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Thread: Playwright/Novelist. Can such a thing be?

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    X (or) Y=X and Y=-X Jean-Baptiste's Avatar
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    Playwright/Novelist. Can such a thing be?

    I am wondering about the intrinsic differences, if any, between the skills necessary for a playwright, and those for a novelist. This comes from a discussion I had recently with my father, to which we found no conclusion. Iíll attempt to formulate my query for you precisely. Is there some skill required for one and not the other of these endeavors? Why does it seem so rare that a novelist writes plays, or a playwright writes novels? Is it merely an interest in one or the other exclusively, or do novelists and playwrights individually own some skill unique to their trade? I tried to use James Joyce as an example of one who attempted both forms, but I quit reading Exiles very quickly, because I thought it was complete crap, and I was disappointed in my favorite authorówhich suggested to me that there is an actual difference in skill required. Does anyone have any other examples of playwright-novelists or novelist-playwrights, from which we might glean some assumptions about necessary or inherent skills? Perhaps we could delineate the individual skills by comparison of many writers of both forms. Or just give me your personal opinion on the matter (this doesnít require any actual support.) If you feel comfortable with one form or the other, would you consider it a definite challenge to attempt to produce a work in the opposing one? Do you think it merely a matter of mindset? Being a novelist does not necessarily give one an aptitude for poetry (James Joyce is, Iím sad to say, also an example of this.) Could the same maxim apply to plays as well? Thatís all; Iím sure you get the idea.
    These fragments I have shored against my ruins

    James Joyce, the pirate. Why don't you write books people can read? -Nora Barnacle

    Insupportable claim: Reading my stories will make you a better person. Do your best to prove me right. http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=20367

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Several have tried, but the only one I think that was successful is Beckett. Probably becuase the craft of stage presentations requires many years of apprentiship.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

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    Registered Usher vili's Avatar
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    There certainly are numerous writers who were skilled as both novelists and dramatists. Just from the top of my head, the following names come to mind: Henry Fielding, Goethe, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Jean Genet, Patrick White, Robertson Davies, A. A. Milne, Thornton Wilder, Sartre... I'm sure there are countless others.

    Personally, I don't think that a novelist cannot with just a bit of effort be a dramatist or the other way around. That said, they are different disciplines for sure, and the methodology involved is radically different between the two. Like Virgil wrote (in this thread, not two millennia ago), one needs to have an understanding of stage craft and stage timing to be able to write for the stage. On the other hand, to be a novelist requires a different set of qualities.

    I would also imagine that much depends on, say, the type of novels one writes. I couldn't think of someone like James Fenimore Cooper being a great dramatist even if he tried, considering that he seems to struggle with dialogue even in his novels. (Funnily enough, a quick search turns out that he actually wrote one play: Upside Down: or Philosophy in Petticoats.)

    On the other hand, one would not imagine someone like Beckett to make a very good novelist based on his plays, but apparently he could pull it off -- I have never read any of his novels, but the criticism I have met through researching his plays seems to be fairly positive. And Virgil (again in this thread, not two millennia ago) also seems to confirm this.

    Looking at the list of names that I could come up with, I also wonder whether it used to be easier to be both a novelist and a playwright than it perhaps is these days. With the increasing commercialisation of the arts, has it perhaps simply become too much of a hassle trying to convince your agent that it is worth the while pursuing both genres? Are the publishing and performance deals perhaps so difficult to get hold of these days that once you get one you are pretty much satisfied with it and don't bother to pursue the other? Similarly, with theatres so pressured to turn a profit, is it rarer these days for them to try to lure in big-name novelists for the novelty's sake?

    It is for sure an interesting question that you are posing.

    PS. It must also partly be a matter of taste, of course. I don't seem to be able to get tuned with any of James Joyce's novels or short stories (and I'd love to be able to!), but Exiles I really quite liked. And although the play has perhaps never been very popular, it has certainly received a lot of critical attention. Joyce's fame as a novelist, of course, must be one of the primary reasons for that, but I still think that Exiles is an interesting little play.

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Great post, Vili. Very insightful.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." Ė St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    V.E. Sweets
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    Well, now I'm no expert on this, but obviously to be a good playwright you have to be really good with writing dialogue- and I think thatís what probably makes writing plays more difficult, you really only have dialogue to work with. Whereas with writing short stories or novels you might not even need to have dialogue.

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    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    What an interesting question!

    Somerset-Maugham was successful as a playwright and as a novelist. However, I have never read any of his plays, although I have read many of his novels. Is this simply because his novels are more accessible? Plays are meant to be performed, after all, so you need actors, a theatre and an audience. An individual can pick up a novel. Or it may be that I am just ill-read.

