The following is a Gaslight etext....
A message to you about copyright and permissions
Back to Playwriting menu
AND now, old reader--I say "old reader," just as, if I were talking to you, I should say "old man," because I know you are a man, and a young one to boot. No women, speaking generally, are dramatists, or seem to desire to become so. Seeing how they dominate all other branches of imaginative literature, this is curious. I suppose it is that they are undramatic by nature. Their whole mental organisation is opposed to the directness, the silence which constitute, as it were, the two thunder-clouds from which the lightning of "action" (that is, "drama") springs. Take George Eliot, who, of all women writers, approaches the nearest in her instincts to the dramatic. Two splendid scenes of hers occur to me at this moment, both pregnant with drama in its highest form, and both spoilt, from a dramatic point of view, by eloquent description and philosophical comment. The one is Silas Marner's finding of the child; and the other the death of Maggie Tulliver and her brother, Tom, swamped in the flood, by the old mill, where as children they had lived and played. Scenes such as these, in the hands of a true dramatist, would be made to speak for themselves, and say all that could be said, without one word from the author. Every line of argument or explanation weakens incident. It is like draping a statue. But a woman's mind, I am sure, could never be made to grasp this fact. A woman would never be content to let the audience imagine her hero's grief and despair. When Reginald returns to his home to find a note from Anastasia, announcing her departure with Alphonse, the foreign villain, it would never be sufficient, in her idea, for Reginald to exclaim, "My God!" and sink into chair, L.C. "as Curtain, &c." She would give Reginald a ten minutes' soliloquy, in which he would explain to the house by the aid of heartrending adjectives that he was awfully upset--that he should never have believed it--that he could'nt understand it--and that he had loved her with a love, &c. But enough on this subject of women (women are always leading us men astray), and the impossibility of their becoming dramatists. It is of, and to, the people who can and may become dramatists that I wish to say a few parting words. I think I nave already given all the practical advice and information that it is in my power to give, and these few last words will, therefore, be as few last words generally are, mere exhortation. I shall rather like giving them. Preaching to other people what they should do always was rny strong point. I feel then that I am doing good, and that without any undue exertion or annoyance to myself. I suppose everybody feels the same, and that is why good advice and moral maxims are so plentiful in this world; and that there is always an average of ten or twelve enthusiastic teachers to every one conscientious disciple.
This is an age in which we are all "on the make," and an author's reputation rests not on what he does, but on how much he gets. L.S.D. is the standard of art in this nineteenth century. The manager comes before the curtain, and announces lhat the nightly receipts have maintained an average of over three hundred pounds, and that the advance booking still continues unabated, and the pit rises up and cheers, and the stalls flutter with suppressed delight, and all feel that they are in the presence of a great and good man. On the first night, the play appears to a mere plain intelligence, a poor, weak, trashy thing, badly constructed, badly written, with puerile plot, impossible characters, and hackneyed incidents. But it runs for a thousand nights and brings in fifty thousand pounds or so, which proves to every practical mind that the first impressions of the piece were wrong, and that instead of being the maudlin balderdash that a less enlightened age might have fancied it to be, it is in reality a grand and noble piece of literature. Then we gush over William Snooks, the author, as if he were Homer, and Hugo, and Goethe, and Schiller, and Dickens, and Molière rolled into one. Did Shakespeare, or Ben Jonson, or Marlowe, or Sheridan ever write a play that brought in fifty thousand pounds? No! Very well then, do not let us hear any more about these over-rated old mummies while we've got a literary god like Snooks, hanging about. Managers, actors, brother authors, critics, and the public generally will respect you far more for writing a play by which you gain a fortune, than for penning the grandest comedy that ever graced the English stage if it fails to "draw." Against this tendency of the age very few of us have the strength and courage to do battle. We start full of chivalrous and heroic resolutions. We respect ourselves, and we honour our profession. We lay to heart pretty little catch phrases about the stage being a greater power for good than the pulpit, about literature being the prophet of the modern day wilderness; and we determine that our pen shall be drawn only in the service of honour and manhood, and shall dart its ridicule against only the mean and the false; but, after a time, we seem to find that the service of honour and manhood is a somewhat hard and poorly paid service, and that in the ranks of folly the wage is high and the promotion rapid, so we quickly right about face and cross over to the enemy.
