, also called a dramatist
, is a person who writes play
Play may refer to:* Play , enjoyment by animals including humans* Play , structured literary form of theatre-Bands:* Play , Mexican band* Play , Swedish band-Albums:...
The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite"
, but something quite distinct: the word wright
is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright
). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who has wrought
words, themes, and other elements into a dramatic form, someone who crafts plays. The homophone
A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. The words may be spelled the same, such as rose and rose , or differently, such as carat, caret, and carrot, or to, two, and too. Homophones that are spelled the same are also both homographs and homonyms...
is in this case entirely coincidental.
Early playwrights and Playwriting Theory
The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are the Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...
s. These early plays were written for annual Athenian
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...
competitions among playwrights held around the 5th century BC. Such notables as Aeschylus
Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often described as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos , meaning "shame"...
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...
, and Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...
established forms still relied on by their modern counterparts. For the Greeks, the playwright was "poeisis" the act of making plays. So the "poet" had a different connotation than it does today.
In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle wrote his Poetics, the first play-writing manual. In this benchmark text, Aristotle establishes the principle of "action" or "praxis" as the basis for all drama. Aristotle establishes a hierarchy of elements for the drama beginning with Plot (mythos), Character (ethos), Thought (dianoia), Diction (lexis), Music (melopeia), and Spectacle (lusis). The ends of drama were plot, character, and thought, the means of drama were language and music, and the manner of presentation was spectacle. Since the myths, upon which Greek tragedy were based, were widely known, plot had to do with the arrangement and selection of materials. Character was equated with choice, as opposed to psychology, thus, character is determined by action. In tragedy, the notion of ethical choice determined the character of the man. Thought had more to do with arguments, and rhetorical strategies, rather than "theme" has it would today. Language and Music were the material means of drama, much like paint and brushes are the means of the painter. Aristotle's methodology was inductive and based on reading the great tragedians of his day. In other words, he redacted his theories from the plays themselves, rather than begin with a theoretical approach. As such, it is not intended as dogma (as it would later become) but was written as a guide describing best practices. His definition of tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious.....etc." brought in the concept of mimesis from real life, rather than from the ideal that Plato had touted. Thus, he developed his notion of hamartia, or tragic flaw, which was really an error in judgment by the main character or protagonist. The Poetics, while very brief, is highly condensed and worthy of study by any playwright today. It provides the basis of the "conflict-driven" play, a term we still tout as the sine qua non of dramaturgy. Perhaps, the most Aristotelian of contemporary playwrights is David Mamet. Mamet embraces the idea of character as "agent of the action" and exemplifies causality in the structure of his plays. His recently revived, Speed the Plow, is quintessentially Aristotelian: it observes the unities, with exception of Act Ii's change in place, and builds its plot through a causal stream of discoveries and reversals.
The term playwright
appears to have been coined by Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...
in his Epigram 49, To Playwright
, as an insult, to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre. He always described himself as a poet, since plays during that time were always written in meter and so regarded as the provenance of poets. This view was held even as late as the early 19th century. The term later lost this negative connotation.
The Italian Renaissance brought about a stricter interpretation of Aristotle, as this long-lost work came to light in the late 15th century. The neoclassical ideal, which was to reach its apogee in France during the 17th century, dwelled upon the "unities," of action, place, and time. This meant that the playwright had to construct the play so that its "virtual" time would not exceed 24 hours, that it would be restricted to a single setting, and that there would be no subplots. Other terms, such as verisimilitude and decorum circumscribed the subject matter significantly. For example, verisimilitude defined that characters were to based upon the ideal of a type, versus what might be considered realistic. It also prohibited actions that might not be considered possible within the limits of the unities. Decorum fitted proper protocols for behavior and language on stage. In France, Racine in tragedy, and Molière, comedy, were purveyors of the unities and other strictures. Corneille, on the other hand was condemned by the French Academy, when his play Le Cid contained too many events and actions, thus, violating the 24 hour restriction of the unity of time. Neoclassicism never had as much traction in England—Shakespeare's plays are directly opposed to these models—and in Italy, improvised and bawdy commedia dell'arte and opera were more popular forms. In England, after the interregnum and restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a move toward neoclassical tragedy, but this was never popular. For example, Dryden's All for Love, a redaction of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, attempted to compress the sprawl of action and multiple settings from Egypt to Rome to a single place, and within a 24 hour time frame. One structural unit that is still useful to playwrights today is the "french scene" which describes any character entrance or exit. Thus, motivations and actions for characters will change based on who is present on stage. This is an excellent structural tool, and can let the playwright know exactly how much a particular character is involved in the action.
Popularized in the nineteenth-century by the French playwrights' Scribe and Sardou. Perhaps, the most schematic of all formats the well-made play relied on a series of coincidences (for better or worse) that determined the action. This plot driven format was driven often by a prop device, such as letter, or glass of water, that revealed some secret information. In most cases, the character receiving the secret information would misinterpret its contents, thus setting off the chain of events. Well-made plays thus are motivated by various plot devices which lead to "discoveries" and "reversals of action" rather than character motivated. Ibsen's A Doll's House is an example of a well-made structure (built around the discovery of Krogstad's letter) that began to integrate a more realistic approach to character. Ironically, Nora's leaving is as much motivated by "the letter" and disclosure of a "past secret" as it is by her own determination to strike out on her own. The well-made play thus infected other forms of writing and is still seen in popular formats such as the mystery, or whodunit.
Full-length play: Generally, two or three acts with an act break (intermission or interval) that marks some kind of structural or time shift. Usually divided into scenes that are often defined by shifts in time and place. This type of structure is called episodic. Episodic plays often contain scene changes and require careful attention to transitions to maintain flow and continuity. Classical structure entails a more causal relationship between units and is often defined by the unity of time, place, and/or action. The latter is often marked by the Late Point of Attack whereas the former involves an Early Point of Attack. Point of Attack refers to the point in the story where the play begins. Late point of attack plays are generally reactions to an event that has already occurred, or to an outcome that is imminent. In Early point of attack, the play reveals itself as it goes along in the action.
Short play: A more popular format recently, the short play removes the intermission and generally runs over an hour but less than an hour-and-a-half.
One-act play: A useful form for experimental work (the absurdists made the form popular) with less reliance on character development and arc. Generally, under an hour in length.
10-minute play: Popularized over the past 20 years and now a staple of most play festivals, and many play contests. Takes on a number of approaches from traditional conflict-driven to very experimental. Useful in playwriting workshops and with beginning playwrights since the format requires rigor, yet can be processed or produced without onerous technical requirements.
Contemporary playwrights in the United States often do not reach the same level of fame or cultural importance as some did in the past. No longer the only outlet for serious drama or entertaining comedies, theatrical productions must compete for audiences with films, television, and the Internet. In addition, the perilous state of funding for the arts in the United States and a growing reliance by non-profit theatres on ticket sales as a source of income has caused many of them to reduce the number of new works they produce. For example, Playwrights Horizons
Playwrights Horizons is a not-for-profit Off-Broadway theater located in New York City dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers, and lyricists, and to the production of their new work....
produced only six plays in the 2002-03 seasons, compared with thirty-one in 1973-74. As revivals and large-scale production musicals become the de rigueur Broadway
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...
(and even Off-Broadway
Off-Broadway theater is a term for a professional venue in New York City with a seating capacity between 100 and 499, and for a specific production of a play, musical or revue that appears in such a venue, and which adheres to related trade union and other contracts...
) productions, playwrights find it difficult to earn livings in the business, let alone achieve major successes.