    Hardy's play "The Dynasts" hmm.

    The dialogue argument sounds good. Dumas has been mentioned, and his novels have a high proportion of dialogue. But Kipling? He was a wizard with dialogue, but is not known for writing plays (except Aladdin, maybe ) So ability to write dialogue is necessary but not sufficient for the writing of plays.

    Don't know.

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Whifflingpin View Post
    So ability to write dialogue is necessary but not sufficient for the writing of plays.

    Don't know.

    .
    Yes, lots of great novelists can write great dialogue but are not playwrights for whatever reason. Hemmingway comes to mind. The two crafts while similar in some respects are very different in others.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." Ė St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    X (or) Y=X and Y=-X Jean-Baptiste's Avatar
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    Wow! Excellent replies!

    I must admit that I had not made much of an attempt to ennumerate for myself the many novelist/playwrights; I was relying entirely on you lot to do that for me, which seems to be a very beneficial method.

    vili, your thoughts are much appreciated.
    I could not think of James Fenimore Cooper as a great novelist anyway.
    to be a novelist requires a different set of qualities.
    I'd be very interested in what you think those qualities are.
    I like the point you make about commercialization.
    Perhaps I should give Exiles another go.

    Jamesian: I wonder if you could provide a more indepth perspective on Henry James' contributions. Could you find a point of comparison between his novels and plays, in style or tone or whatnot? He definitely has a distinct "Jamesian" voice in his prose, from what I've read--does this carry through to his plays? If not, why not? What could be considered markedly different in the two.

    Virgil: I have only read Waiting for Godot by Beckett, and it did not appeal to me. (You just didn't get it, they all scream in chorus.) Oh, I get it. Perhaps I should attempt his prose.

    Whifflingpin: I'm a great fan of Maugham's novels, the few that I've read. I have not read any of his plays either. Perhaps I could look into them for a comparison.

    Yes, V.E., that does sound like a good argument about dialogue.
    Conversely then, do plays have an element that is strictly off-limits for novels, in the same way that a play cannot take advantage of the extended use of narrative and description available to the novelist?

    There are some examples of prose that I would liken to play form. As Virgil mentioned, Hemingway: His "Hills Like White Elephants" is an incredibly sparse example of prose, and makes great use of dialogue. The majority of that story is dialogue, and it is relied upon to carry the entirety of the information presented. Of course, when we read it in class most of the students had no idea what it was about, or what the characters were talking about, but I thought it was brilliant.
    These fragments I have shored against my ruins

    James Joyce, the pirate. Why don't you write books people can read? -Nora Barnacle

    Insupportable claim: Reading my stories will make you a better person. Do your best to prove me right. http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=20367

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    Registered Usher vili's Avatar
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    I'm not sure if I can actually answer what the set of qualities required for being a novelist and/or a dramatist are. I think it depends quite a bit on the writer's personality and style as well. Some writers seem to take their skills from one literary genre to another with no complications. Others, meanwhile, appear to reinvent their style completely.

    A very interesting example of the latter is Patrick White, whose novels and plays are in their style, scope and focus markedly different. Of course, this is not hugely surprising considering the type of language and pacing that he uses in his novels. Take for example the first paragraphs of his novel Voss:

    'There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,' said Rose.

    And stood breathing.

    'What man?' asked the young woman, who was engaged upon some embroidery of a difficult nature, at which she was now forced to look more closely, holding the little frame to the light. 'Or is it perhaps a gentleman?'

    'I do not know,' said the servant. 'It is a kind of foreign man.'

    Something had made this woman monotonous. Her big breasts moved dully as she spoke, or she would stand, and the weight of her silences impressed itself on strangers. If the more sensitive amongst those she served or addressed failed to look at Rose, it was because her manner seemed to accuse the conscience, or it could have been, more simply, that they were embarrassed by her harelip.

    'A foreigner?' said her mistress, and her Sunday dress sighed. 'It can only be the German.'
    Now, I don't unfortunately have any of White's plays here with me, but I'm sure you get the point. What is above, and indeed in rest of the novel Voss, simply wouldn't work as a play. The focus would have to be elsewhere.

    Yet, White's plays are really interesting. And although they are extremely different from his novels, there is still that something in them that has that "Patrick White" stamp on them.

    So, what I suppose I am saying that while writing plays and writing novels both require a different set of qualities, I think the actual set of those qualities is largely dictated by your own goals and needs as a writer. If that makes any sense?

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    X (or) Y=X and Y=-X Jean-Baptiste's Avatar
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    Yes, I imagine that it would depend greatly on the individual writer how they might go about switching genres.