Still it is advisable, even from the most sordid point of view, not to be too eager for the change, especially if you are at all capable of good work, It is an undoubted fact that in the long run, and taking a man s career as a whole, it is the best writing that pays. Quick, shallow trumpery, trimmed so as to just catch the popular breeze of the moment, may skim along bravely enough during a transient sunny hour, but it is in the great, slow-moving, stately ships, built with long labour, launched with trouble and care, that the solid merchandise of the world is brought home. You want to be a successful dramatic author, not the author of a successful drama. A lucky fluke will make you the latter, but the former can be achieved only by a steady course of sound work. The former is over and done with, and the fortune spent on the "easy come, easy go" principle in a year or two, and you are never heard of again. The latter is a career!
And from other motives--not sordid ones, if you can have patience to listen to such--it is well to aim at only true, honest work. The popularity gained may not be any wider, but it will be far deeper, and, though self-respect is a somewhat costly luxury to indulge in, it is nevertheless a healthy and invigorating one. If you can afford it, that is, if you have a sufficiently manly mind to be content with comfort (which can be purchased anywhere for three hundred a year), and not be craving like a child, for everything you see, then by all means purchase it.
Give the public the deepest and highest you have in you. Do not be afraid that it will be too good for them. Never be satisfied with anything because it's "good enough." Feel that whatever you write is the best that you can do. Then, whether it succeeds or not, it is none of your fault.
Remember that, as a rule, the most lasting work takes the longest time to do. There may come moments of inspiration in which you can dash off a certain amount of good stuff quickly. Such moments are like the two or three hundred yards of level and half way up the hill over which every now and then the team will rattle your coach at a spanking gallop, but it is the steady jog-trot you must depend upon for the day's journey. Do not, therefore, pride yourself on having "knocked off" an act in one day. In all probability it will be a day wasted. A couple of months spent over it will be far better. Writers like Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, and George Eliot took weeks to write a chapter or two. It is your little twopenny-halfpenny authors--the sort that would be dear at six for a shilling--that "knock off" things in a few hours.
Be honest--never mind if you are laughed at for it. If you take a foreign author's play, pay him something and acknowledge it, even though, owing to some omission on his part, or by the fault of the law, you are not legally compelled to do so. If you "adapt" a man's book, let it be a straightforward, above-board transaction. I can only see one difference myself between the man who steals a man's purse or watch and the man who steals a play, and that is that the latter is a coward as well as a thief, because he knows he cannot be punished.
Do not dabble in indecencics. That sort of thing pays less and less every year. A certain number of people, of course, roar over them, but you do not hear the silent disgust of the better half of the audience.
Do not write too much. I say this not in the cause of the public, but for your own sake. A writer is not an inexhaustible stream; he is only a mine. He contains a certain amount of good metal, and what comes after that is rubbish. And do not write too quickly. A brain can't be driven like a cab horse. Many a clever dramatist works himself to death in the first few years of his popularity, and then has to sit aside and know himself "played out" before his time. A man, after one or two successes, is applied to on every side for plays. Managers, who a year ago would not look at the very pieces that have since made him famous, now crowd round him and offer him any terms to write anything. If he is wise, he shuts his ears and goes quietly in his own course. If he is foolish, "he makes haste to be rich," undertakes three or four times as much work as he is capable of properly performing, is compelled to "scamp" it, and, in consequence, turns out failure after failure.
Do not--but I will take my own advice for once, and not write too much. I have said all that is in me worth saying, perhaps more, on this matter of "playwriting." I will stop before I come to the rubbish. Good-bye, and here's luck!
Go to the next
Back to Playwriting menu