John Galsworthy on Playwriting

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

GalsworthyA drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning.

In the whole range of the social fabric there are only two impartial persons, the scientist and the artist.

(S)et before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favor, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford. This . . . method requires a certain detachment; it requires a sympathy with, a love of, and a curiosity as to, things for their own sake; it requires a far view, together with patient industry, for no immediately practical result.

A good plot is that sure edifice which slowly rises out of the interplay of circumstance on temperament, and temperament on circumstance, within the enclosing atmosphere of an idea. A human being is the best plot there is; it may be impossible to see why he is a good plot, because the idea within which he has brought forth cannot be fully grasped; but it is plain that he is a good plot. He is organic. And so it must be with a good play.

Reason alone produces no good plots; they come by original sin, sure conception, and instinctive after-power of selecting what benefits the germ. A bad plot, on the other hand, is simply a row of stakes, with a character impaled on each—characters who would have liked to live, but came to untimely grief; who started bravely, but fell on these stakes, placed beforehand in a row, and were transfixed one by one, while their ghosts stride on, squeaking and gibbering, through the play.

(T)rue dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as it were, to expectation, and yet because they have already done other things.

Good dialogue . . . is character, marshaled so as continually to stimulate interest or excitement. The reason good dialogue is seldom found in plays is mearely that it is hard to write, for it requires not only a knowledge of what interests or excites, but such a feeling for character as brings misery to the dramatist’s heard when his creations speak as they should not speak—ashes to his mouth when they say things for the sake of saying them—disgust when they are “smart.”

From start to finish good dialogue is handmade, like good lace; clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated.

But good dialogue is also spiritual action.

The dramatist’s license . . . ends with his design. In conception alone he is free. He may take what character of group or characters he chooses, see them with what eyes, knit them with what idea, within the limits of  his temperament; but once taken, seen, and knitted, he is bound to treat them like a gentleman, with the tenderest consideration of their mainsprings. Take care of character; action and dialogue will take care of themselves!

The perfect dramatist rounds up his characters and facts within the ring-fence of a dominant idea which fulfills the craving of his spirit; having got them there, he suffers them to live their own lives.

A man may have many moods, he has but one spirit; and this spirit he communicates in some subtle, unconscious way to all his work. It waxes and wanes with the currents of his vitality, but no more alters than a chestnut changes into an oak.

(E)ach natural phrase spoken and each natural movement made  has not only to contribute toward the growth and perfection of a drama’s soul, but also to be a revelation, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, of essential traits of character. To put it another way, naturalistic art, when alive, indeed to be alive at all, is simply the art of manipulating a procession of most delicate symbols. Its service is the swaying and focusing of men’s feelings and thought in the various departments of human life.

The poetry which may and should exist in naturalistic drama, can only be that of perfect rightness of proportion, rhythm, shape—the poetry, in fact, that lies in all vital things.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and others have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the Search button.

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