There is a secret life to plays. There are secrets that few know that can’t be explained. So many books about the rules of playwriting state that are no rules to playwriting. It’s extremely frustrating and still I buy these books in the hope of one making sense. I recently finished ‘The Secret Life of Plays’ by Steve Waters. You have to plough through over two hundred pages of nonsense for the gems of truth. For example: “Scenes, then, are units of dramatic energy, the muscles that drive the play forward.” If a scene does not propel, it does not matter.
Unfortunately, before you read ‘The Secret Life of Plays’, there’s a lot of homework. It assumes you’ve read the plays used as examples. And if like me you’re not familiar with every single word of Shakespeare, you may struggle. I was lost in a lot of places but I still highlighted a lot of it for future use. Maybe I’ll try again when I’ve read all the plays; it’ll probably make more sense.
There are better books about playwriting that I always refer back to. My favourite isn’t actually available anymore and that’s ‘Arguments for a Theatre’ by Howard Barker. I don’t actually like many of Barker plays, even after studying them excessively. But this little 90-page book and contains one of my favourite quotes:
“An honoured audience will quarrel with what it has seen, it will go home in a state of anger, not because it disapproves, but because it has been taken where it was reluctant to go. Thus morality is created in art, by exposure to pain and the illegitimate thought.”
This book is fetching £25 on Amazon and my copy has £4.99 printed on the back. I wish this was still true because every playwright should own this book.
One that is still available is ‘The Three Uses of the Knife’ by David Mamet. “I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws away.” Mamet talks about writing without fear but still maintaining structure and purpose. If there is a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third act. Advise I still use, everything in my plays is placed with purpose. It will cause a bang.
There are some more obvious books that every playwright has picked up in their time like ‘Brecht on Theatre’ and ‘Story’ by Robert McKee but I think these two are lesser known gems. Both of these books are covered in scribbles and highlights from my younger self and are books I shall be using for a very long time. I’ve also been given great advice from one of my lectures at university. Liz Kuti told me if I wanted to be better at writing plays, I had to read more plays. I watch many but haven’t seen how they look in black and white. Time to do more of that.