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How Not to Write a Play, by Walter Kerr - Part I

How Not to Write a Play by Walter Kerr, 1955, Simon and Schuster, is among the best books ever written on playwrighting. Kerr's grasp of theatre history is comprehensive. He writes about plays less from an aesthetic or sinsability unique to himself, but in the context of all of theater history. He places the contemporary theater of his time in the continum of theater history, and compares it to periods when theater was at peak vitality and produced its masterpieces.

Years ago, Paul Stetler, Ron Owens, me and who knows who else, were in The Lion's Den on Aurora. This was Paul's big idea. Primarily a pub, The Lion's Den also served as a book exchange of sorts, a "take a book/leave a book" library. Being relatively literate and amenable to anything free, I took a gander at the selection. Behind me I found How Not to Write a Play. I didn't know Kerr from Adam, but I'd been dabbling in playwrighting so I took it.

The Lion's Den closed before I could gift back a book.

That copy of How Not to Write a Play is on my desk. Almost every page features a highlighted passage and many, several passages. Small yellow Post-it notes mark my favorites. Here they are:

"Our own cycle [of Social Drama] is now seventy-five years old. It dates from the appearance, in 1877, of Ibsen's Pillars of Society." Pg 18. [Kerr wrote that in 1955. It remains true. Social Drama has enjoyed a 125+-year run. Almost all Social Dramas end with a character stating the moral:

“And we—we have a long earnest day of work ahead of us; I most of all. But let it come; only keep close round me, you true, loyal women. I have learnt this, too, in these last few days; it is you women that are the pillars of society.”

“You have learnt a poor sort of wisdom, then brother-in-law. No, my friend. The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom—they are the pillars of society.”

-Ibsen, Pillars of Society, 1877

“There isn’t a man in medicine who hasn’t said what you’ve said and meant it for a minute—all of us, George. And you’re right. We are groping. We are guessing. But, at least our guesses today are closer than they were twenty years ago. And twenty years from now, they’ll be still closer… That’s what we’re here for. Mm… there’s so much to be done. And so little time in which to do it.”

- Kingsley, Men in White, 1933

“The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

- Kushner, Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika, 1994

Kerr, continued:

Pg 39 - "I don't think he will find it there, any more than he has found it in the antipopular theatre of the last sixty years or so. Minority theatres never have produced important work. Every great play we have ever been lucky enough to feast our eyes on has come out of a popular [for-profit] playhouse." [Kerr is referring to Eric Bentley, a critic who championed what Kerr calls, "...a serious theatre that always meant to play to a limited audience, a theatre for the enlightened few." Sound familiar?]

Pg 40 - "It is perfectly true, by the way, that a craftily popular theatre sometimes produces Bertha, the Sewing-Machine Girl and nothing more. It is also true that the same kind of theatre, consciously catering to the same kind of audience, has at other times produced Macbeth, Oedipus, and Tartuffe."

Pg 41 - "The plays of Shakespeare came out of a theatre dedicated to the proposition that the illiterate was not only welcome but had to be wooed uninterruptedly throughout the performance, at whatever sacrifice in taste."

Pg 41 - "Because the conventions of Greek drama seem so remote to us now, we hazily imagine Greek performance to have been a sober and high-minded affair. Actually, the performance was garish, musicalized, and shatteringlhy robust; the audiencce was a noisy, basket-lunch crowd on a holiday, never above stoning a playwright whose work was not up to par."

Pg 41 - "No great play has ever come from what might be called a minority theatre. "

Pg 42 - "The contest between the majority-minority ideals existed in Shakespeare's time. John Lyly, for instance, was a man of undisputed talent. He preferred, however, not to soil himself in the public playhouse, choosing to write and stage his work in the purer air of the minority theatres of the court. While his lowbrow friends went on to greatness, Lyly shriveled into the literary-precious. By the time Lyly, aged about forty, wrote his last play, Shakespeare had completed Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice."

Pg 44 - "...these men found greatness because of their communion with the universal audience; the presence of the uncultivated mass in the theatre is an indispensable prerequisite for drama of genuine stature; greatness grows out of the very challenge."

Pg 44 - "A "great" theatre comes into existence by first attending to the most primitive passions of its most primitive patrons. By satisfying the race's admittedly childlike - thought not necessarily childish - yearning for violence, spectacle, and the broadest of broad comedy strokes, roots are sunk deep into the universal consciousness."

Pg 46 - "At worst, a popular theatre holds the fort; at best, it finds its way to Hamlet."



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