    I am wondering about Gertrude Stein's contribution (if it can be called that) to literature, and her mode of writing (what she called) plays. Her prose, poetry, and plays are like nothing I've ever read [witnessed]. They are all three very different in quality and structure, and yet retain consistently her brand of brilliance/crap. (I am severely torn in my opinion of her, as you might have gathered.) Anyway, perhaps I'm asking for a means of stripping the writer from the literature--divesting it of all traces of an individual intellect--and examining whatever is leftover. I know this seems tantamount to asking for a simple definition of a play or a novel, and perhaps that's essentially all I'm after, but I would like it to be in more universal terms than that.

    How about this. Do you think, assuming that it is possible to strip a piece of literature of its author, that one would come to the same conclusion in each successive instance of doing so of what a play is, or what a novel is? If so much of one's ability to switch from play to novel and back is indeed individual, it seems there would not be an answer to what is fundamentally a play, or a novel.

    That is very confusing. I'll try to think of a better way of posing the question.
    These fragments I have shored against my ruins

    James Joyce, the pirate. Why don't you write books people can read? -Nora Barnacle

    Insupportable claim: Reading my stories will make you a better person. Do your best to prove me right. http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=20367

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    Registered Usher vili's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jean-Baptiste View Post
    If so much of one's ability to switch from play to novel and back is indeed individual, it seems there would not be an answer to what is fundamentally a play, or a novel.
    I'm not sure if this is valid reasoning. Perhaps we are confusing ability and knowledge here? Or maybe I misunderstand your point in some way.

    I am pretty sure that anyone with the basic familiarity with plays and novels (and the ability to produce language) can write plays or novels. Whether those are good or interesting plays or novels is another question. But if it is a definition of drama that you are after, I am pretty sure we can tell a Martian what he is supposed to write, and he can write us a play or a novel (all Martians of course speak English, as we well know from Hollywood movies ).

    Furthermore, I think that in the case of both novels and drama it is easier to define what the two can be, and much harder to say what they cannot be. Especially the history of the novel has been a continual struggle to write the "anti-novel". Yet, we nevertheless sort of have a basic understanding of what a novel is and how it differs from, say, a play. There probably are cases of plays that blur the line between drama and novels, but as I said, the definition should probably be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

    What I therefore seem to be suggesting here is that the issue of switching between novels and drama is, on the very fundamental level, not so much a skill-related issue, but only a knowledge-related one. You need to know (consciously or otherwise) the conventions of the genre, and off you go.

    Most of us, however, censor ourselves. And if you don't end up pleasing yourself with your exploration of the previously unfamiliar genre, you probably quit writing. Here is where ability, then, comes to the picture.

    So, the bottom line of my post here is:
    1) Anyone can ("has the ability to") write plays, but
    2) Perhaps not everyone can write plays that are that worthwhile to recognise

    It seems to me that your thread-opening post was about the second point, while your latest post is more about the first one?

    Does this make any sense?

    PS. I am trying to avoid the whole "death of the author" issue here. I have all the respect towards Barthes and the post-structuralist enterprise, but I personally tend to think that the author is dead only if we as the readers decide to kill him. The power is with us.

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    X (or) Y=X and Y=-X Jean-Baptiste's Avatar
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    That is entirely reasonable. I've been trying to think of a way of modifying my question, but I've been unsuccessful. You have cleared things up for me though.

    However, I have thought of a slightly different angle: Can we assume that both genres spring from a common ancestor in poetic verse? If so, is there a distinct line of inherited traits passed from poetry to one of these genres and not the other? I make this assumption of preturient lineage on the grounds that Vico says that the first men were naturally poets. What conclusions or assumptions can you draw from this? (I'm sure this line of reasoning has been traced many times, but I haven't come across it yet.)
    These fragments I have shored against my ruins

    James Joyce, the pirate. Why don't you write books people can read? -Nora Barnacle

    Insupportable claim: Reading my stories will make you a better person. Do your best to prove me right. http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=20367

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    Registered Usher vili's Avatar
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    Can we assume that both genres spring from a common ancestor in poetic verse?
    I'm not so sure. Drama certainly has at least some of its origins also in religious rituals, which go back to who knows when. Poetic verse, or at least rhyme, was on the other hand supposedly a mnemonic tool in the beginning.

    If so, is there a distinct line of inherited traits passed from poetry to one of these genres and not the other?
    I don't know. It is (again) an interesting question, but how much historical developments in the end have to do with what goes on in drama and novel-writing these days? Obviously, historical issues have probably modified the "definition" of drama and novels, and therefore what we expect from them. (Which, as I wrote earlier, actually seems to be something novels have always played with.) But I'm not so sure if we can say that the two originate from the same starting point.

    I think my responses in this thread are getting less and less helpful. Sorry about that.

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