top of page
  • louisbroome

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

The list of my highlights continues:

Pg 51 - "We have inherited not the drama of action, of character, of kinetic intimacy with the human condition, but the drama of ideas. For purposes of illustration, I guess we can safely reduce these to three: the problem play, the thesis play and the propaganda play."

"You can always clarify a thesis by over-simplifying what is human. But the moment you begin to give humanity its due you are bound to destroy the patness of your proposition."

Pg 66 - "What is intrinsically wrong with the thesis play is that it puts the drawing board before the drama. It begins at the wrong end of the creative scale. It begins with a firm, fast premise, achieved in the intellectual solitude of the study, and thereafter proceeds to make all life dance to a quite debatable tune."

"Though the terms "theme" and "thesis" are now used interchangeably, there is an enormous difference between them. In the one, the playwright - uncommitted to any a-priori view - is forced to go out and observe; he must look to life for his materials. He may know, in general, that he wishes to write about jealousy; but he must first see what jealousy looks like."

Pg 67 - "In the other, the dramatic mansion is prefabricated. The playwright comes equipped with an agreeable syllogism, complete in all its parts. He clothes his major premise, and his minor premise, in a semblance of human flesh; but they are only premises after all, pointing to a planned conclusion. What we callt he drama of ideas is just that: a drama in which the people are digits, adding up to the correct ideological sum."

Pg 71 - "So far as I know no genuine masterpiece has ever been rejected by the common audience before which it was first performed. (I'm skipping some politically rigged opening-night demonstrations here; in spite of extraordinary pressures, good plays have always been quickly recognized.)"

Pg 72 - "What history suggests to us is that the audience can rise to any heights of which the playwright is capable, that it can go anywhere he can take it. The working phrase here, though, is "take it."

Pg 73 - "It is never enough to say "I have written honestly, by my own lights." It is necessary to say "I have written accurately, by everyone's lights."

Pg 74 - "The audience does not reject an unpleasant truth because it seems unpleasant, but because it seems untrue."

Pg 93 - "The larger the event, the more likely are we to lose hold of it in life; and the more necessary does it become for the theatre to seize and to shape it for us. If the greatest plays of the past are plays in which characters tear out their own or one another's eyes, in which characters kill or are killed, in which sons turn violently upon their mothers or husbands upon their wives, it is not because audiences once asked for cheap stimuli but because audiences did ask to have their experience, their clear knowledge of life, enlarged."

"The dramatist is, if he but knew it, a fortunate man. The audience tells him very clearly what it expects of him. If he pays some sort of attention to his audience, he is likely to become quite popular."

Pg 94 - "In the contemporary theatre we are extremely honest about trivia, and extremely indifferent to any activity more pronounced than the rustling of a leaf, a dress, or a newspaper over coffee. Indeed we are hostile to the idea of activity." [A theatre that limits the possibilities to four actors on one set is cutting its own throat.]

Pg 120 - "The bustling, complicated, and sometimes absurd plotting of the past does not seem ever to have inhibited character. It would almost seem that there is some correlation between the range of a play's activity and the size of its characterization."

Pg 122 - "It does require the genius of a Sophocles to make so staggering an array of improbable situations at all tenable. But what part have the situations played in drawing out the genius of Sophocles?"

Pg 211 - "The screen makes its principal images by picturing them. The stage makes its principal images by speaking them. Each has an alternate method - the stage may have visual appeal, the screen a measure of literacy; but the alternate method is a subordinate method and the health of either medium will depend on its keeping its proportions in order."

"Kenneth Tynan...points out that even Moliere, nurtured on prose, turned to verse for his best work."

"We cannot escape the fact that Moliere, turning to verse, did then write his best plays. The fact is that every major serious play - and the lion's share of the comedies - that we cling to out of the past are verse plays. Three hundred years of prose have done well enough by the novel, beautifully by history and biography; they have left the theatre grunting like an underprivileged child."

Pg 212 - Verse is simply more pliable than prose, and for a form as swift and compact as the theatre extreme pliability is wanted."

Pg 214 - "We often think of verse as a rather roundabout way of saying something. It isn't. It is the fastest way of saying something provided that the thing to be said is difficult to say, provided that it is not a plain and literal statement of fact."

Pg 235 - "I am further convinced that our commercial failure - our unpopularity - is directly due to our constricted aesthetic, to the very arbitrariness which which we have held to it, insisted on it. The audience has not deserted us because we were too good for it, but because we were not good enough." ["In the 2002-03 season, only one commercially produced play, "Life x 3," broke even, its producers say; last season, only two even came close - "Golda's Balcony," which will close a lengthy run at the Helen Hayes Theater next month, and "I Am My Own Wife," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play and according to its producers still didn't earn its money back. productions - inexpensive, one-person shows where costs were kept to a minimum - will have to rely on national tours before their investors see any profit." - NYT December 7, 2004]

That's it. Musicals and plays are very different creatures. Musicals do quite nicely, most often. Plays do not. Audiences are abandoning plays for two reasons, 1) Museum Theater. There is an audience for yet another production of a play by Chekov, Ibsen, Beckett, Miller, Williams, Albee, Pinter--fill in your favorite dead playwright here--but it's a very small, white, and dying audience. 2) Most plays are boring. Boring is theater's greatest sin. Most theaters and playwrights produce plays that inform, enlighten, and rarely entertain, which is exactly backwards. Entertain first and all costs, then you've got a shot at enlightenment.

Look at the data. Theater is dying. All of the key performance indicators are trending down and to the right. Read Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, by Todd London with Ben Pesner, 2009, Theater Development Fund.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page