Need a stage coach? Why some plays work, and others don’t

We know whether a play such as Andrew Bovell’s Secret River works onstage – but can we explain its effect? AAP Image/Heidrun Löhr

Need a stage coach? Why some plays work, and others don’t

We know whether a play such as Andrew Bovell’s Secret River works onstage – but can we explain its effect? AAP Image/Heidrun Löhr

We all know whether a given play, film or TV drama “works” or not, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint why. This is the first of four articles in which I will try and cast playwriting in a broader light than is usually the case.

Ordinarily playwriting is a matter for “tips” or for critical review – best-practice advice from the producers’ perspective or final judgement from the consumers’.

This kind of talk is useful. But it rarely penetrates to the core of the subject or articulates the significant values it embodies. It often lacks a historical dimension and/ or is insufficient in its technical grasp.

Playwriting is a technology. Just as electric lighting or computer projection are technologies, so is the use of the written word as a means of shaping dramatic “moments”.

In the first millennium BCE the ancient Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, Levantine linear, itself taken from Iron Age Proto-Canaanite. They introduced vowel signs and reversed the flow of inscription, running their sentences – like the one you’re reading now – from left to right.

This reformed approach became the basis for all subsequent European alphabets. The term for the act of writing – γραμμός (in Latin scribio) – expanded to refer to its correlate products. The word “script” retains shades of this complex history, even in the digital era. As if letters had a mysterious agency, like the inventors of runes believed, containing within them the charge of our disruptive imaginations.

Production shot from David Williamson’s Soulmates. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Socrates thought γραμμός dangerous and argued for its suppression. But by the 5th century BCE writing was a ubiquitous part of Mediterranean life, handy for all sorts of religious, commercial and philosophical purposes (we know Socrates’ opinions because his pupil, Plato, wrote them down).

In Athens it was used to record the work of victors in annual play competitions, that their achievements might be remembered and there would be no dispute about who had won.

Play it again

At what point did the Greeks realise what had been performed once could be performed again? That the technology of playwriting allowed the past to return in sensory immediacy? No doubt there was some sort of proto-drama before this but writing supercharged the art-form with the force of an emergent literary expertise.

Has this innovation ever been surpassed?

Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King c. 1896. Wikimedia Commons

When we pick up a copy of Medea or Oedipus The King we engage in an act of a time travel that shoots us back to thoughts and feelings first faced 2,500 years ago. Many things about ancient Greece are unknown to us or unintelligible. But when an actor cries out αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, δύστανος ἐγώ (“woe, woe is me, whither am I born?”) history collapses in an ardent transmigration of souls.

The introduction of written language into live performance was more than an addition to its existing skillset of dance, music and the choral ode. It was a radical escalation of its presence and power, forging a new representation of human experience. Theatre became dramatic, even as the written word took on viral life, via the acting conventions that sprang up around the technology of playwriting.

This was not really a shift from an oral to a written culture, since the spoken word was still the focus of the poet’s craft. It was a new balance between elements such that language could be harnessed as a capital resource.

Every time a drama is presented we engage in the same miraculous inter-temporal act.

What was dead lives again, and will continue to live long after we are dead. Every play contains an infinity of response, freed simply by the desire of artists and audiences to engage with it.

The basics

In all developed countries today drama is a major mode of expression. On stage and screen, it irradiates our lives with its tropes and techniques. The Greeks infused playwriting with basic parameters. These may not be universal but they are certainly robust.

Not every drama has “a story” in the way Aristotle insisted was needed. All display qualities of narrative tension. Not every drama has “characters” in the classical sense or “dialogue” in a conventional one. All contain points of emotional accrual and communicate using language-like means, be this visual image, acoustic vibration or choreographic gesture.

The technology of playwriting changes not only the formal possibilities of theatre but also its social function.

Theatre goes from “being something”, a social ritual, to “saying something”, a creative act. It becomes an intervention, a source of critical knowledge.

It also becomes a threat. After Euripides wrote The Trojan Women, with its implied criticism of Athenian warmongering, he was exiled to Salamis.

Production shot from Kill the Messenger, by Nakkiah Lui. Brett Boardman/ Belvoir St

The history of playwriting is punctuated with repression, punishment and overt control by political authorities looking at it with baleful eyes. It is good to remember that stage censorship in Australia stopped only in the 1970s and the laws pertaining to it have never been officially revoked.

In my next article I will look at Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), an American play. After this, I will examine Duncan Graham’s Cut, an Australian play written in 2011. An old play and a new one.

My perspective will be dramaturgical rather than literary. I will look at what makes these plays “work”; or under what circumstances they will “work”.

In my final article, I will take the insights of this comparative exercise into a historical overview of Australian stage drama.

Why do this?

First, because it is always interesting to know how things tick, and plays are more like car engines than one might imagine.

It’s a craft. You learn it. You do it. You learn it some more. Given talent and application, eventually you do it well. But writing drama is a hard road. Even the best playwrights have produced very few masterpieces.

Second, because Australia is a country that has under-achieved in this art form.

Given our wealth, diversity and level of education, we have not produced the substantial body of dramatic work one might expect. Our film industry is sporadic. Our television drama is forever collapsing into soap. Our memorable stage plays are few.

In 1968, the editor of Oz Magazine, Richard Walsh wrote:

If, as we are continually being told, the Muses are currently undergoing a Renaissance in Australia, Drama appears at this stage to be the last of the famous nontuplets to be delivered and with the lowest birthweight.

Despite the achievements of Australian film, television and theatre since the 1960s, Walsh’s words still ring uncomfortably true.

As a dramaturge and director I have been working with playwrights for more than 30 years. I have commissioned and developed drama for both small companies and large, have advised agencies on their support for new plays, and worked with writers of very different stylistic hue.

I add to this a knowledge of past Australian drama drawn from my job as a theatre historian, from examining the plays others artists have chosen to stage.

John McCallum in his wonderful book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century says plays are “the bones and stones of our theatre”. Whether as historical trace, repertoire choice, adaptation object, or aspirational project, the written play is a major component in stage, screen and television drama. I call it “the device that turns information into experience”.

Contemporary Australia needs a better grasp of playwriting so that playwriting can better represent contemporary Australia. Over the next few weeks I hope to show both how this can be done, and why it is so important.

Expert Database

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 54,400 academics and researchers from 2,115 institutions.

Register now