William Butler Yeats on Playwriting

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Yeats-2What attracts me to drama is that it is, in the most obvious way, what all the arts are upon a last analysis . . . .  a moment of intense life.

The dramatist must picture life in action.

Our plays must be literature or written in the spirit of literature. The modern theatre has died away to what it is because the writers have thought of their audiences instead of their subject . . . . Then the imagination began to cool, the writer began to be less alive, to seek external aids, remembered situations, tricks of the the theatre, that had proved themselves again and again.

(T)he sincere play, the logical play . . . will always seem, when we hear it for the first time, undramatic, unexciting.

(The Doll’s House) is but a series of conversations terminated by an accident.

The utmost sincerity . . . give me . . . an imperfect pleasure if there is not a vivid and beautiful language.

(A)ll language but that of the poets and of the poor is already bedridden. We have, indeed, persiflage, the only speech of educated men that expresses a deliberate enjoyment of words; but persiflage is not a true language. It is impersonal; it is not in the midst but on the edge of life; it covers more character than it discovers; and yet, such as it is, all our comedies are made out of it.

What the ever-moving, delicately molded flesh is to human beauty, vivid musical words are to passion. Somebody has said that every nation begins with poetry and ends with algebra, and passion has always refused to express itself in algebraical terms.

Art delights in the exception, for it delights in the soul expressing itself according to its own laws and arranging the world about it in its own pattern, as sand strewn upon a drum will change itself into different patterns, according to the notes of music that are sung or played to it.

Men of letters have sometimes said that the characters of . . . a play must be typical. They mean that the character must be typical of something which exists in all men because the writer has found it in his own mind. It is one of the most inexplicable things about human nature that a writer, with a strange temperament, an Edgar Allan Poe, let us say, made what he is by conditions that never existed before, can create personages and lyric emotions, which startle us by being at once bizarre and an image of our own secret thoughts.

We do the people of history the honor of naming after them the creations of our own minds.

French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearean Drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, must as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight.

In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras, and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays . . . and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.

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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