At what point did the muse disappear and become replaced by the dramaturg?
December 19, 2004 12:02 PM   Subscribe

At what point did the muse disappear and become replaced by the dramaturg? "Scripts aren't written, they're rewritten", goes the cry from all the script gurus - all the literary managers, editors, producers, dramaturgs - not just in theatre but film, too. Why do they say this? Because their jobs depend on it. If scripts were left alone, what would they do? Dominic Dromgoole writes about playwriting in the UK.
posted by Panfilo (20 comments total)
(Interesting article...the kind of thing Arts & Letters Daily, which I recommend, tends to post.)
posted by uosuaq at 12:39 PM on December 19, 2004

Very nice. I hadn't known Dromgoole (who turns out to be the artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company); I googled around and found this piece on Chekhov.
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on December 19, 2004

and as truman capote jealously said of jack kerouac's novels: "it's not writing, it's typing."
posted by three blind mice at 1:40 PM on December 19, 2004

Very interesting...this is one tree in the Forest Of Hollywood & Broadway, and goes a way to explaining the homogeny of scripted art in general.
posted by cosmonik at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2004

I'm going to be the dissenting opinion here, and say: yeah, there are some authors who knock out scripts in short time. There are masters of construction, like Ayckbourn and Coward at making farces, or Storey at event-construction, and we all know too well Shakespeare's sheer wit and capability, but Dromgoole's article is fairly short-sighted. There are authors who are like Mozarts of the theatre, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and having the whole thing come out; and there are creators who have to revise, recreate, or even see the work in progress (staged readings or workshops) to recreate their work. Likewise, there are people for whom narrative flow comes out naturally, and others who have to carefully plan it; even Ayckbourn's work is far, far less spontaneous than Dromgoole would have you believing. It's art, and anybody who says, "artists ought to be like this, and no other way," is just plain myopic - whether it's Dromgoole or Lajos Egri (author of The Art of Dramatic Writing, the seminal "how to write a play" book).
posted by graymouser at 2:15 PM on December 19, 2004

What "this piece on Chekhov" reminds me is what Barnett Newman said, "Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to the birds."
posted by semmi at 2:38 PM on December 19, 2004

In terms of quality of output, there is no great indication that writers who write quickly are any better than those who write slowly; for every classic writer who could bang out a story in a month, there's another who needed six years. Conversely, for every shite writer who bangs out hackwork over the weekend, there's a tone-deaf scribbler who's been revising the same piece of crap for the last decade.

Writers who naturally write quickly and efficiently without much need for revision should write in that manner; those who write slowly and digressively with the need for much revision should write in that matter. Why? Because it works for them. It's not complicated.

In my opinion, the best paragraph in the piece is the final one:

I asked David Storey, with the foolish naivety of the romantic, what it felt like to spend two days in that sort of creative state. The writer with the feather quill and the faraway look was somewhere in my imagination. "Do I feel great delight? No. It just feels like you're doing something."

In my experience, this is exactly right: When you write, you're working -- hopefully it's engaging, but it's usually not ever-cresting waves of intellectual fulfillment, and sometimes (say, when you're just banged out 20,000 words in a weekend because you just want to be done with a book) quite the opposite. Times like that, writing still beats lifting heavy objects for a living, but just barely.
posted by jscalzi at 4:48 PM on December 19, 2004

Speaking as a working playwright, script editor, and director (so, to be fair, exactly the kind of person this article may be complaining about) this is the biggest pile of bull I have ever seen.

Of course it's possible, in a brief period of inspiration, to churn out something brilliant in a short time. I'm even willing to believe that there are individual writers who do so on a regular basis (although if Alan Ayckbourn wrote, say, The Norman Conquests in three weeks I'll eat any article of clothing you care to name.) But it's rare, and the vast majority of plays need to go through quite a number of drafts before they stop being laughably bad.

How do I know this? Because I've read about a million scripts in my life, and written a good number. First drafts usually suck. If they can be improved at all, and the playwright knows how to do it, it's usually around the third draft that the play seriously begins to start looking good.

The "examples from the past" in the article are particularly laughable. O'Neill? Sure, he was a great playwright in spite of his horrible, horrible, tedious style. But you know what? That horrible style makes a number of his plays unwatchable garbage, and the great ones would have been better with the repetition cut down considerably. Shakespeare? There's a reason almost every director makes cuts when they put on a Shakespeare play, you know. And some of his lesser plays are awful. How often do you see Pericles getting performed? I'm not saying these people weren't great and brilliant - they were. But to say a bit of judicious rewriting at the not-so-great moments would have ruined rather than improved their plays is a bizarre and untrue statement.

I don't believe this to "keep my job". As a director and editor, it MAKES MY JOB EASIER when I get a script that needs no further work done on it. I get paid the exact same amount whether I need to suggest a hundred rewrites or if I go, "This is brilliant! We'll publish this next month!" Which do you think I prefer?
posted by kyrademon at 5:36 PM on December 19, 2004


Spot on! I've seen too many things in need of rewrites (especially books for musicals, sometime in the '80s every person alive forgot how to write the book for a musical) to agree with the article.

