All About Theater

How to Write a Play
by Ernest Legouvé 

You ask me how a play is made.

By beginning at the end.

A novel is quite a different matter.

Walter Scott, the great Walter Scott, sat down of a morning at his study-table, took six sheets of paper and wrote 'Chapter One,' without knowing anything else about his story than the first chapter. He set forth his characters, he indicated the situation; then situation and characters got out of the affair as best they could. They were left to create themselves by the logic of events.

Eugène Sue often told me that it was impossible for him to draw up a plan. It benumbed him. His imagination needed the shock of the unforeseen; to surprize the public he had to be surprized himself. More than once at the end of an instalment of one of his serial stories he left his characters in an inextricable situation of which he himself did not know the outcome.

George Sand frequently started a novel on the strength of a phrase, a thought, a page, a landscape. It was not she who guided her pen, but her pen which guided her. She started out with the intention of writing one volume and she wrote ten. She might intend to write ten and she wrote only one. She dreamed of a happy ending, and then she concluded with a suicide.

But never have Scribe, or Dumas _père_, or Dumas _fils_, or Augier, or Labiche, or Sardou, written "Scene One" without knowing what they were going to put into the last scene. A point of departure was for them nothing but an interrogation point. "Where are you going to lead me?" they would ask it; and they would accept it only if it led them to a final point, or to the central point which determined all the stages of the route, including the first.

The novel is a journey in a carriage. You make stops, you spend a night at the inn, you get out to look at the country, you turn aside to take breakfast in some charming spot. What difference does it make to you as a traveler? You are in no hurry. Your object is not to arrive anywhere, but to find amusement while on the road. Your true goal is the trip itself.

A play is a railway journey by an express train--forty miles an hour, and from time to time ten minutes stop for the intermissions; and if the locomotive ceases rushing and hissing you hiss.

All this does not mean that there are no dramatic masterpieces which do not run so fast or that there was not an author of great talent, Molière, who often brought about his ending by the grace of God. Only, let me add that to secure absolution for the last act of 'Tartuffe' you must have written the first four.

Ernest Legouvé.

Ernest Legouvé (1807-1903) was the collaborator of Scribe in the composition of 'Bataille de Dames' and 'Adrienne Lecouvreur.' In his delightful recollections, 'Soixante Ans de Souvenirs' he has a chapter on Scribe in which he describes the methods of that master-craftsman in dramatic construction; and in one of his 'Conférences Parisiennes' he sets forth the successive steps by which another dramatist, Bouilly, was able to compound his pathetic piece, the 'Abbé de l'Epée';--two papers which deserve careful study by all who wish to apprehend the principles of playmaking.

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