The Playwright Directs
by Bill Bly
Some time ago I directed a production of my play Jonas.
I was interviewed a number of times before the play opened, and each time
the inevitable question arose, "Do you think it's a good idea for you
to direct your own play?" After the play opened, the reviews which
appeared in the local papers each dedicated considerable space to answering
this question. One critic thought I directed the play better than I wrote
it, another maintained that I couldn't do either. So it goes.
Directing, according to the textbooks, is primarily an interpretive art.
Whether or not the director's art can be called "creative" as
well depends, I think, on how loosely you define the term "creative."
No one will argue that taking a play from the page to the stage requires
a considerable amount of creative -- or, if you want to get picky, ingenious
or imaginative -- thinking, on everybody's part, not just the director's.
But there has to be a bottom line, a basis, for all this "creativity."
And unless we're talking about drama-by-committee -- a text arrived at through
improvisation or brainstorming by a group of people -- the final dispositor
of the production has to be the script. Who is best able to interpret this
script for an audience, the playwright or somebody else?
Before attempting a direct answer, perhaps some historical perspective is
in order. Prior to the Romantic movement of the 19th century, the question
never arose. Our best evidence indicates that Aeschylus not only wrote and
directed his massive tragedies, but played the lead as well. About Molière
we can say no less, and Shakespeare was known to take a part or two himself.
The term "playwright" (i.e., "maker of plays") is of
recent vintage: before Ibsen, most plays were written in verse, qualifying
the maker of such things to call himself a poet, which Ibsen in fact did,
long after he ceased writing verse plays. But being lumped with the poets
has had its drawbacks for the playwright. Somewhere along the line the poet
acquired the image of the Romantic Agonist, the tortured genius, the prophet
periodically called into the wilderness to wrestle with the gods. Go ahead
and laugh: the patronizing attitude most people exhibit towards playwrights
today betrays the fact that the "poet" image still sticks -- being
busy having visions, the playwright has very little idea of how the real
The notion of the director qua director is also a rather late development
in the history of theatrical practice, arising at about the same time as
the notion of the playwright (poet) as visionary -- that is to say, with
the Romantic movement. Prior to the ground-breaking work of those resourceful
Germans, Gottsched and Neuber, Goethe, and Saxe-Meiningen -- who introduced
the concepts of careful rehearsal and ensemble acting -- plays were thrown
onstage with only hours of rehearsal, not weeks or months, and an actor
had to learn a part from "sides," which contained only h/er character's
lines and cues. Under these circumstances, the director -- who was usually
also the playwright and leading player -- served principally as a traffic
But with the advent of the New Playwright (the Poet of the Theatre), a New
Director was required, one who could bring the poet's vision down from the
clouds and make it accessible -- in other words, the director had to be
able to interpret the babblings of the mantic author for the masses who
had come to the shrine of art to be enlightened. A demanding position this,
with one foot in each world; the director must be sensitive to the inspiration
which informs the poet's work, and at the same time be a nuts-and-bolts
craftsman who can give these transcendant intimations concrete form upon
the stage. Make no mistake: directing is hard work, and not everybody can
do it. The analogy between a play and a child is not inappropriate, but
we should be precise: the playwright gives birth to the play; the director
is the "nanny" who rears it and then sends it off into the world
to fend for itself.
Writing a play can be as exalting an experience as everyone seems to think
it ought to be. It can also be, and most often is, an awful grind. The flash
of inspiration which sets the playwright to scribbling soon gives way to
just scribbling. Getting the idea takes less than a second; writing it out
takes almost forever. But finally the playwright emerges from h/er cramped
attic, hair half torn out, face streaked with tears, clutching in arthritic
hands an artifact -- the script. Ah, there is nothing quite so satisfying
as the heft of a just-completed manuscript. Whether the play is subsequently
staged or not, the evidence of the playwright's work can be held in the
hand, a thing of substance, or at least weight.
What about the work of the director? It is just as exhausting, requires
just as many decisions on many more fronts, drives you just as crazy, and
in the end breaks your heart. After all those weeks of busting your brains
and your voice, you have to get out of the way, as your baby toddles out
into the light, before an audience who will see nothing but the actors doing
what the playwright gave them to do. No matter what goes wrong or still
isn't right on opening night, all a director can do about it is to sit in
the back of the house and twitch. One may have started out as an absolute
dictator; one ends up a querulous but doting grampus.
To return to the original question: "Do you think it's a good idea
to direct your own play?" The standard objection to the playwright
directing h/er own work is that s/he cannot possibly have the perspective
on it that someone who didn't write it can. Maybe this is true, but nobody
complains about the fact that the director loses perspective just as surely
by reading the play over and over; grinding out stage business, line readings,
and traffic patterns; haggling with actors, technicians, and producers (and,
once in a while, the playwright!) -- in short, by sleeping with the script
from before the first reading until after opening night.
To my mind, the real question is not "Can the playwright maintain perspective
enough to direct his own play?" but "Can the playwright direct,
period?" It's an enterprise for lunatics only; the faint of heart or
voice need not apply.
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