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How to write a play – a 1916 Guide

How to write a play – a 1916 Guide

How to write a play guide from 1916 on help 2 succeed


Introduction by William Gillette
Letter from Émile Augier
Letter from Théodore de Banville
Letter from Adolphe Dennery
Letter from Alexandre Dumas Fils
Letter from Edmond Gondinet
Letter by Eugène Labiche
Letter by Ernest Legouvé
Letter from Édouard Pailleron
Letter from Victorien Sardou
Letter from Émile Zola
Notes by B.M.

1916 By Dramatic Museum of Columbia University


The impression has always prevailed with me that one who might properly
be classed as a genius is not precisely the person best fitted to
expound rules and methods for the carrying on of his particular branch
of endeavor. I have rather avoided looking the matter up for fear it
might not turn out to be so after all. But doesn’t it sound as if it
ought to be? And isn’t a superficial glance about rather confirmatory?
We do not–so far as I know–find that Shakspere or Milton or Tennyson
or Whitman ever gave out rules and regulations for the writing of
poetry; that Michael Angelo or Raphael was addicted to formulating
instructive matter as to the accomplishment of paintings and frescoes;
that Thackeray or Dickens or Meredith or George Sand were known to have
answered inquiries as to ‘How to write a Novel’; or that Beethoven or
Wagner or Chopin or Mendelsohn paused in the midst of their careers in
order to tell newspaper men what they considered the true method of
composing music. These fortunate people–as well as others of their
time–could so easily be silent and thus avoid disclosing the fact that
they could not–for the lives of them–tell about these things; but in
our unhappy day even geniuses are prodded and teased and tortured into
speech. In this case we may be more than grateful that they are, for the
result is most delightful reading–even tho it falls a trifle short of
its purpose as indicated by the rather far-reaching title.

There are no workable rules for play-writing to be found here–nor,
indeed, any particular light of any kind on the subject, so the letters
may be approacht with a mind arranged for enjoyment. I would be sorry
indeed for the trying-to-be dramatist who flew to this volume for
consolation and guidance. I’m sorry for him any way, but this additional
catastrophe would accelerate my sympathy, making it fast and furious.
Any one sufficiently inexperienced to consult books in order to find out
how to write a play will certainly undergo a severe touch of confusion
in this case, for four of the letter-writers confess quite frankly that
they do not know–two of these thereupon proceeding to tell us, thus
forcibly illustrating their first statement. One author exclaims, “Have
instinct!”–another, “Have genius!” Where these two necessaries are to
be obtained is not revealed. Equally discouraging is the Dumas
declaration that “Some from birth know how to write a play and the
others do not and never will.” That would have killed off a lot of
us–if we had seen it in time.

One approaches the practical when he counsels us to “Take an
interesting theme.” Certainly a workable proposition. Many dramatists
have done that–wherever they could find it. The method is not
altogether modern. Two insist upon the necessity of a carefully
considered plan, while two others announce that it is a matter of no
consequence what one does; and another still wants us to be sure and
begin work at the end instead of the beginning. Gondinet–most
delightful of all–tells us that his method of working is simply
atrocious, for all he asks when he contemplates writing a play is
whether the subject will be amusing to him. Tho that scarcely touches
the question of how to write it, it is a practical hint on favoring
conditions, for no one will dispute that one’s best work is likely to be
preformed when he him self enjoys it. Sardou comes nearest to projecting
a faint ray of practical light on the subject when he avers that there
is no one necessary way to write a play, but that a dramatist must know
where he is going and take the best road that leads there. He omits,
however, to give instructions about finding that road–which some might
think important.

The foregoing indicates to some extent the buffeting about which a
searcher for practical advice on play-writing may find himself subject
in this collection of letters. He had better go for mere instruction to
those of a lower order of intellect, whose imaginative or creative
faculties do not monopolize their entire mental area.

But that will hardly serve him better, for the truth is that no one can
convey to him–whether by written words or orally–or even by signs and
miracles–the right and proper method of constructing a play. A few
people know, but they are utterly unable to communicate that knowledge
to others. In one place and one only can this unfortunate person team
how to proceed, and that is the theatre; and the people to see about it
there are situated in front of the foot-lights and not behind them.

