All About Theater

How To Write a Play
by Alexandre Dumas (Fils) 

My dear fellow-craftsman and friend:

You ask me how a play is written. You honor me greatly, but you also greatly embarrass me.

With study, work, patience, memory, energy, a man can gain a reputation as a painter, or a sculptor, or a musician. In those arts there are material and mechanical procedures that he can make his own, thanks to ability, and can attain to success. The public to whom these works are submitted, having none of the technical knowledge involved, from the beginning regard the makers of these works as their superiors: They feel that the artist can always reply to any criticism: "Have you learned painting, sculpture, music? No? Then don't talk so vainly. You cannot judge. You must be of the craft to understand the beauties," and so on. It is thus that the good-natured public is frequently imposed on, in painting, in sculpture, in music, by certain schools and celebrities. It does not dare to protest. But with regard to drama and comedy the situation is altered. The public is an interested party to the proceedings and appears, so to speak, for the prosecution in the case.

The language that we use in our play is the language used by the spectators every day; the sentiments that we depict are theirs; the persons whom we set to acting are the spectators themselves in instantly recognized passions and familiar situations. No preparatory studies are necessary; no initiation in a studio or school is indispensable; eyes to see, ears to hear--that's all they need. The moment we depart, I will not say from the truth, but from what they think is truth, they stop listening. For in the theater, as in life, of which the theater is the reflexion, there are two kinds of truth; first, the absolute truth, which always in the end prevails, and secondly, if not the false, at least the superficial truth, which consists of customs, manners, social conventions; the uncompromising truth which revolts, and the pliant truth which yields to human weakness; in short, the truth of Alceste and that of Philinte.

It is only by making every kind of concession to the second that we can succeed in ending with the first. The spectators, like all sovereigns--like kings, nations, and women--do not like to be told the truth, all the truth. Let me add quickly that they have an excuse, which is that they do not know the truth;--they have rarely been told it. They therefore wish to be flattered, pitied, consoled, taken away from their preoccupations and their worries, which are nearly all due to ignorance, but which they consider the greatest and most unmerited to be found anywhere, because their own.

This is not all; by a curious optical effect, the spectators always see themselves in the personages who are good, tender, generous, heroic whom we place on the boards; and in the personages who are vicious or ridiculous they never see anyone but their neighbors. How can you expect then that the truth we tell them can do them any good?

But I see that I am not answering your question at all.

You ask me to tell you how a play is made, and I tell you, or rather I try to tell you, what must be put into it.

Well, my dear friend, if you want me to be quite frank, I'll own up that I don't know how to write a play. One day a long time ago, when I was scarcely out of school, I asked my father the same question. He answered: "It's very simple; the first act clear, the last act short, and all the acts interesting."

The recipe is in reality very simple. The only thing that is needed in addition is to know how to carry it out. There the difficulty begins. The man to whom this recipe is given is somewhat like the cat that has found a nut. He turns it in every direction with his paw because he hears something moving in the shell--but he can't open it. In other words, there are those whom from their birth know how to write a play (I do not say that the gift is hereditary); and there are those who do not know at once--and these will never know. You are a dramatist, or you are not; neither will-power nor work has anything to do with it. The gift is indispensable. I think that every one whom you may ask how to write a play will reply, if he really can write one, that he doesn't know how it is done. It is a little as if you were to ask Romeo what he did to fall in love with Juliet and to make her love him; he would reply that he did not know, that it simply happened.

Truly yours,

A. Dumas fils

Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895) was the son of the author of the 'Three Guardsmen'; and he inherited from his father the native gift of playmaking, which he declared in this letter to be the indispensable qualification of the successful dramatist. His 'Dame aux Camélias' has held the stage for more than sixty years and has been performed hundreds of times in every modern language.

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