Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Novelists and playwrights do different things

"It's a curious fact that very few writers have ever been able to write both good novels and good plays," argues Philip Hensher in the Guardian.

James Joyce's only play, Exiles, is so weak it is rarely staged. (It happens to be playing now at London's National Theatre; ticket prices vary from £28 to £10.)

Henry James wrote a few plays but it took awhile to convince someone to produce his work on stage; finally, Guy Domville got a chance before a live audience:

The first night of Guy Domville was one of the most famous theatrical disasters of the 19th century. The play staggered on for only five weeks, almost never to be staged again. A glance at the text shows why: the plot is something about a Catholic priest renouncing his vocation, delivered in the novelist's famous subtle dialogue, which proved impossible to speak on stage with any conviction.
And there are very few notable playwrights who have found success with the novel.

Why can't writers of one form thrive in the other? It's simple:
A novelist and a playwright might seem to be doing similar things. In fact, the tasks are quite different. Dialogue and external action are only two of the novelist's tasks; they have to flesh out the world with evocations of place, of physical appearance, the sense of time passing. A playwright's task is more austere. There's no alluding to people's thoughts in the lazy way of novelists: playwrights have to do everything through the way their people talk, and the way they move and act in tangible ways. A playwright venturing into the novel won't necessarily know how to write a description, where you can usefully allude to something unseen, or how to move from place to place. A playwright's tools are more refined; a novelist's toolbox is bigger.
There are exceptions. Hensher singles out Michael Frayn among contemporary writers.
And there is one author who decisively disproves the idea that you can't be both a great dramatist and a great novelist. Whether Chekhov's plays are greater than his short stories, or vice versa, can be debated endlessly. For my part, I think the stories take it by a nose. But what you can't doubt is that, for once, the experience of writing plays fed into the fiction; the power of Chekhov's fiction shaped his drama. Many of his short stories begin with a lovely, dramatically striking tableau: the curtain metaphorically rises and, say, "Paul Rashevich paced up and down, stepping softly on the rug-covered floor" (At a Country House). The later plays find ways to put the physical richness and density of the stories on to a stage: think of the ensemble cast and allusively interior quality of The Cherry Orchard.
Then again, Chekhov's genius is for the short story, not the novel. But the difference between good novelists and good short story writers is a theme for another day.

Click here to read the complete Hensher article.

Click here for a brief profile of Chekhov, who said: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

--Marshal Zeringue