A play or drama is not a simple and straight-told story; it is a
device–an invention–a carefully adjusted series of more or less
ingenious traps, independent yet inter-dependent, and so arranged that
while yet trapping they carry forward the plot or theme without a break.
These traps of scene, of situation, of climax, of acts and tableaux or
of whatever they are, require to be set and adjusted with the utmost
nicety and skill so that they will spring at the precise
instant and in the precise manner to seize and hold the
admiration–sympathy–interest–or whatever they may be intended to
capture, of an audience. Their construction and adjustment–once one of
the simplest–is now of necessity most complicated and intricate. They
must operate precisely and effectively, otherwise the play–no matter
how admirable its basic idea–no matter how well the author knows life
and humanity, will fail of its appeal and be worthless–for a play is
worthless that is unable to provide itself with people to play _to_.
The admiration of a few librarians on account of certain arrangements
of the words and phrases which it may contain can give it no value as
drama. Such enthusiasm is not altogether unlike what a barber might
feel over the exquisite way in which the hair has been arranges on
a corpse; despite his approval it becomes quite necessary to bury it.

The play-writer’s or playwright’s work, then, supposing that he
possesses the requisite knowledge of life as it is lived to go on with,
is to select or evolve from that knowledge the basic idea, plot or
theme, which, skillfully displayed, will attract; and then to invent,
plan, devise, and construct the trap wherein it is to be used to snare
the sympathies, etc., of audiences.

But audiences are a most undependable and unusual species of game. From
time immemorial their tastes, requirements, habits, appetites,
sentiments and general characteristics have undergone constant change
and modification; and thus continues without pause to the present day.
The dramatic trap that would work like a charm not long ago may not work
at all to-day; the successful trap of to-day may be useless junk

It must be obvious, then, that for light and instruction on the
judicious selection of the bait, and on the best method or methods of
devising the trap wherein that bait is to be displayed (that is to say
the play) but one thing can avail; and that one thing is a most diligent
and constant study of the habits and tastes of this game which it is our
business to capture–if we can. To go for information about these things
to people sitting by their firesides dreaming of bygone days, or,
indeed, to go to anyone sitting anywhere, is merely humorous. The
information which the dramatist seeks cannot be told–even by those who
know. For the gaining of such knowledge is the acquirement of an
instinct which enables its possessor automatically to make use of the
effective in play-writing and construction and devising, and
automatically to shun the ineffective. This instinct must be planted and
nourisht by more or less (more if possible) _living_ with audiences,
until it becomes a part of the system–yet constantly alert for the
necessary modifications which correspond to the changes which the tastes
and requirements of these audiences undergo.

An education like this is likely to take the dramatist a great deal of
time–unless he is so fortunate as to be a genius. Perhaps the main
difference between the play-writing genius and the rest of us is that he
can associate but briefly with audiences and know it all, whereas we
must spend our lives at it and know but little. I have never happened to
hear of a genius of this description; but that is no argument against
the possibility of his existence.

As to the talented authors of these letters, they know excellently
well–every one of them–how to write a play–or did while still
alive–even tho some of them see fit to deny it; but they cannot tell
_us_ how to do it for the very good reason that it cannot be told.
Their charming efforts to find a way out when cornered by such an
inquiry as appears to have been made to them are surely worth all
their trouble and annoyance–not to speak of their highly
probable exasperation.

William Gillette
(May, 1916)

* * * * *

How to Write a Play


From Émile Augier.

My dear Dreyfus:

You ask me the recipe for making comedies. I don’t know it; but I
suppose it should resemble somewhat the one given by the sergeant to the
conscript for making cannon:

“You take a hole and you pour bronze around it.”

If this is not the only recipe, it is at least the one most followed.
Perhaps there should be another which would consist in taking bronze and
making a hole thru the center and an opening for light at the end. In
cannon this hole is called the core. What should it be called in
dramatic work? Find another name, if you don’t like that one.

