Have the days of the playwright come to an end? Is there no further use for an individual who knows the craft and skills required to assemble an idea and project it through words and characters so that theatre companies may have something genuinely original and challenging to share with their audiences? Are the skills of the playwright entirely redundant?
Looking at the plays advertised in your local paper you might think so. Titus Andronicus (heavily adapted by the company) A Doll's House (even more mucked about with), adaptations of novels or TV shows or films. Original work consists of “physical theatre” but not in any sense that Grotowski would understand. Everything is larded with music, film, dance, lighting effects so that not a shred of original thought is allowed to shine through. What playwrights’ work is to be seen is that of film and TV scriptwriters or students straight out of scriptwriting courses.
Where are the new plays that rely on interchange of ideas that challenge the audience? Where are the plays that speak intelligently and which can cause a real emotional response rather than a manufactured sentiment. What I see is cheap, tawdry theatrical pornography. The simple pushing of buttons to cause easy reactions and plenty of effects to hide behind.
Of course, there are playwrights working to produce all this work but their status is so downgraded as to be that of the person who picks up the empty ice cream cartons in the auditorium between shows. These are the people who are turning out these adaptations and “scripts” (I notice that no one writes plays any more but “supplies scripts”). Playwrights no longer seem to any natural place in the creative heirarchy, their work is filtered through a dramaturge and then director and actors will alter what emerges to suit their own needs in the rehearsal room.
So what is contemporary theatre missing by not embracing the playwright within the bosom of the creative team? Well, first and foremost ideas. Theatre companies tend to be notoriously inward looking. They tend to have the perspective of the company members. They want more of what they did last year because they can’t think of anything better. They want what the other companies are doing. Obviously they want something that dovetails with school syllabuses and national events. That’s all fine in itself, even Shakespeare had to write a Romeo and Juliet because every other company in London had one in repertoire at the time but if you have to do a play about, say, some world event, make sure you’ve got someone with a perspective from outside the company who can create something different and interesting.
And what are the particular skills that we keep banging on about? The most fundamental is that of telling a story through an interaction of characters. Playwrights have to understand how characters work, how they manifest their inward turmoils through dialogue. They have had to attune their ears to the nuances of speech by countless hours sitting cafes drinking coffee and listening to people speak. They have to be able to sculpt and craft these characters so that actors can inhabit them fully and by doing so portray something directly to an audience. They must understand the deep psychology of human nature and how real people react to real situations and events.
In addition playwrights must know how to structure a narrative so that it guides the emotional journey of actor and audience. They must know how to build a scene to a climax, where to cut into an action and where to leave it when enough has been said. They must distort passage of time and rearrange space so that it appears believable without becoming tedious. They must understand how the audience perceives what is going on in front of them and what should revealed and what hidden. They need to understand which points in the action to show and which to hide. Which interactions to include and which to do without. In addition they need to have some real understanding of the technicality of the theatre space itself and how the limitations of space can best serve the interaction between actor and audience.
None of this experience and knowledge is gained quickly or without a huge amount of trial and error. The writer needs to be within the creative process from the start. His or her skills need to be appreciated and understood by directors as surely as the technical ability of the lighting or sound designer.
Above all a playwright needs the encompassing world view that comes with age and experience. He or she needs to be able to talk of the experiences of all ages and sections of society not just from the viewpoint of one particular set of individuals. For this he or she must be endowed with big imagination and empathy for what they observe. The playwright must be able to create “the other”, something the actors cannot envisage themselves and to challenge them to invest themselves in this otherness. And they must do all this with some artistry and a touch of theatrical magic.