A playwright, also called a dramatist, is a person who writes plays.

The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who has wrought words, themes, and other elements into a dramatic form, someone who crafts plays. The homophone with write is in this case entirely coincidental.


Early playwrights and Playwriting Theory

The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are the Ancient Greeks. These early plays were written for annual Athenian competitions among playwrights[1] held around the 5th century BC. Such notables as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes established forms still relied on by their modern counterparts. For the Greeks, the playwright was "poeisis" the act of making plays. So the "poet" had a different connotation than it does today.

Aristotle's Poetics

In the 4th Century BC, Aristotle wrote his Poetics, the first play-writing manual. In this benchmark text, Aristotle establishes the principle of "action" or "praxis" as the basis for all drama. Aristotle establishes a hierarchy of elements for the drama beginning with Plot (mythos), Character (ethos), Thought (dianoia), Diction (lexis), Music (melopeia), and Spectacle (lusis). The ends of drama were plot, character, and thought, the means of drama were language and music, and the manner of presentation was spectacle. Since the myths, upon which Greek tragedy were based, were widely known, plot had to do with the arrangement and selection of materials. Character was equated with choice, as opposed to psychology, thus, character is determined by action. In tragedy, the notion of ethical choice determined the character of the man. Thought had more to do with arguments, and rhetorical strategies, rather than "theme" has it would today. Language and Music were the material means of drama, much like paint and brushes are the means of the painter. Aristotle's methodology was inductive and based on reading the great tragedians of his day. In other words, he redacted his theories from the plays themselves, rather than begin with a theoretical approach. As such, it is not intended as dogma (as it would later become) but was written as a guide describing best practices. His definition of tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious.....etc." brought in the concept of mimesis from real life, rather than from the ideal that Plato had touted. Thus, he developed his notion of hamartia, or tragic flaw, which was really an error in judgment by the main character or protagonist. The Poetics, while very brief, is highly condensed and worthy of study by any playwright today. It provides the basis of the "conflict-driven" play, a term we still tout as the sine qua non of dramaturgy. Perhaps, the most Aristotelian of contemporary playwrights is David Mamet. Mamet embraces the idea of character as "agent of the action" and exemplifies causality in the structure of his plays. His recently revived, Speed the Plow, is quintessentially Aristotelian: it observes the unities, with exception of Act Ii's change in place, and builds its plot through a causal stream of discoveries and reversals.

The term playwright appears to have been coined by Ben Jonson in his Epigram 49, To Playwright,[2] as an insult, to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre. He always described himself as a poet, since plays during that time were always written in meter and so regarded as the provenance of poets. This view was held even as late as the early 19th century. The term later lost this negative connotation.

Neoclassical theory

The Italian Renaissance brought about a stricter interpretation of Aristotle, as this long-lost work came to light in the late 15th century. The neoclassical ideal, which was to reach its apogee in France during the 17th century, dwelled upon the "unities," of action, place, and time. This meant that the playwright had to construct the play so that its "virtual" time would not exceed 24 hours, that it would be restricted to a single setting, and that there would be no subplots. Other terms, such as verisimilitude and decorum circumscribed the subject matter significantly. For example, verisimilitude defined that characters were to based upon the ideal of a type, versus what might be considered realistic. It also prohibited actions that might not be considered possible within the limits of the unities. Decorum fitted proper protocols for behavior and language on stage. In France, Racine in tragedy, and Molière, comedy, were purveyors of the unities and other strictures. Corneille, on the other hand was condemned by the French Academy, when his play Le Cid contained too many events and actions, thus, violating the 24 hour restriction of the unity of time. Neoclassicism never had as much traction in England—Shakespeare's plays are directly opposed to these models—and in Italy, improvised and bawdy commedia dell'arte and opera were more popular forms. In England, after the interregnum and restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a move toward neoclassical tragedy, but this was never popular. For example, Dryden's All for Love, a redaction of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, attempted to compress the sprawl of action and multiple settings from Egypt to Rome to a single place, and within a 24 hour time frame. One structural unit that is still useful to playwrights today is the "french scene" which describes any character entrance or exit. Thus, motivations and actions for characters will change based on who is present on stage. This is an excellent structural tool, and can let the playwright know exactly how much a particular character is involved in the action.