These are the only directions I can give you. Add to them, if you wish,
this counsel of a wise man to a dramatist in a difficulty:

“Soak your fifth act in gentle tears, and salt the other four with
dashes of wit.”

I do not think that the author followed this advice.

Cordially yours,

E. Augier

* * * * *


From Théodore de Banville.

My dear friend:

Like all questions, the question of the theater is infinitely more
simple than is imagined. All poetics, all dramatic criticism is
contained in the admirable dictum of Adolphe Dennery: “It is not hard to
succeed in the theater, but it is extremely hard to gain success there
with a fine play.”

To see this clearly you must consider two questions which have no
relation to each other:

1. How should one set about composing a dramatic work which shall
succeed and make money?

2. How shall one set about composing a dramatic work which shall be fine
and shall have some hope of survival?

Reply to the first question: Nothing is known about it; for if anything
were known every theater would earn six thousand francs every evening.
Nevertheless, a play has some chance of succeeding and earning money if,
when read to a naïf person, it moves him, amuses him, makes him laugh or
weep; if it falls into the hands of actors who play it in the proper
spirit; and if at the public performance the leader of the _claque_ sees
no hitch in it.

Reply to the second question: To compose a dramatic work which shall be
fine and shall live, have genius! There is no other way. In art talent
is nothing. Genius alone lives. A poet of genius combines in himself all
poets past and future, just as the first person you meet combines in
himself all humanity past and present. A man of genius will create for
his theater a form which has not existed before him and which after him
will suit no one else.

That, my friend, is all that I know, and I believe that anything further
is a delusion. Those who are called “men of the theater” (that is, in
plain words, unlettered men who have not studied anywhere but on the
stage) have decreed that a man knows the theater when he composes
comedies according to the particular formula invented by M. Scribe. You
might as well say that humanity began and ended with M. Scribe, that it
is he who ate the apple with Eve and who wrote the ‘Legendes des
Siècles,’ Good Luck!

Yours truly,

Théodore de Banville

* * * * *


From Adolphe Dennery.

Take an interesting theme, a subject neither too new nor too old,
neither too commonplace or too original,–so as to avoid shocking either
the vulgar-minded or the delicate-souled.

Adolphe Dennery.

* * * * *


From 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_.

* * * * *


From Edmond Gondinet.

My dear friend:

What is my way of working? It is deplorable. Do not recommend it to any
one. When the idea for a play occurs to me, I never ask myself whether
it will be possible to make a masterpiece out of it; I ask whether the
subject will be amusing to treat. A little pleasure in this life tempts
me a great deal more than a bust, even of marble, after I am gone. With
such sentiments one never accomplishes anything great.

Besides, I have the capital defect for a man of the theater of never
being able to beat it into my head that the public will be interested in
the marriage of Arthur and Colombe; and nevertheless that is the key to
the whole situation. You simply must suppose the public a trifle
naïf,–and be so yourself.

I should be so willingly, but I can’t bring myself to admit that others

For a long time I imagined that the details, if they were ingenious,
would please the public as much as an intrigue of which the ultimate
result is usually given in the first scene. I was absolutely wrong, and
I have suffered for it more than once. But at my age one doesn’t reform.
When I have drawn up the plan, I no longer want to write the piece. You
see that I am a detestable collaborator. Say so, if you speak to me, but
don’t hold me up as a model.

Edmond Gondinet.

* * * * *


FROM Eugène Labiche.

Everyone writes in accordance with his inspiration and his temperament.
Some sing a gay note, others find more pleasure in making people weep.

As for me, this is my procedure:

When I have no idea, I gnaw my nails and invoke the aid of Providence.

When I have an idea, I still invoke the aid of Providence,–but with
less fervor, because I think I can get along without it.

It is quite human, but quite ungrateful.

I have then an idea, or I think I have one.

I take a quire of white paper, linen paper–on any other kind I can
imagine nothing–and I write on the first page:


By the plan I mean the developed succession, scene by scene, of the
whole piece, from the beginning to the end.

