Whose Mind is it Anyway?
The Strange and Only Occasionally Sordid Business of Playwriting
After much soul-searching I have come to the conclusion that I am not now, nor will I ever be a novelist. That is no cloying bleat asking for sympathy or encouragement, the sort of stuff you see in black-and-white World War Two movies:
Timmy Timid: I’m afraid of the Nazis, Captain Flightwing.
Capt. Flightwing: Oh buck up Timmy. With lads like you on our side, we’ll have the Jerrys beaten by Christmas and you’ll be sat under the tree surrounded by your family! Let’s have tea.
The Captain leaves out his suspicion that Timmy will indeed be sat under the Christmas tree, as he’ll be in a small crematorium urn. But that’s beside the point!
No, I’m completely comfortable with my non-novelistence as I have realized that I simply do not enjoy writing them. It’s not that I can’t, it’s that I don’t want to. The truth of the matter is that I vastly prefer writing plays.
What? You’re still here, reading. Oh I see, you want to know why I prefer plays to novels. Well all right then I’ll tell you. After all, as far as I know you’re either a well-heeled theatre lover who might throw gobs of money my way to produce one of my shows. Or you might be Marisa Tomei. (I’m a great believer in the Six Degrees of Separation theory of life.) Fine then. Here are a few of the reasons I rejected for my preference of stage over shelves:
Novels are More Difficult to Write
Well that really is so much nonsense. Novelists will tell you differently as they do enjoy moaning on about opening veins, bleeding onto the keyboard and all that stuff intended as an excuse for why it is they can’t be bothered to shave most mornings. But really, and I speak as a man who has reviewed well over three hundred novels in my career and read Christ knows how many, so long as the author manages to stay out of the story, the things write themselves. A good novelist merely points a camera at a scene and shows the reader what the lens captures. Novels are a flow chart written in descriptive language. You doubt me? Watch this:
Milton Pflug woke up feeling this was to be a most unusual day.
(camera cuts to) He made his usual breakfast of half a grapefruit, wheat toast and black coffee. Pancakes were for weekends, not work days. (camera cuts to) After putting on his raincoat and hat, Milton
picked up his briefcase, opened the door of his flat, and was promptly eaten by a mountain lion. (camera cuts to) The mountain lion picked its teeth with the late Milton Pflug’s car keys and the grumbles, ‘Oh how I wish I could have an unusual day.’
Child’s play. Although speaking of children and plays, you just try and do that scene on stage and see how far you get when Actors Equity starts screaming at you on the phone about feeding dues paying members to mountain lions, leaving their own children as orphans. Try as you might to point out that the life insurance payout is likely to be way better than the late actors were ever going to earn over the course of their career, some people simply will not listen to reason.
Plays are Limited in Scope
More nonsense to be dismissed with a better brandished backhand than Boris Becker belted. The thinking among the dull and shallow-watered pools of thought is that because plays are staged generally on a space no wider or deeper than 60×30, the action is confined, whereas a novelist can go from Chapter 24 set in a Victorian bordello to Chapter 25 circling the earth with John Glenn in Friendship VII.
Well first, that reference to John Glenn is badly dated and you really need to freshen up your material. Second, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should (the invasion of Iraq comes to mind here). And third, the hell you can’t do any of that on a stage. If Shakespeare could re-enact the Wars of the Roses on an open stage without benefit of even a scenery change, the only restraint on a playwright is imagination. And last time I checked, the only resources humankind has in unlimited supply are sunshine and imagination. Actually, check that. I live in Ireland. We make do with imagination.
Novelists ‘own’ their work whereas playwrights have theirs interpreted.
That’s the benefit, you great steaming dunce! Collaboration can only add to wisdom and never detracts from it. Stephen Hawking is as brilliant a man as there is on Earth. Stephen Hawking plus Wayne Rooney is still smarter than Stephen Hawking alone. Wayne Rooney knows things that Stephen Hawking doesn’t know; things like … Wayne Rooney’s phone number, or the cost of hair transplants.
A reasonably intelligent director and a cast of thoughtful actors will find meanings and ways of interpreting a play that the author never thought of, at least consciously. Set designers, lighting technicians, costumiers, even the poster artist will add depth and alternative modes of seeing to those hundred or so pages of dialogue that the playwright delivers.
What of the novelist though? She or he can only have a conversation or addition from two people – the novelist and the reader. In the case of a recorded book, I suppose that can be expanded to three, yet the experience is still much more limited. A play adds the insight of the professionals mentioned above, along with the individual audience member and the hugely important reactions of the genera audience. Everybody is feeding everybody energy and insight. A play is much more a living, growing thing than any novel can ever hope to be.
But ultimately …
All of this has been great fun to write and no, I don’t mean to provoke novelists into a spitting rage. The truth of it all is that, for me, I just find plays way way way way way more fun to write than novels.
I found over time and several abandoned experiments, including one I abandoned even after being assigned an editor at one of the world’s major publishing houses, that the part of the novel writing experience I enjoyed was creating the dialogue. As soon as I knew that a dialogue scene had gone on long enough and I needed to get back to some narrative description, the instant feeling that came over me was one of boredom. It felt like work. Whereas with theatre, let me put it to you this way:
We call those things we write ‘plays’ for a reason.
Be seeing you.
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