Playwrights & Poets

Following recent discussions surrounding figures such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) began thinking about the crafts and terminology of ‘poets’ and ‘playwrights’. Here are some of her thoughts.

“[T]he script of a play is intended primarily for the use of professional performers. Unlike the novelist and the poet, the playwright has been counting on other people to mediate between his words and his public.” (Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play).

The distinction between poet and playwright is particularly interesting in a historical context. Today, we see them as quite discrete things, and if you asked most people if and how they were different, they would likely have a clear answer. In the early modern period, the people who wrote plays saw themselves as poets. Many of them wrote things other than dramas – verse, treatises, musings, etc. – and made their living by the pen in varied contexts; and of course plays were generally written in verse at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the invention of the term “playwright” to Ben Jonson, who used it in his “Epigram 49”… as an insult. Wrights were craftsmen – ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. Their trades may have been highly specialised, but they worked with their hands, and were therefore seen in the time as a cut or two below poets, who, if they were to make a living out of their work, generally had associations with the upper class and nobility through the system of patronage. (This was, after all, an era when the middle class was just beginning to solidify as a level of social stratigraphy.)

While Jonson’s term might have been intended as a snub, it was also percipient. A playwright is a skill of putting things together quite specifically. Beneath the exterior words, there are particular ways plays get built to achieve their desired effect; it doesn’t just happen by accident. There are entire books (such as the one quoted above) dedicated to teaching readers how to understand what’s going on under the skin of a play script, to be conscious of the deliberate decisions the writer has made. (There are even more books dedicated to teaching people how to write plays.) By today’s standards, being a “playwright” indicates the many subtleties and abilities involved, rather than “playwrite”, which would imply merely someone who wrote plays, as if that was quite a simple thing to do. This is not to suggest that poetry is any less deliberate or consciously planned, but that plays do not operate in the same entirely free creative space that poetry does. There are inherent restrictions, in very functional dramatic terms, which don’t usually need to be considered when creating poems.

Whether they see themselves as poets or craftsmen, people who write plays have an extra burden not put on those who write words that are intended to remain on the page. They also have to be collaborators, in temperament if not in actuality. They know from the beginning that their work, putting words to the page, is actually only the beginning of an entire process; they intend for their words to be read, analysed, dissected, internalised, embodied, and performed. In some cases, of course, the writer is the performer (let’s remember that Shakespeare was also an actor), and in a one-person show, it’s possible to skip the extra layer of input. In most cases, though, and certainly in all historic dramas that I can think of, at the very least there are other actors taking on some of the text. Generally, today, there is also a director, and a whole host of people of various creative disciplines at work in translating the page to the stage. A writer knows that once he’s done putting words to the page, someone else takes over. The play requires him to begin, but it requires others to come to completion. It takes a village to raise a play, and the writer may or may not have any input once he writes a figurative ‘the end’ on the last page.

But, of course, this is all a question of whether a play is only complete when in performance, and it draws a line of distinction between an audience of non-theatre professionals, and that interior to the profession: the first “audience” for a play are the directors and actors who are considering/staging it. No matter how many interpretive layers eventually lie between the playwright and the eventual performance, it begins on paper. Some plays seem to be written with this as the focal aspect (I’m thinking, for example, of the profusion of complicated staging directions in The Glass Menagerie, which are usually summarily ignored by directors, and therefore seem more of use to someone who intends only to read the play and may need help ‘picturing it’), while others may be seen as hard going on the page yet come to life beautifully on stage (an assertion that has been levelled at Jonson’s plays). A playwright, in a sense, is therefore tasked with creating a work for multiple audiences, in different media, with a single work.

Given all of these complexities, it’s ironic that Jonson intended “playwright” to be a demeaning term in comparison to that of “poet”. The multifaceted expectations with which a writer of plays must cope, within the limitations of language and dramatic necessity, make it a craft indeed, in the modern sense: a highly specialised, artisanal skill which requires hard work and learning, of creating something from nothing in a creative manner within a general framework. He got it right, after all.