So long as one has not reached the end of his play he has neither the
beginning nor the middle. This part of the work is obviously the most
laborious. It is the creation, the parturition.

As soon as my plan is complete, I go over it and ask concerning each
scene its purpose, whether it prepares for or develops a character or
situation, and then whether it advances the action. A play is a
thousand-legged creature which must keep on going. If it slows up, the
public yawns; if it stops, the public hisses.

To write a sprightly play you must have a good digestion. Sprightliness
resides in the stomach.

Eugène Labiche.

* * * * *


From 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

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

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.

* * * * *


From Édouard Pailleron.

You ask me how a play is made, my dear Dreyfus. I may well astonish you,
perhaps, but on my soul and honor, before God and man, I assure to you
that I know nothing about it, that you know nothing, that nobody knows
anything, and that the author of a play knows less about it than any one

You don’t believe me?

Let us see.

Here is a capable gentleman, a man of the theater, a dramatist acclaimed
a score of times, at the height of his powers, in full success. He has
written a comedy. He has bestowed upon it all his care, all his time,
all his ability. He has left nothing to chance.

He has just finisht it, and is content. According to the consecrated
expression, it is “certain to go.” But as he is cautious, he does not
rely entirely upon his own opinion. He consults his
friends–fellow-workers, skillful as he, successful as he. He reads to
them his piece. I will not say that they are satisfied–another word is
needed–but at any rate, with more reason than ever, it is “certain to

He seeks out a manager, an old stager who has every opportunity for
being clear-headed, because of his experience, and every reason for
being exacting, because of his self-interest. He gives him the
manuscript, and as soon as the manager gets a fair notion of the piece,
this Napoleon of the stage, this strategist of success, is seized by a
profound emotion, but one easy to comprehend in the case of a man who is
convinced that five hundred thousand francs have just been placed in his
hand. He exults, he shouts, he presses the author in his arms, he rains
upon him the most flattering adjectives, beginning with “sublime” and
mounting upward. He calls him the most honied names: Shakspere, Duvert
and Lauzanne, Rossini, Offenbach–according to the kind of theater he
directs. He is not only satisfied, he is delighted, he is radiant–it is
“certain to go.”

Wait! That is not all. It is read to the actors–the same enthusiasm!
All are satisfied, if not with the play–they have not heard it yet–at
least with their parts. All are satisfied! It is “certain to go.”

Thereupon rehearsals are held for two months before those who have the
freedom of the theater, who sit successively in the depths of the dark
hall and show the same delirium. Even the sixty firemen on duty who,
during these sixty rehearsals, have invariably laught and wept at the
same passages. Yet it is well known that the fireman is the modern
Laforêt of our modern Molières, as M. Prud’homme would say, and that
when the fireman is satisfied–it is “certain to go!”

The dress rehearsal arrives. A triumph! Bravos! Encores! Shouts!
Recalls! All of the signs of success–and note that the public on this
evening of rehearsal with the exception of a small and insignificant
contingent, will be the public of the first performance the next night.
It is “certain to go,” I tell you! Certain! Absolutely certain!

On this next night the piece is presented. It falls flat! Well, then?

If the author knows what he is doing, if he is the master of his
method, explain to me then why, after having written twenty good pieces,
he writes a bad one?

And don’t tell me that failure proves nothing–you would pain me, my

I do not intend to deny, you must understand, the value of talent and
skill and experience. They are, philosophically speaking, important
elements. But in what proportions do they contribute to the result?
That’s what, let me repeat, nobody knows, the author as little as
anybody else.

The author in travail with a play is an unconscious being, whatever he
may think about himself; and his piece is the product of instinct rather
than of intention.

Believe me, my dear Dreyfus, in this as in everything, the cleverest of
us does what he can, and if he succeeds, he says that he has done
exactly what he tried to do. That’s the truth. In reality an author
knows sometimes what he has tried to do, rarely what he has done;–and
as to knowing how he did it, I defy him!

Then if it is good, let him try again! I cannot recede from this view.

