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MANY, many years ago, there appeared in the columns of a certain theatrical journal, published in a far-off land, a series of papers written by a certain youthful but eminent dramatic author of that period and country, upon the art of writing plays. I did not travel to that far-off land to read those articles because, being a dramatic author myself, I naturally doubted the possibility of any other dramatic author knowing anything worth listening to upon the subject. But people not so clever as I am--mere ordinary mortals--who did read those articles in those ancient days, told me that they were excellent, and that they explained the whole matter so explicitly and thoroughly that any person of common intelligence, who had studied them, ought to be able to sit down then and there and write a brilliant comedy; and indeed, so unreservedly did that youthful but eminent dramatist give himself away, and so recklessly did he lay bare the secrets of his art, that older and more selfish playwrights began to grow alarmed.
"My boy," said they, kindly but reproachfully, "My boy, isn't it rather foolish of you to go telling everyone how to write plays? We shall have the market glutted with stirring dramas and side-splitting comedies if you go on in this way. And prices will go down, and we shall all be edged off our perches. Don't do it."
And that youthful,but eminent personage began to see himself that he had been rather foolish. But, as he said, the mischief was done then.
And yet I have not noticed that since that time the public has been any the more, what one may call, surfeited with great plays than it was before, or that the quality of plays in general has to any noticeable extent been improved.
This may seem strange on first consideration, but, perhaps, it is that the dramatic art, like poetry and spelling, is one of those things that cannot be learned, but which must be born in a party. A man that needs to be told how to write a play, it is useless telling, for he will never write one, and a man that can write a play does not need to be told how to do it. It is a case of instinct not experience. One hears a good deal of nonsense talked (ye gods and little fishes--whatever that exclamation may imply--what a deal of nonsense one does hear talked in this world!) of the necessity of "training" for a dramatic author, and solemn idiots write pompous articles about the presumption of any person under the age of seventy-five attempting to write for the stage. They insist upon the necessity of young men spending the freshest and strongest part of their lives patiently waiting to grow old, and, meanwhile, studying the great modern English dramatists; as if insight into human nature and dramatic inspiration were, like blindness and dotage, merely a question of years. Dion Boucicault wrote London Assurance before he was eighteen, and in nine cases out of ten an author's first work is the best he ever turns out. The fancy soars far higher in youth than in age, and tears flow freer and laughter rings brighter at twenty-five than at fifty.
Nor do you need a knowledge of Greek tragedy and an intimate acquaintance with the dramatic literature of the Restoration, to write a play that will move the hearts that are beating beside yours to-day. A book-worm never made a great author The mouldering thought of a buried age, the tale told for a generation that has passed away, will be but little use to you, if you wish to do work for the boards, and not for the shelves. The living life around you is your book, and your brain is your teacher. Learn from them.
A nature capable of vibrating to the whole gamut of human passion and emotion; a sympathy so wide and deep that there is room for all humanity upon its bosom, from the little lovesick maiden to the stern strong man, from the castle dreaming boy to the fretful beldam, from the yokel to the statesman, from the strumpet to the saint; a mental vision that will pierce the murderer's heart, the hero's soul, and lay bare their inmost thoughts before you; a never-failing instinct that will reveal to you the one dramatic moment in each scene of life; the artist's inborn art that alone can teach you how to show to others what you see--these qualifications and these qualifications only will you need to become a dramatic author.
I do not, however, teach them.
But although it is not possible to learn now to write poetry, even a Milton must master the rules of verse; and, though dramatists cannot be turned out like barristers and carpenters, still a Shakespeare must go through a school. You must acquire the technical skill as well as possess the natural talent for the work.
Unfortunately for you, however, the laws of the drama, though as strong and as impossible to sail against as is the shifting wind, are as impalpable and as invisible as is the air. You will not find them stored in any handbook, you will not hear them from the lips of any master. I could roll off fifty or a hundred neatly-turned instructions for you here, but they would no more teach you to write a play than a treatise on navigation would help a landsman to handle a yacht. Beyond a few rudimentary hints and technical rules, which we will discuss hereafter, nothing can be taught, no help can be given.
