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How to write a popular play.

By Bernard Shaw
1
The formula for the well made play is so easy that I give it for the
benefit of any reader who feels tempted to try his hand at making the
fortune that awaits all manufacturers in this line. First, you "have an
idea" for a dramatic situation. If it strikes you as a splendidly
original idea, whilst it is in fact as old as the hills, so much the
better. For instance, the situation of an innocent person convicted by
circumstances of a crime may always be depended on. If the person
is a woman, she must be convicted of adultery. If a young officer, he
must be convicted of selling information to the enemy, though it is
really a fascinating female spy who has ensnared him and stolen the
incriminating document. If the innocent wife, banished from her
home, suffers agonies through her separation from her children, and,
when one of them is dying (of any disease the dramatist chooses to
inflict), disguises herself as a nurse and attends it through its dying
convulsion until the doctor, who should be a serio-comic character,
and if possible a faithful old admirer of the lady's, simultaneously
announces the recovery of the child and the discovery of the wife's
innocence, the success of the play may be regarded as assured if the
writer has any sort of knack for his work. Comedy is more difficult,
because it requires a sense of humor and a good deal of vivacity; but
the process is essentially the same: it is the manufacture of a
misunderstanding. Having manufactured it, you place its
culmination at the end of the last act but one, which is the point at
which the manufacture of the play begins. Then you make your first
act out of the necessary introduction of the characters to the
audience, after elaborate explanations, mostly conducted by
servants, solicitors, and other low life personages (the principals
must all be dukes and colonels and millionaires), of how the
misunderstanding is going to come about. Your last act consists, of

course, of clearing up the misunderstanding, and generally getting


the audience out of the theatre as best you can.
Now please do not misunderstand me as pretending that this process
is so mechanical that it offers no opportunity for the exercise of
talent. On the contrary, it is so mechanical that without very
conspicuous talent nobody can make much reputation by doing it,
though some can and do make a living at it. And this often leads the
cultivated classes to suppose that all plays are written by authors of
talent. As a matter of fact the majority of those who in France and
England make a living by writing plays are unknown and, as to
education, all but illiterate. Their names are not worth putting on the
playbill, because their audiences neither know nor care who the
author is, and often believe that the actors improvise the whole
piece, just as they in fact do sometimes improvise the dialogue. To
rise out of this obscurity you must be a Scribe or a Sardou, doing
essentially the same thing, it is true, but doing it wittily and
ingeniously, at moments almost poetically, and giving the persons of
the drama some touches of real observed character...
2: WHY THE CRITICS ARE ALWAYS WRONG
Now it is these strokes of talent that set the critics wrong. For the
talent, being all expended on the formula, at least consecrates the
formula in the eyes of the critics. Nay, they become so accustomed
to the formula that at last they cannot relish or understand a play that
has grown naturally, just as they cannot admire the Venus of Milo
because she has neither a corset nor high heeled shoes. They are like
the peasants who are so accustomed to food reeking with garlic that
when food is served to them without it they declare that it has no
taste and is not food at all.
This is the explanation of the refusal of the critics of all nations to
accept great original dramatists like Ibsen and Brieux as real
dramatists, or their plays as real plays. No writer of the first order
needs the formula any more than a sound man needs a crutch. In his

simplist mood, when he is only seeking to amuse, he does not


manufacture a plot: he tells a story. He finds no difficulty in setting
people on the stage to talk and act in an amusing, exciting or
touching way. His characters have adventures and ideas which are
interesting in themselves, and need not be fitted into the Chinese
puzzle of a plot.
3: THE INTERPRETER OF LIFE
But the great dramatist has something better to do than to amuse
either himself or his audience. He has to interpret life. This sounds a
mere pious phrase of literary criticism; but a moment's consideration
will discover its meaning and its exactitude. Life as it appears to us
in our daily experience is an unintelligible chaos of happenings. You
pass Othello in the bazaar in Aleppo, Iago on the jetty in Cyprus,
and Desdemona in the nave of St. Mark's in Venice without the
slightest clue to their relations to one another. The man you see
stepping into a chemist's shop to buy the means of committing
murder or suicide, may, for all you know, want nothing but a liver
pill or a toothbrush. The statesman who has no other object than to
make you vote for his party at the next election, may be starting you
on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a
smallpox epidemic or five years off your lifetime. The horrible
murder of a whole family by the father who finishes by killing
himself, or the driving of a young girl on to the streets, my be the
result of your discharging an employee in a fit of temper a month
before. To attempt to understand life from merely looking on at it as
it happens in the streets is as hopeless as trying to understand public
questions by studying snapshots of public demonstrations. If we
possessed a series of cinematographs of all the executions during the
Reign of Terror, they might be exhibited a thousand times without
enlightening the audiences in the least as to the meaning of the
Revolution: Robespierre would perish as "un monsieur" and Marie
Antoinette as "une femme." Life as it occurs is senseless: a
policeman may watch it and work in it for thirty years in the streets

and courts of Paris without learning as much of it or from it as a


child or a nun may learn from a single play by Brieux. For it is the
business of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the
chaos of daily happenings and arrange them so that their relation to
one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered
spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious
of the world and its destinies. This is the highest function that man
can perform--the greatest work he can set his hand to; and this is
why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides and
Aristophanes to Shakespeare and Molire, and from them to Ibsen
and Brieux, take that majestic and pontifical rank which seems so
strangely above all the reasonable pretensions of mere strolling
actors and theatrical authors.
4: HOW THE GREAT DRAMATISTS TORTURE THE PUBLIC
Now if the critics are wrong in supposing that the formula of the
well made play is not only an indispensable factor in playwriting,
but is actually the essence of the play itself--if their delusion is
rebuked and confuted by the practice of every great dramatist, even
when he is only amusing himself by story telling, what must happen
to their poor formula when it impertinently offers its services to a
playwright who has taken on his supreme function as the Interpreter
of Life? Not only has he no use for it, but he must attack and destroy
it; for one of the very first lessons he has to teach to a play-ridden
public is that the romantic conventions on which the formula
proceeds are all false, and are doing incalculable harm in these days
when everybody reads romances and goes to the theatre. Just as the
historian can teach no real history until he has cured his readers of
the romantic delusion that the greatness of a queen consists in her
being a pretty woman and having her head cut off, so the playwright
of the first order can do nothing with his audiences until he has
cured them of looking at the stage through a keyhole, and sniffing
round the theatre as prurient people sniff round the divorce court.
The cure is not a popular one. The public suffers from it exactly as a

drunkard or a snuff taker suffers from an attempt to conquer the


habit. The critics especially, who are forced by their profession to
indulge immoderately in plays adulterated with falsehood and vice,
suffer so acutely when deprived of them for a whole evening that
they hurl disparagements and even abuse and insult at the merciless
dramatist who is torturing them. To a bad play of the kind they are
accustomed to they can be cruel through superciliousness, irony,
impatience, contempt, or even a Rouchefoucauldian pleasure in a
friend's misfortune. But the hatred provoked by deliberately inflicted
pain, the frantic denials as of a prisoner at the bar accused of a
disgraceful crime, the clamor for vengeance thinly disguised as
artistic justice, the suspicion that the dramatist is using private
information and making a personal attack: all these are to be found
only when the playwright is no mere marchand de plaisir, but, like
Brieux, a ruthless revealer of hidden truth and a mighty destroyer of
idols.