In our craft, you see, there is an element of unrebeginnable which
makes it an art, something of genius which ennobles it, something of the
fatally uncertain which renders it both charming and redoubtable. To try
to pick the masterpiece to pieces, to unscrew the ideal, to pluck the
heart out of the mystery, after the fashion of the baby who looks for
the little insect in the watch, is to attempt a vain and puerile thing.

Ah! if I had the time–but I haven’t the time. So it’s just as well, or
better, that I stop. To talk too much about art is not a good sign in an
artist. It is like a lover’s talking too much about love; if I were a
woman I should have my doubts.

Well, do you wish me to disengage the philosophy of this garrulity? It
is found whole and entire in an apolog of my son–he too a philosopher
without knowing it. He was then seven. As a result of learning fables he
was seized with the ambition of writing one, which he brought to me one
fine day. It is called the ‘Donkey and the Canary.’ The verses are
perhaps a trifle long, but there are only two. That’s the compensation.
Here they are.

The canary once sang; and the ass askt him how he could learn this to

“I open my bill,” said the bird; “and I say you, you, you!”

Well, the ass, that’s you–don’t get angry. The canary, that’s I. When I
sing I open my bill and I say, “you, you, you!”

That’s all that I can tell you.

Édouard Pailleron.

* * * * *


From Victorien Sardou.

My dear friend:

It’s not so easy to answer you as you think. …There is no one
necessary way of writing a play for the theater. Everyone has his own,
according to his temperament, his type of intellect, and his habits of
work. If you ask me for mine, I should tell you that it is not so easy
to formulate as the recipe for duck _à la rouennaise_ or spring chicken
_au gros sel_. Not fifty lines are needed, but two or three hundred, and
even then I should have told you only my way of working, which has no
general significance and makes no pretense to being the best. It’s
natural with _me_, that’s all. Besides, you will find it indicated in
part in the preface to ‘La Haine’ and in a letter which I wrote to La
Pommeraye about ‘Fédora.’

In brief, my dear friend, tho there are rules, and rules that are
invariable, precise, and eternal for the dramatic art, rules which only
the impotent, the ignorant, blockheads, and fools misunderstand, and
from which only they wish to be freed, yet there is only one true method
for the conception and parturition of a play–which is, to know quite
exactly where you are going and to take the best road that leads there.
However, some walk, others ride in a carriage, some go by train, X
hobbles along, Hugo sails in a balloon. Some drop behind on the way,
others run past the goal. This one rolls in the ditch, that one wanders
along a cross-road.

In short, that one goes straight to the mark who has the most common
sense. It is the gift which I wish for you–and myself also.

Victorien Sardou.

* * * * *


From Émile Zola.

My dear Comrade:

You ask how I write my plays. Alas! I should rather tell you how I do
not write them.

Have you noticed the small number of new writers who take their chances
in the theater? The explanation is that in reality, for our generation
of free artists, the theater is repugnant, with its cookery, its
hobbles, its demand for immediate and brutal success, its army of
collaborators, to which one must submit, from the imposing leading man
down to the prompter. How much more independent are we in the novel! And
that’s why, when the glamor of the footlights makes the blood dance, we
prefer to exercise it by keeping aloof and to remain the absolute
masters of our works. In the theater we are asked to submit to too much.

Let me add that in my own case I have harnessed myself to a group of
novels which will take twenty-five years of my life. The theater is a
dissipation which I shall doubtless not permit myself until I am very

After all, if I could indulge in the theater. I should try to _make_
plays much less than is the custom. In literature truth is always in
inverse proportion to the construction. I mean this: The comedies of
Molière are sometimes of a structure hardly adequate, while those of
Scribe are often Parisian articles of marvellous manufacture.

Very cordially yours,

Émile Zola.

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ABRAHAM DREYFUS (1847-) was the author of half a dozen ingenious little
plays, mostly confined to a single act. One of them, ‘Un Crane sans un
Tempête,’ adapted into English as the ‘Silent System,’ was acted in New
York by Coquelin and Agnes Booth. Dreyfus was also the author of two
volumes of lively sketches lightly satirizing different aspects of the
French stage,–‘Scènes de la vie de théâtre’ (1880) and ‘L’Incendie des
Folies-Plastiques’ (1886).