I especially hate articles like this - like most written about the theatre, nowadays - that go on and on about a problem, and then don't have any better solution than, essentially, "you're all buggered 'cause you aren't geniuses like the guys who went before you." Myopic Lajos Egri might've been, but at least the guy thought that the reader of his book had the potential to write a good play and didn't have to be possessed of some special magical quality.
posted by graymouser at 5:44 PM on December 19, 2004

Dramaturg? More like dramaturd. Ha!
posted by absalom at 6:20 PM on December 19, 2004

When did the rewrite become a necessary element of the theater? I would say in Roman times, if not in Greek--I remember reading a lengthy discussion about how the Roman praetors both censored (for political content) and edited (for length and effect) public plays, but can't for the life of me remember exactly where...Soltau?
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:39 PM on December 19, 2004

As someone steeped in the PostRomantic view of genus as some sublime daemon for which priest artists are mediums, I find it fascinating that the ancient world of which they were ostensibly a revival had a very different concept of the work of writers. I mean Sophocles, Aeschylus Euripides respectively wrote 123, 70, and 90 plays. One doesn't have that kind of prolific output if one sits around waiting for one's muse to sing. They wrote plays for competitions rather than a personal edification. My own intuition is that the greeks viewed artists very much like the athletes of whom they were so fond. An athlete is only worthy of adulation as long as he consistently preforms, game after game, week after week. It is in the practice and victorious result that honor is to be found, not in the serendipitous happenance. In many ways the modern artist has usurped the role of his audience. It is no longer for the demos in the amphitheater to decide on the quality of a work, the artist mulls over every potential play and determines whether it is worthy of him deigning to commit it to paper. Consequently every work has this rarified and aloof quality because it's merit is predetermined by the artist. Artists create for themselves as opposed to the larger community. The value of a work of art is no longer an aggregate of the appreciation but a quantity that is fixed at the moment of creation. A work that is underappreciated is so because people don't get what the artist is saying. I'm not saying whether this is good or bad but it seems to me the current psychology of art.
posted by Endymion at 7:19 PM on December 19, 2004


"Dramaturg" is a horrible word on the pronunciation. When I was doing some work with local theatres, there was a friend who thought I was a drama turkey. ;-)
posted by graymouser at 8:24 PM on December 19, 2004


It's well-known that Aristophanes performed a substantial rewrite of The Clouds after it failed to win first place in the 421 BCE competition; the edition that we have currently was a rewrite set down around 418. So that's an "earliest" date for you.
posted by graymouser at 8:27 PM on December 19, 2004

Where on earth did this bozo ever get the quaint notion in his head that Shakespeare never rewrote? I'm sure the romantic image of the poet writing in a burst of white-heat is appealing -- but it's flatly wrong. There is no definitive text of "Hamlet", for example -- just scholarly attempts to reconstruct an "ideal" version from different sources of varying reliability.
posted by RavinDave at 9:28 PM on December 19, 2004

RavinDave -

He made the strange calculation that, since Shakespeare averaged a play every nine months or so (which actually seems a little off to me anyway - wasn't it more like a play a year?), and was a fairly busy fellow in general, this therefore must somehow mean that he could only have spent three months tops on a play and never changed it during rehearsals or revised it later or changed it for a revival or worked on it some more while working on another project at the same time or any of the other things that playwrights tend to do outside of Dromgoole's little fantasy world.

Endymion -

I know of very few artists who do not bother to consider the potential reaction of the audience, especially in the world of theater, where audience reaction is an actual integral part of the piece. On the other hand, I also know of very few artists who consider the reaction of a particular audience to be the final word on the artistic merit of a work. I suspect both of those non mutually exclusive points of view have been running together hand in hand for a good deal longer than this past century or so.
posted by kyrademon at 10:13 PM on December 19, 2004

Well, I believe it was Ben Jonson stated that Shakespeare seldom blotted a line, but it's silly to judge all artists by the standards of Shakespeare and Mozart. There's also Beethoven, and Joyce, and others who struggled titanically, and a lot in between, who had their easy days and their hard days. Spare me the sophomoric idealism of those who mystify the ahh-teeste.
posted by QuietDesperation at 1:15 AM on December 20, 2004

(I always assumed Jonson was snarkily referring to his friend's prolixity, rather than complimenting his speed.)
posted by kyrademon at 7:01 AM on December 20, 2004

Kyrademon: That's right. Jonson said "I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand." Then again, Jonson was satirized for being a slow writer.
posted by Panfilo at 8:46 AM on December 20, 2004

Thanks, graymouser! I think that that alone pretty much knocks Dromgoole's argument into a cocked hat.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2004

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