What is it with this word ‘playwright’?

What’s in a word?  In the word ‘playwright’, everything.


Rod Dungate

(Reproduced in May 2018 from an earlier article)


Increasingly the word ‘playwright’ is replaced in theatre programmes with the word ‘writer’.  This is a cheapening of the role of the playwright; if theatres respect their play creators they should think twice about doing this.  There is no reason for the change, other than that individuals inside theatres (possibly in marketing or outreach departments) and theatre companies fear that ‘playwright’ is off-putting, or that’s it is too difficult to understand.  They must assume that replacing it with the easier description ‘writer’ will have new, and younger, audiences flooding into plays because they will not be put off by the job title.  Whoever is making these decisions must believe the replacement word is a true description of the playwright’s role—they could not be more wrong. The replacement fundamentally fails to encompass both the meaning of the correct word and the work entailed in creating a play’s blueprint.


The word itself has an interesting background.  It would appear it was coined by Ben Jonson around 1607, appearing in three epigrams – 49, 68, 100.  In the first he is clearly, and in true Jonson form, being rude to someone, possibly John Marston.  In 68, it is not nearly so clear his meaning is pejorative.  It could be interpreted as saying the playwright put up with a lot of stick from the public and yet brave in two ways—his brain remains active and his body puts up with the pain.  If the word Jonson uses is looked at closely in context, it looks possible that he is employing it as a proper noun and applying it only to (possibly) Marston.  This would certainly seem to be the case in Epigram 100, in which he accuses him of pinching three of his jokes and putting them in a play.  That Jonson should coin the word is fascinating as he was a bricklayer by training, involved, if you like, in a constructing (wrighting) business.


It is unlikely, though, that Jonson considered himself a playwright, opting for poet or ‘dramatic poet’. Jonson was the first person to collect his own plays and have them published, thereby raising the art status of the dramatic form.  And also, incidentally, playwrights.


As the word has accrued meaning it has come to encapsulate the work involved in creating a play. Creating a play is a complex task. It may involve, towards the end of the process, writing; but there is a great deal involved before that.  A play must be constructed.  Hence the word ‘playwright’ which links directly with a family of craft words such as ‘cartwright’, ‘wheelwright’, ‘shipwrght’, ‘arkwright’ and the general catch-all, ‘wright’.  It will be seen that many of these have become family names, themselves linking with the long line of ‘job’ names like ‘baker’, ‘smith’, or ‘fuller’.


So what is the process of creating a play—of wrighting it?


A play may stem from a range of seeds.  It may be an idea or theme the playwright wishes to communicate, or it may begin with a scene, or an image; anything may do.  But before the playwright can write, the all-important connection between theme and plot must be created.  And the plot incorporates characters, setting(s), time (which itself works at many levels in drama).  All these elements are brought into an interaction in order to enable the playwright to communicate the idea.


This is hard work.  It is made even harder because nothing is fixed during development time.  As the playwright begins to manipulate the elements any or all of them can change.  It frequently feels like trying to work with jelly.  Eventually things begin to firm up and finally the playwright has a scaffold created—a plot reflecting the theme(s).


At this stage the playwright can test other elements.  For instance, do characters have clear enough objectives for each scene?  Are there obstacles to overcome and do the characters employ strategies to overcome them?  Are characters appropriately consistent or inconsistent?  Has any impressively dramatic scene been left in that is not strictly part of communicating the theme(s)?  (If there is one or some there are two possible courses of action—get rid of them, or change the theme.)  Another possible development technique is to begin to put the plot, or parts of it, in a different order.  Does this shift the meaning for better or worse?


This stage of construction is painful and frustrating; however, gradually things begin to fit together and the picture is revealed—just as in a jig-saw puzzle.


Only at this stage does the playwright begin to write.  And this writing is joy compared with the earlier phase.  But even here the structure can change; this is because each moment is now seen under a microscope.


A playwright must have the play’s construction in their head.  Sometimes during early conversations with a director it is suggested that at a particular moment there is a problem.  Frequently the problem only appears to be there; it is actually somewhere else.  And the playwright needs to be alert to the effect of changes; just as with any construction, a change here may have an unforeseen effect there.


The playwright is far more than a writer.  The playwright truly is a wright, and deserves to be recognised and acknowledged as such.


October 2015


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