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 world works.

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 manager.

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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