The ends of drama were plot, character, and thought, the means of drama were language and music, and the manner of presentation was spectacle. Since the myths, upon which Greek tragedy were based, were widely known, plot had to do with the arrangement and selection of materials. Character was equated with choice, as opposed to psychology, thus, character is determined by action. In tragedy, the notion of ethical choice determined the character of the man. Thought had more to do with arguments, and rhetorical strategies, rather than "theme" has it would today. Language and Music were the material means of drama, much like paint and brushes are the means of the painter. Aristotle's methodology was inductive and based on reading the great tragedians of his day. In other words, he redacted his theories from the plays themselves, rather than begin with a theoretical approach. As such, it is not intended as dogma (as it would later become) but was written as a guide describing best practices. His definition of tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious.....etc." brought in the concept of mimesis from real life, rather than from the ideal that Plato had touted. Thus, he developed his notion of hamartia, or tragic flaw, which was really an error in judgment by the main character or protagonist. The Poetics, while very brief, is highly condensed and worthy of study by any playwright today. It provides the basis of the "conflict-driven" play, a term we still tout as the sine qua non of dramaturgy. Perhaps, the most Aristotelian of contemporary playwrights is David Mamet. Mamet embraces the idea of character as "agent of the action" and exemplifies causality in the structure of his plays. His recently revived, Speed the Plow, is quintessentially Aristotelian: it observes the unities, with exception of Act Ii's change in place, and builds its plot through a causal stream of discoveries and reversals.

The term playwright appears to have been coined by Ben Jonson in his Epigram 49, To Playwright,[2] as an insult, to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre. He always described himself as a poet, since plays during that time were always written in meter and so regarded as the provenance of poets. This view was held even as late as the early 19th century. The term later lost this negative connotation.

Neoclassical theory[]

The Italian Renaissance brought about a stricter interpretation of Aristotle, as this long-lost work came to light in the late 15th century. The neoclassical ideal, which was to reach its apogee in France during the 17th century, dwelled upon the "unities," of action, place, and time. This meant that the playwright had to construct the play so that its "virtual" time would not exceed 24 hours, that it would be restricted to a single setting, and that there would be no subplots. Other terms, such as verisimilitude and decorum circumscribed the subject matter significantly. For example, verisimilitude defined that characters were to based upon the ideal of a type, versus what might be considered realistic. It also prohibited actions that might not be considered possible within the limits of the unities. Decorum fitted proper protocols for behavior and language on stage. In France, Racine in tragedy, and Molière, comedy, were purveyors of the unities and other strictures. Corneille, on the other hand was condemned by the French Academy, when his play Le Cid contained too many events and actions, thus, violating the 24 hour restriction of the unity of time. Neoclassicism never had as much traction in England—Shakespeare's plays are directly opposed to these models—and in Italy, improvised and bawdy commedia dell'arte and opera were more popular forms. In England, after the interregnum and restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a move toward neoclassical tragedy, but this was never popular. For example, Dryden's All for Love, a redaction of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, attempted to compress the sprawl of action and multiple settings from Egypt to Rome to a single place, and within a 24 hour time frame. One structural unit that is still useful to playwrights today is the "french scene" which describes any character entrance or exit. Thus, motivations and actions for characters will change based on who is present on stage. This is an excellent structural tool, and can let the playwright know exactly how much a particular character is involved in the action.

Well-made play[]

Popularized in the nineteenth-century by the French playwrights' Scribe and Sardou. Perhaps, the most schematic of all formats the well-made play relied on a series of coincidences (for better or worse) that determined the action. This plot driven format was driven often by a prop device, such as letter, or glass of water, that revealed some secret information. In most cases, the character receiving the secret information would misinterpret its contents, thus setting off the chain of events. Well-made plays thus are motivated by various plot devices which lead to "discoveries" and "reversals of action" rather than character motivated. Ibsen's A Doll's House is an example of a well-made structure (built around the discovery of Krogstad's letter) that began to integrate a more realistic approach to character. Ironically, Nora's leaving is as much motivated by "the letter" and disclosure of a "past secret" as it is by her own determination to strike out on her own. The well-made play thus infected other forms of writing and is still seen in popular formats such as the mystery, or whodunit.

Play formats[]

Full-length play: Generally, two or three acts with an act break (intermission or interval) that marks some kind of structural or time shift. Usually divided into scenes that are often defined by shifts in time and place. This type of structure is called episodic. Episodic plays often contain scene changes and require careful attention to transitions to maintain flow and continuity. Classical structure entails a more causal relationship between units and is often defined by the unity of time, place, and/or action. The latter is often marked by the Late Point of Attack whereas the former involves an Early Point of Attack. Point of Attack refers to the point in the story where the play begins. Late point of attack plays are generally reactions to an event that has already occurred, or to an outcome that is imminent. In Early point of attack, the play reveals itself as it goes along in the action.

Short play: A more popular format recently, the short play removes the intermission and generally runs over an hour but less than an hour-and-a-half.

