Thornton Wilder On Playwriting

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole, Hill and Wang, New York,  1983

Four fundamental conditions of the drama separate it from the other arts. Each of these conditions has its advantages and disadvantages, each requires a particular aptitude from the dramatist, and from each there are a number of instructive consequences to be derived. These conditions are:

1) The theatre is an art which reposes upon the art of many collaborators;

2) It is addressed to the group-mind;

3) It is based upon a pretense and its very nature calls out a multiplication of pretenses;

4) Its action takes place in a perpetual present time.

The dramatist through working in the theatre gradually learns not merely to take account of the presence of the collaborators, but to derive advantage from them; and he learns, above all, to organize the play in such a way that its strength lies not in appearances beyond his control, but in the succession of events and in the unfolding of an idea, in narration.

The gathered audience sits in a darkened room, one end of which is lighted. The nature of the transaction at which it is gazing is a succession of events illustrating a general idea — the stirring of the idea; the gradual feeding out of information; the shock and countershock of circumstances; the flow of action; the interruption of action; the moments of allusion to earlier events; the preparation of surprise, dread, or delight — all that is the author’s and his alone.

It is just because the theatre is an art of many collaborators, with the constant danger of grave misinterpretation, that the dramatist learns to turn his attention to the laws of narration, its logic and its deep necessity of presenting a unifying idea stronger than its mere collection of happenings. The dramatist must be by instinct a storyteller.

There is something mysterious about the endowment of the story teller . . . It springs, not, as some have said, from an aversion to general ideas, but from an instinctive coupling of idea and illustration; the idea for a born storyteller, can only be expressed imbedded in its circumstantial illustration . . . introduced into his work by the presence of his collaborators . . . The chief of these collaborators are the actors.

The actor’s gift is a combination of three separate faculties . . .

1) An observant and analyzing eye for all modes of behavior about us, for dress and manner, and for the signs of thought and emotion in one’s self and in others.

2) The strength of imagination and memory whereby the actor may, at the indication in the author’s text, explore his store of observation and represent the details of appearance and the intensity of the emotions — joy, fear, surprise, grief, love, and hatred, and through imagination extend them to intenser degrees and to differing characterizations.

3) A physical co-ordination whereby the force of these inner realizations may be communicated to voice, face, and body.

A dramatist prepares the characterization of his personages in such a way that it will take advantage of the actor’s gift.

(To Be continued next Wednesday.)

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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