The Playgoer: Novelist-Playwrights

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Novelist-Playwrights

Philip Hensher, in the Guardian, takes the opportunity of a new production of James Joyce's rare Exiles at the Royal National to expostulate on: why do great novelists make such bad playwrights? Okay, unsuccessful, or "problematic" playwrights. And vice-versa.

Personally I don't feel this is destiny and I'd like to see more "cross-polination" of good writers working in many media. But it's possible that geniuses find their one form, and have trouble expressing it in others.

6 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

It's not always true (Camus and Sartre did ok, DH Lawrence made a good fist of a play, etc) but on the other hand - have you ever tried to read Tolstoy's plays? Sheer torment. James Kelman, the staggeringly amazing Scots novelist, writes surprisingly staid plays. Etc. And he's right, Exiles is basically bad Ibsen.

However, I take exception to Hensher's comments about Beckett's plays and how they are impossible to differentiate from his prose. This kind of negates utterly the theatrical aesthetic of Beckett (fed, as I discovered in Dublin recently, by his deep knowledge of visual art)...

J. Kelly said...

That article seems mainly concerned with British novelists. It's pretty hit and miss in the United States, I'd say. I kind of like Don Delillo's plays, personally. Then there's Cormac McCarthy who, like Delillo had a new show in Steppenwolf's season this year... Who else?
Up in Canada, Anne-Marie MacDonald made her name as a playwright (Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet) before she was on Oprah's book club for Fall On Your Knees. Robertson Davies was one of our most important early playwrights, even if his plays aren't put on much anymore. Michel Tremblay's novels are as good as his plays -- and his characters go back and forth between them.
Timothy Findley's plays were all right; Tomson Highway's novel was too.
I don't think there's any particular rule that a novelist can't write good plays, any more than there's a rule that poet and journalists can't write good plays...

Anonymous said...

I think this assumption (and it is an assumption) is part of a late twentieth-century, English-language tradition. Marivaux was a successful novelist and playwright. So was Tolstoy and Gogol. Chekhov is perhaps known is Russia first for his prose. DeLillo, McCarthy, and many other contemporary novelists are not; however, that doesn't mean its any kind of cosmic rule!

The Playgoer said...

Yes, any idea of this as a "rule" would be silly. And thank you for reminding us of Chekhov. Duh!

Or is he that "exception that proves the rule"??? One could argue, to play devil's advocate, that what he did to drama was give it the depth of character of prose fiction.

Anyway, rule or not, it's interesting to ponder the fates of those who have tried to cross over. Even while we regret the artificial separating of the "disciplines."

Anonymous said...

Even if you argue that Chekhov prose-a-tized drama, his innovation irrevocably changed the course of theatre by serving as a model for many generations of writers.

Wodehouse was also a successful playwright (even if Psmith works much better on the page!), and I guess many people have their opinions on the quality or lack of either Gore Vidal's novel or his play.

And there's Tennesee Williams's short stories, a bunch of mid-century Polish playwrights (Witkiewicz, Mrozek, Gombrowicz) were well-know novel or short story writers, and while it's easy to bash Joyce's stage work, what about his fellow countrymen Wilde and Beckett?

Overkill, I know, but it's a fun kind of game to think of whose had crossover success and not. Now, for the screenwriter/novelist divide...

SlimAndSlam said...

Lest we forget among our contemporary novelists/playwrights: Michael Frayn.