The curtain rises on a play

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Fourth in a series. You’ll probably want to start here.

This much I knew: I wanted to be a writer. After all, I was distantly related to Henry Fielding, author of “Tom Jones” and other comedies, satires, and plays in pre-Revolutionary England.

Henry Fielding, after William Hogarth, line engraving, after 1762. NPG D11271 © National Portrait Gallery, London

There he is, off to the right. Handsome devil, no? You can see the family resemblance. I wanted to know more about him, perhaps follow in his footsteps.

So as an English major at an Ivy League college, I shied away from any creative writing classes and focused instead on study of 18th century English literature. I learned that old Henry was a lawyer, journalist, early novelist, satirist, critic, and playwright.

In retrospect, I guess that makes for even more of a family resemblance. I’ve dabbled in those fields as well. Everyone thought I should be a lawyer, but I had more fun as a satirist and writing humor for publications. That’s what brought me to The Reader’s Digest, and what brought to my attention a story that would haunt me for most of my life.

But how to tell it?

Learn something practical!

Not many employers are looking for people with a resume from the 18th century. But an English major at the time was considered good training for the law. You read a lot. You wrote a lot. You compared different works, learned to think critically.

But then, just about anything was considered good training for the law. There was no such thing as “pre-law” because law school taught you to “think like a lawyer.” You might as well enjoy your undergraduate studies while you still had a mind of your own.

What my mind enjoyed was theater criticism, even though my only experience on stage was in high school. I was arts editor for The Dartmouth, America’s oldest (some said oddest) college newspaper. So I took some of the Drama department’s courses to boost my street cred. The one that I had signed up for in the winter term of 1976 was Drama 30, Playwriting.

If the objective of the course is to “write the best one-act play he or she is capable of writing,” that seemed a low enough bar. And even though it was supposedly offered as Credit/No Credit, it was commonly known to insiders as “Write a Play and Get an A.”

Dartmouth’s Officers, Regulations, and Courses catalog offered Drama 30, Playwriting, for Winter 1976. (Thanks to Scout Noffke, Reference & Administrative Specialist, Rauner Special Collections Library)

With law school admissions looming and borderline honors credits, I could use that A. There was only one problem: As I walked into the classroom that Monday in January, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about.

Write what you know?

First page of my Drama 30 notebook, Monday, January 5, 1976.

I toted my trusty green spiral-bound, three-subject notebook with the Dartmouth seal on the cover to a small classroom in one of the ancient, whitewashed halls in Dartmouth Row. There, Professor John Finch, chairman of the Drama Department, gave us the basics of playwriting–and all writing, for that matter:

  • Plot–the story from beginning to end.
  • Action–what the audience will see of the plot. The point of attack might actually take place far along in the plot. (Whoa! Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it later.)
  • Conflict–which causes suspense and makes the audience want to know what comes next.

A story idea, he told us, might come from any number of “germs”–characters, places, objects, habitual actions. He said sources for the plot might be people we know, school, news and current events, earlier literary works, overheard remarks, even dreams.

The one idea that hit home most with me, though, was:

“Write about what you know, but don’t write about yourself.”

prof. John finch

So, of course, I’m violating that rule here. But I’m not writing a play, I’m writing about writing a play. There’s a difference.

Isn’t there?

Avoiding pitfalls

Then there was a long list of things to avoid:

  • Don’t use a narrator crutch. (He’s right. I was the narrator in a high school play, and it was juvenile. Even old Henry Fielding inserted himself into some of his plays, which are pretty well forgotten now for good reason.)
  • Avoid excessive violence.
  • Avoid language for shock value, because you can’t shock people anymore. (This was the 1970s!)
  • Don’t write plays about lunatics, who are usually irresponsible and hence uninteresting.
  • Don’t write about the last people on earth, or people isolated by natural disaster. (Tell that to fans of the Walking Dead.)
  • Don’t write about artists. (He didn’t say why, but probably for the same reason not to write about lunatics.)
  • Don’t write propaganda plays. “Don’t let your characters know what you think.”

Now that we knew what to do and not do, he said, we should decide where to start and end the story. Once we had the material, we should get to know the characters.

Even at this point in the very first class, I had hit all the check boxes. Thanks to my internship, I had a story with conflict among great characters–Houdini, Doyle, Margery. And I knew those characters very well.

Or so I thought.

“Write honestly,” he ended the first class. “Write an honest play.”

I was ready to jump in, but first he wanted a plot outline and notes. More on that later. And before that, our first assignment was to write an icebreaker exercise of a dialogue. I have that, too. It’s awful. Should I put it on the “Outtakes and Bloopers” page?

Well, I did anyway. So there.

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