Thursday, October 2, 2008

1928 Lecture on Playwriting from "Leading Woman Playwright in America"

Was wandering through the mid-town branch library pulling books on writing verse for the next play I am writing, when I came across a slim volume of playwriting lectures from 1928. The University of Pennsylvania English department arranged for five speakers to come lecture playwriting students ("thirty-three seniors and juniors who had shown evidence of special ability and serious interest") in the spring of 1928 and created a publication based on the lectures due to popular demand.

The last lecturer in the series was (to quote the introduction by Arthur Hobson Quinn, the Chairman of the English Department):

". . . Miss Rachel Crothers, generally recognized as the leading woman playwright in America. . . . "
Sadly, I had never heard of Rachel Crothers. Her wikipedia entry says that in 1937 she wrote her most famous play SUSAN AND GOD, which was turned into a 1940 movie with Joan Crawford. And amazon is actively selling several of her plays, so she is hardly forgotten today, just fairly obscure.

I have pulled out a few of the more interesting bits from her lecture for your delectation and delight.

"The theatre, of course, is the quickest escape from ourselves into the world of imagination and apparently that escape is more and more imperative as civilization makes life more hideous for us. A long time ago, when we were all more or less disdainful of the movies, Jennie-- who spent her life rubbing fat off ladies of leisure to keep them beautiful, and whose husband apparently had no name and certainly no job, and was always referred to by Jennie as 'him' --- Jennie said to me, "When I go home at night I'm too tired for anything. I can't sleep-- I can't read-- I can't speak and I don't want nobody to speak to me-- but for five cents I can go to the movies and set [sic] and rest and see things I never could see in any other way-- grand people-- wild animals-- foreign cities-- wonderful houses and strange and beautiful things-- and I forget about myself and go home all made over-- and the things I have to stand from him don't seem half so hard."
I thought this was an interesting little tidbit. A woman whose job centers around other women's bad body images, turning to movies for an escape from an (apparently) abusive spouse. And basically Crothers goes on to say, isn't this great? Look how powerful theater is? She is subtly indicting the women of lesiure who are obsessed with their looks and the abusive husband, but only as an aside while making her point about the theraputic efficacy of movies (which she interestingly does not really consider a separate art form from theater).

She also has some very nicely put language on the musicality and artistry of playwriting structure:

" . . . . in these acts and scenes and speeches and lines is rhythm. Each can only carry so much-- its own beat. A little too long and the effect of the whole is hurt. Music-- harmony. And in it all and through it all well-balanced movement-- groups of characters flowing together and dissolving into smaller groups with variety and grace. . . . Grace and variety of movement are as necessary to playwriting as color is to painting."
Also, I collect metaphors about playwriting (i.e., "playwriting is like architecture because . . .", "playwriting it like choreography because . . . .", "playwriting is like archeology because. . . ") and Crothers presents an interesting one I hadn't considered before:

"It is also a science-- chemistry. Imagine a glass of clear water into which two chemicals are dropped-- two different colors. We watch them come together and change color-- moving, twisting, growing, evolving, gradually becoming one new color because of their own natures and their effect upon each other-- until a new shape and composition-- a result, is formed. That's playwriting."
I like this because it describes conflict in a very organic sense. Characters come into conflict, not because they are seeking it, but because there is a chemical reaction that forces them inevitably into the conflict. Perhaps against their will. That seems to me a very feminine way of expressing it. I have often heard professors or playwriting lecturers liken theatrical conflict to things like boxing matches or other sporting events where people are directly pursing conflict. And that runs a bit counter to my personal understanding of conflict (perhaps a more feminine idea?) that it is something you avoid desperately, but seems to seek you out anyway-- because you fell into the wrong petrie dish with the wrong other chemical compound. I don't have much interest or affinity with characters who enter knowingly into boxing matches I suppose. Much more interested in characters who find themselves in boxing rings because of unavoidable circumstance.

Anyway, the lectures are collected under the title THE ART OF PLAYWRITING, and feature additional lectures from Jesse Lynch Williams (winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for playwriting), and Langdon Mitchell, Lord Dunsany and GIlbert Emery (whoever they were). It is an entertaining read. They were concerned with the exact same issues modern playwrights are concerned about. I will try to hit some of the highlights before I have to return the book to the library.

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