Then what the blazes, you naturally ask in your common, vulgar way, am I writing this chapter for? My boy, I will tell you. Carlyle said truly that the greatest thought was the thought that made men think. I am going to teach you the greatest of teaching, according to that same principle: I am going to teach you how to learn.
Attend the theatres constantly. See all plays (Heaven help you!). Read what is written and listen to what is said of them afterwards. Note which are successful, and think out why they are successful. Note those that fail, and worry it out until you see clearly why it was that they did fail. Watch the play as a young bird watches the early flight of its mother. Analyse it scene by scene as a chemical student analyses a new drug. Note in each what it is that most holds you. Remember, when you are musing over it afterwards, what it was that bored you. If a situation grips your entire senses, keeps you breathless with excitement and suspense, and leaves you at the end thoroughly delighted or deeply thoughtful, do not forget that situation in a hurry--not, at all events, until you have dissected every line of it, until its whole anatomy lies bare before you, and you can trace its structure up from the point where your attention was first arrested to the precipice whereon it culminated.
If, on the other hand, the situation seemed as though it ought to have aroused you, and yet did not, examine into it until you grasp the reason why it missed its mark. If the situation itself was powerful, then it must have been the clumsy building up that marred it, in which case study that clumsy building up so as to avoid it. If the scene, however, was well constructed, and yet fell flat--which will be rare, for, in literature, it is the workmanship far more than the material that tells; a skilful writer obtaining a stronger effect out of a broken promise than an unskilful one will out of a couple of murders and a forgery--then the motive must have been weak indeed, and you will remember what that motive was.
Note, in good plays, how the scenes follow
one another, how quiet and playful ones generally precede
passionate ones--a thunderstorm following immediately upon a
hurricane would not be impressive--and how tempest is
succeeded by calm. Note how delay, as in the scene after the
murder of Duncan, in
Note, above all things, how the story is told and the suspense maintained. Observe--when you,get the chance--how the interest, set rolling early in the first act, and gathering force at every scene, leaps forward, without pause, from act to act, till the grand catastrophe is reached; and solve the method by which this is done very carefully indeed, for such a play will be an ideal play, and, if you can construct another like it, there will be a big fortune in it for you.
Study, particularly, every example you can find, bearing on that vexed question as to whether the audience should be taken into your confidence or be surprised. It is a question that can never be decided, and you must choose for yourself. For my own part, I am inclined to favour the confidence trick. The interest of an audience is not in their curiosity but in their expectation. In Hamlet they know the whole story by the end of the first act. After that they are merely waiting for what they feel must happen--the death of Claudius at the hand of his murdered brother's son.
Beginners, at all events, I should strongly advise against working on the surprise method. It is certainly false art, and though some startling effects may now and then have been obtained from it, these have been won always by old, experienced hands. As a rule, the attempt has resulted in failure.
Go and see a really good play over and over again (no, I do not get any commission), studying it from a different point of view each time. Give your whole attention one night to the story and how it is treated as a whole another time, examine the construction, that is, the arrangement of the scenes and acts; a third time, note the situations and the way they are worked up; a fourth, the dialogue; a fifth, the characters; a sixth, the minor details of movement and positions, and so on; and upon everything you see and note, endeavour to improve.
Do not read plays. Having the print of a piece before you while recalling to mind its representation is very useful in assisting your analysis, but do not be content with reading merely. There is a vast difference between a play acted and a play read, the inability to perceive, which stands much in the way of would-be dramatists, and your business is with the former, not with the latter. Familiarise yourself with how things look on the stage, not how they read by the fireside. Get so acquainted with the stage that you will be able to conjure up a vision of it at will; that, while writing, you will see, through your half-closed eyes, the curtained opening with the lighted scene beyond, and your puppets fretting out their dream life thereupon; see them pacing gracefully its air-built floor; see them fiercely fronting and defying one another; kneeling gently to their mistresses, standing crushed with mute despair, flying at their false foe's throat, sobbing out their sorrows on their lovers' breast, dying with a curse upon their lips--"left centre, down stage."
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