Well-made play

Popularized in the nineteenth-century by the French playwrights' Scribe and Sardou. Perhaps, the most schematic of all formats the well-made play relied on a series of coincidences (for better or worse) that determined the action. This plot driven format was driven often by a prop device, such as letter, or glass of water, that revealed some secret information. In most cases, the character receiving the secret information would misinterpret its contents, thus setting off the chain of events. Well-made plays thus are motivated by various plot devices which lead to "discoveries" and "reversals of action" rather than character motivated. Ibsen's A Doll's House is an example of a well-made structure (built around the discovery of Krogstad's letter) that began to integrate a more realistic approach to character. Ironically, Nora's leaving is as much motivated by "the letter" and disclosure of a "past secret" as it is by her own determination to strike out on her own. The well-made play thus infected other forms of writing and is still seen in popular formats such as the mystery, or whodunit.

Play formats

Full-length play: Generally, two or three acts with an act break (intermission or interval) that marks some kind of structural or time shift. Usually divided into scenes that are often defined by shifts in time and place. This type of structure is called episodic. Episodic plays often contain scene changes and require careful attention to transitions to maintain flow and continuity. Classical structure entails a more causal relationship between units and is often defined by the unity of time, place, and/or action. The latter is often marked by the Late Point of Attack whereas the former involves an Early Point of Attack. Point of Attack refers to the point in the story where the play begins. Late point of attack plays are generally reactions to an event that has already occurred, or to an outcome that is imminent. In Early point of attack, the play reveals itself as it goes along in the action.

Short play: A more popular format recently, the short play removes the intermission and generally runs over an hour but less than an hour-and-a-half.

One-act play: A useful form for experimental work (the absurdists made the form popular) with less reliance on character development and arc. Generally, under an hour in length.

10-minute play: Popularized over the past 20 years and now a staple of most play festivals, and many play contests. Takes on a number of approaches from traditional conflict-driven to very experimental. Useful in playwriting workshops and with beginning playwrights since the format requires rigor, yet can be processed or produced without onerous technical requirements.

Contemporary playwrights

Contemporary playwrights in the United States often do not reach the same level of fame or cultural importance as some did in the past. No longer the only outlet for serious drama or entertaining comedies, theatrical productions must compete for audiences with films, television, and the Internet. In addition, the perilous state of funding for the arts in the United States and a growing reliance by non-profit theatres on ticket sales as a source of income has caused many of them to reduce the number of new works they produce. For example, Playwrights Horizons produced only six plays in the 2002-03 seasons, compared with thirty-one in 1973-74.[3] As revivals and large-scale production musicals become the de rigueur Broadway (and even Off-Broadway) productions, playwrights find it difficult to earn livings in the business, let alone achieve major successes.

See also


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Playwright — Play wright , n. A maker or adapter of plays. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • playwright — (n.) 1680s, from PLAY (Cf. play) (n.) + WRIGHT (Cf. wright) …   Etymology dictionary

  • playwright — [n] person who writes for the theater author, dramatist, dramaturge, dramaturgist, librettist, scenarist, scripter, tragedian, writer; concept 348 …   New thesaurus

  • playwright — ► NOUN ▪ a person who writes plays …   English terms dictionary

  • playwright — [plā′rīt΄] n. [see WRIGHT] a person who writes plays; dramatist …   English World dictionary

  • playwright — UK [ˈpleɪˌraɪt] / US noun [countable] Word forms playwright : singular playwright plural playwrights someone who writes plays, especially as their job …   English dictionary

  • playwright — [[t]ple͟ɪraɪt[/t]] playwrights N COUNT A playwright is a person who writes plays. Syn: dramatist …   English dictionary

  • playwright — noun Etymology: 1play + obsolete wright maker more at wright Date: 1616 a person who writes plays …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • playwright — /play ruyt /, n. a writer of plays; dramatist. [1680 90; PLAY + WRIGHT] * * * …   Universalium

  • playwright — noun A writer and creator of theatrical plays. Syn: dramatist …   Wiktionary