William Gillette, an American actor and playwright, once pondered the idea that geniuses may not be the best teachers of their craft. In a collection of letters published in the 1880s, Gillette questioned whether great artists such as Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Thackeray, Beethoven, and others would have been able to provide rules for their crafts. Although several authors had offered advice on playwriting, Gillette argued that most of the advice was not practical or effective. Instead, he concluded that the only way to master the craft was through practice and experience in the theatre.
For those seeking guidance from these luminaries of the past, we’ve compiled some snippets of their advice on playwriting below. Despite Gillette’s scepticism, their wisdom may still offer insights for budding playwrights seeking a mentor from centuries past:
Soak your fifth act in gentle tears, and salt the other four with dashes of wit.
Théodore de Banville
To see this clearly, you must consider two questions which have no relation to each other:
1. How should one set about composing a dramatic work which shall succeed and make money?
2. How shall one set about composing a dramatic work which shall be fine and shall have some hope of survival?
Reply to the first question: Nothing is known about it; for if anything were known every theater would earn six thousand francs every evening. Nevertheless, a play has some chance of succeeding and earning money if, when read to a naïf person, it moves him, amuses him, makes him laugh or weep; if it falls into the hands of actors who play it in the proper spirit; and if at the public performance the leader of the claque sees no hitch in it.
Reply to the second question: To compose a dramatic work which shall be fine and shall live, have genius! There is no other way. In art talent is nothing. Genius alone lives. A poet of genius combines in himself all poets past and future, just as the first person you meet combines in himself all humanity past and present. A man of genius will create for his theater a form which has not existed before him and which after him will suit no one else.
Take an interesting theme, a subject neither too new nor too old, neither too commonplace or too original,—so as to avoid shocking either the vulgar-minded or the delicate-souled.
As for me, this is my procedure:
- When I have no idea, I gnaw my nails and invoke the aid of Providence.
- When I have an idea, I still invoke the aid of Providence,—but with less fervor, because I think I can get along without it.It is quite human, but quite ungrateful.
- I have then an idea, or I think I have one.
- I take a quire of white paper, linen paper—on any other kind I can imagine nothing—and I write on the first page: PLAN
By the plan I mean the developed succession, scene by scene, of the whole piece, from the beginning to the end.
So long as one has not reached the end of his play he has neither the beginning nor the middle. This part of the work is obviously the most laborious. It is the creation, the parturition.
As soon as my plan is complete, I go over it and ask concerning each scene its purpose, whether it prepares for or develops a character or situation, and then whether it advances the action. A play is a thousand-legged creature which must keep on going. If it slows up, the public yawns; if it stops, the public hisses.
To write a sprightly play you must have a good digestion. Sprightliness resides in the stomach.
You ask me how a play is made. By beginning at the end. A novel is quite a different matter.
It’s not so easy to answer you as you think. …There is no one necessary way of writing a play for the theater. Everyone has his own, according to his temperament, his type of intellect, and his habits of work. If you ask me for mine, I should tell you that it is not so easy to formulate as the recipe for duck à la rouennaise or spring chicken au gros sel. Not fifty lines are needed, but two or three hundred, and even then I should have told you only my way of working, which has no general significance and makes no pretense to being the best. It’s natural with me, that’s all. Besides, you will find it indicated in part in the preface to ‘La Haine’ and in a letter which I wrote to La Pommeraye about ‘Fédora.’
In brief, my dear friend, tho there are rules, and rules that are invariable, precise, and eternal for the dramatic art, rules which only the impotent, the ignorant, blockheads, and fools misunderstand, and from which only they wish to be freed, yet there is only one true method for the conception and parturition of a play—which is, to know quite exactly where you are going and to take the best road that leads there. However, some walk, others ride in a carriage, some go by train, X hobbles along, Hugo sails in a balloon. Some drop behind on the way, others run past the goal. This one rolls in the ditch, that one wanders along a cross-road.
While William Gillette may have doubted the ability of geniuses to teach their craft, the snippets of advice from past luminaries such as Émile Augier, Théodore de Banville, Adolphe Dennery, Eugène Labiche, Ernest Legouvé, and Victorien Sardou can still offer insights for aspiring playwrights. While their advice varies, from the importance of having a plan and purpose for each scene, to taking an interesting and not-too-controversial theme, to the need for genius and a clear destination, their collective wisdom emphasizes the importance of hard work, dedication, and practice in mastering the craft of playwriting.