Playwrights On Playwriting

Friedrich Dürrenmatt On Playwriting II

Adapted from Playwrights on Playwriting

Edited by Toby Cole

Duerrenmatt2Doubtless the unities of time, place, and action which Aristotle . . . derived from Greek tragedy constitute the ideal of drama. From a logical and hence also aesthetic point of view, this thesis is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that the question arises if it does not set up the framework once and for all within which each dramatist must work.  Aristotle’s three unities demand the greatest precision, the greatest economy, and the greatest simplicity in the handling of the dramatic material. The unities of time, place, and action ought to be a basic dictate put to the dramatist by literary scholarship, and the only reason scholarship does not hold the artist to them is that Aristotle’s unities have not been obeyed by anyone for ages. Nor can they be obeyed, for reasons which best illustrate the relationship of the art of writing plays to the theories about the art.

No matter how abstract an aesthetic law may appear to be, the work of art from which it was derived is contained in that law. If I want to set about writing a dramatic  action which is to unfold and run its course in the same place inside of two hours, for instance, then this action must have a history behind it, and that  history is the story which took place before the stage action commenced, a story  which alone makes the action on the stage possible. Thus the history behind Hamlet is, of course, the murder of his father; the drama lies in the discovery of that murder. As a rule, too, the stage action is much shorter in time than the event depicted; it often starts out right in the middle of the event, or indeed toward the end of it. Before Sophocles’ tragedy could begin, Oedipus had to have killed his father and married his mother. The stage action condenses an event to the extent to which Aristotle’s unites are fulfilled; the closer a playwright adheres to the three unities the more important is the background history of the action.

The one-act play obeys the unities still, even though under a different condition. The plot is dominated by a situation instead of by history, and thus unity is once again achieved.

Comedy—insofar as it is not just satire of a particular society as in Moliére—supposes an unformed world, a world being made and turned upside down . . . . Tragedy overcomes distance; it can make myths originating in times immemorial seem like the present to the Athenians. But comedy creates  distance; the attempt of the Athenians to gain a foothold in Sicily is translated by comedy into the birds undertaking to create their own empire before which the gods and men will have to capitulate. How comedy works can be seen in the primitive kind of joke, in the dirty story, which, though it is of very dubious value, I bring up only because it is the best illustration of what I mean by creating distance. The subject of the dirty story is the purely sexual, and, because it is purely sexual,  it is formless and without objective distance. To achieve form the purely sexual is transmuted . . . into the dirty joke. Therefore this type of joke is a kind of original comedy, a transposition of the sexual onto the plain of the comical . . . . Thus the dirty story demonstrates that the comical exists in forming what is formless, in creating order out of chaos.

The means by which comedy creates distance is the conceit. Tragedy is without conceit. Hence there are few tragedies whose subjects were invented. By this I do not mean to imply that the ancient tragedians lacked inventive ideas of the sort that are written today, but the marvel of their art was that they had no need of these inventions, of conceits.

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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