One-act play: A useful form for experimental work (the absurdists made the form popular) with less reliance on character development and arc. Generally, under an hour in length.

10-minute play: Popularized over the past 20 years and now a staple of most play festivals, and many play contests. Takes on a number of approaches from traditional conflict-driven to very experimental. Useful in playwriting workshops and with beginning playwrights since the format requires rigor, yet can be processed or produced without onerous technical requirements.

New play development[]

In an effort to develop new American voices in playwriting, a phenomenon known as new play development began to emerge in the early-to-mid 1980s and continues through today. Many regional theatres hired dramaturgs and literary managers in an effort to showcase various festivals of new work, or bring in playwrights for residencies. Funding through national organizations, such as NEA and TCG, encouraged the partnerships of professional theatre companies and emerging playwrights. Play development as a term has a variety of applications. It usually defines the period after an initial draft has been written, when the play is workshopped with a group of actors and director, and prepared for a reading. The latter is called a staged reading which suggest the play has been rehearsed several times prior to the "reading" although there is no hard and fast rule about this. New Dramatists in New York, for example, will often have a "cold" reading of a script in an informal sitdown setting. A cold reading means that the actors haven't rehearsed the work, or may be seeing it for the first time. Festivals of 10-minute plays, popularized by the Humana Festival in Louisville, KY, have become a staple of many play contests. Many plays can be rehearsed in a brief amount of time, and usually, the technical requirements are minimal. Shenandoah and the O'Neill festival offer summer retreats for playwrights to develop their work with directors and actors in a totally "devoted" setting. There has been a backlash over the past ten years with the formation of Playwriting Collectives like 13P and Clubbed Thumb who have gathered members together to produce, rather than develop, new work. This has been a reaction to the "developed to death" notion in which the play never gets produced, but goes through endless readings and critiques that after a certain point, are counter-productive. In this decade, many literary departments have been eliminated in regional theatres as the result of a difficult economy. Nevertheless, most new plays that are produced in New York go through some kind of assiduous development process, and rare is the play that shows up on a producer's desk and gains any traction. On Broadway, this has happened in the past year with Martin McDonagh's "Behanding in Spokane" and Mamet's "Race" although these shows were packaged with stars (Christopher Walken in the former) and playwrights at the top of the profession.

Contemporary playwrights[]

Contemporary playwrights in the United States often do not reach the same level of fame or cultural importance as some did in the past. No longer the only outlet for serious drama or entertaining comedies, theatrical productions must compete for audiences with films, television, and the Internet. In addition, the perilous state of funding for the arts in the United States and a growing reliance by non-profit theatres on ticket sales as a source of income has caused many of them to reduce the number of new works they produce. For example, Playwrights Horizons produced only six plays in the 2002-03 seasons, compared with thirty-one in 1973-74.[3] As revivals and large-scale production musicals become the de rigueur Broadway (and even Off-Broadway) productions, playwrights find it difficult to earn livings in the business, let alone achieve major successes. Sydnie McAdams likes to write plays.

Language Playwriting[]

In New Playwriting Strategies: A language-based approach to playwriting (Routledge 2001), author Paul Castagno challenged the orthodoxy that has governed playwriting pedagogy for a century. Using the "language playwrights" Mac Wellman, Len Jenkin, Suzan-Lori Parks, Castagno noted that playwrights over the past three decades have placed an increasing emphasis on language as the determinant of character and structure, rather than vice-versa. With the proliferation of original language playwrights now running or teaching in playwriting programs at prestigious universities, such as NYU Tisch, Brooklyn College, California Institute of the Arts, Yale, Brown, etc. there has been a marked increase in experimental playwriting across the mainstream. Playwriting collectives, such as Clubbed Thumb and 13 P, which include mostly women playwrights, are determined to produce their member's work unfettered by the constraints of the development process.[4]

Playwriting vs. Screenwriting[]

The most successful playwrights are often high-status figures in their industry, in stark contrast to the status of the screenwriter in Hollywood. This may be considered a result of the more literary approach that has characterised the theatre since its roots in poetry. According to the Dramatists Guild, the playwright has the final say on a production. Since the play remains the "property" of the playwright, no changes may be made without authorization. In films, by contrast, the director has come to overrule the screenwriter as auteur. The screenwriter does not "own" the script in the same manner as the playwright. However, in cases where the playwright wants to have a work produced, concessions are often made at the discretion of the director or producing party after some consultation with the playwright. Nevertheless, in re-productions of an already staged work, any script changes or alterations need the approval of the playwright.

See also[]


  1. Fraser, Neil. "Theatre History Explained", The Cowood Press, 2004, page 11
  2. Jonson, Ben, The Works of Ben Jonson, Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co., 1853. page 788
  3. Alexis Soloski, "The Plays What They Wrote: The Best Scripts Not Yet Mounted on a New York Stage", The Village Voice, May 21 - 27, 2003
  4. Castagno, Paul. New Playwriting Strategies: A language-based approach to playwriting (Routledge 2001).

External links[]

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