Thornton Wilder On Playwriting II

Adapted from: Playwrights On Playwriting

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

(Continued from last Wednesday.)

Characterization in a novel is presented by the author’s dogmatic assertion that the personage was such, and by an analysis of the personage with generally an account of his or her past. Since, in the drama, this is replaced by the actual presence of the personage before us and since there is no occasion for the intervening all-knowing author to instruct us as to his or her inner nature, a far greater share is given in a play to 1) highly characteristic utterances and 2) concrete occasions in which the character defines itself under action and 3) a conscious preparation of the text whereby the actor may build upon the suggestions in the role according to his own abilities.

The dramatist’s principal interest being the movement of the story, he is willing to resign the more detailed aspects of characterization to the actor and is often rewarded beyond his expectation.

But a play presupposes a crowd. The reasons for this go deeper than 1) the economic necessity for the support of the play and 2) the fact that the temperament of actors is proverbially dependent on group attention. It rests on the fact that 1) the pretense, the fiction, on the stage would fall to pieces and absurdity without the support accorded to it by a crowd, and 2) the excitement induced by pretending a fragment of life is such that it partakes of ritual and festival, and requires a throng.

During the last rehearsals the phrase is often heard: “This play is hungry for an audience.”

Since the theatre is directed to a group-mind, a number of consequences follow: 1) A group-mind presupposes, if not a lowering of standards, a broadening of the fields of interest . . . 2) It is the presence of the group-mind that brings another requirement to the theatre — forward movement . . . Drama on the stage is inseparable from forward movement, from action . . . and an action that is more than a mere progress in argumentation and debate.

The theatre is a world of pretense. It lives by conventions: a convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, a permitted lie . . . The stage is fundamental pretense and it thrives on the acceptance of that fact and in the multiplication of additional pretenses. When it tries to assert that the personages in the action “really are,” really inhabit such and such rooms, really suffer such and such emotions, it loses rather than gains credibility.

The novel is a past reported in the present. On the stage it is always now. This confers upon the action an increased vitality which the novelist longs in vain to incorporate into his work . . . In the theatre we are not aware of the intervening storyteller. The speeches arise from the characters in an apparently pure spontaneity. A play is what takes place. A novel is what one person tells us took place.

Many dramatists have regretted (the) absence of the narrator from the stage, with his point of view, his powers of analyzing the behavior of the characters, his ability to interfere and supply further facts about the past, about simultaneous actions not visible on the stage, and above all his function of pointing the moral and emphasizing the significance of the action . . . But surely this absence constitutes an additional force to the form, as well as an additional tax upon the writer’s skill. It is the task of the dramatist so to co-ordinate his play, through the selection of episodes and speeches, that, though he is himself not visible, his point of view and his governing intention will impose themselves on the spectator’s attention, not as dogmatic assertion or motto, but as self-evident truth and inevitable deduction.

Its justification lies in the fact that the communication of ideas from one mind to another inevitably reaches the point where exposition passes into illustration, into parable, metaphor, allegory, and myth.

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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