In the Spring of 1884 he delivered an address on the art of playmaking
before the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire of Brussels. This lecture was
entitled ‘Comment se fait une pièce de théâtre;’ and it was printed
privately in an edition limited to fifty copies, (Paris: A. Quantin,
1884). In the course of this address he read letters received by him
from ten or twelve of the most distinguisht dramatists of France in
response to his request for information as to their methods of
composition. It was to these letters that the lecture owed its interest
and its value. What M. Dreyfus contributed himself was little more than
a running commentary on the correspondence that he had collected. This
commentary was characteristically clever, brisk, bright and amusing; but
its interest was partly personal, partly local, and partly contemporary.
The interest of the letters themselves is permanent; and this is the
reason why it has seemed advisable to select the most significant of
them and to present them here unincumbered by the less useful remarks of
the lecturer.

Émile Augier (1820-1889) disputes with Alexandre Dumas the foremost
place among the French dramatists of the second half of the nineteenth
century. The ‘Gendre de M. Poirier’ (which he wrote in collaboration
with Jules Sandeau) is the masterpiece of modern comedy, a worthy
successor to the ‘Tartuffe’ of Molière and the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ of

Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) was a poet rather than a playwright.
Altho he composed half-a-dozen little pieces in verse, the only one of
his dramatic efforts which really succeeded in establishing itself on
the stage, was ‘Gringoire,’ a one-act comedy in prose; and this met with
a more fortunate fate than its more fantastic companions only because
Banville revised and strengthened his plot in accordance with the
skilful suggestions of Coquelin, who “created” the part of the starving

Adolphe Dennery (1811-1899) was the most adroit and fertile of
melodramatists in the midyears of the nineteenth century. Perhaps his
best play was ‘Don César de Bazan’; and perhaps his most popular play
was the ‘Two Orphans.’

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.

Edmond Gondinet (1828-1888) was the author of a host of pleasant pieces,
mostly comedies in from one to three acts, and mostly written in
collaboration. He believed that he preferred to write alone and that
only his good nature kept tempting him into working with others. It was
probably to warn away those who wanted to bring him their manuscripts
for expert revision that led him to assert in this letter that he was “a
detestable collaborator.”

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.

Eugène Labiche (1815-1888) was the most prolific of the comic dramatists
of France in the nineteenth century and the most richly endowed with
comic force. Most of his pieces are frankly farcical, but not a few of
them rise to the level of true comedy. The solid merit of his best work
is cordially recognized in the luminous preface written by Augier for
the complete collection of Labiche’s comedies.

Édouard Pailleron (1834-1899) was a comic dramatist of more aspiration
than inspiration; and yet he succeeded in writing one of the most
popular pieces of his time;–the ‘Monde où l’on s’énnuie.’

Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) was probably the French playwright who was
most widely known outside of France. In the course of fifty years he was
successful in almost every kind of playwriting, from lively farce to
historic drama. His first indisputable triumph was with ‘Pattes de
Mouche,’ known in English as the ‘Scrap of Paper’ and as widely popular
in our language as in the original.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) was a novelist who repeatedly sought for success
as a dramatist, attaining it only in the adaptations of his stories made
by professional playwrights. Yet one of his earlier pieces, ‘Thérèse
Raquin’ is evidence that he might have mastered the art of the
playwright, if he had not allowed himself to be misled by his own
unfortunate theory of the theatre as set forth in his severe studies of
‘Nos Auteurs Dramatiques’ (1881).

In the ‘Année Psychologique’ for 1894 the distinguisht physiological
psychologist, the late Alfred Binet,–to whom we are indebted for the
useful Binet tests–publisht a series of papers dealing with the
psychology of the playwright, in the preparation of which he was aided
by M.J. Passy. The two investigators had a series of interviews with
Sardou, Dumas _fils_, Pailleron, Meilhac, Daudet, and Edmond de
Goncourt. Altho Daudet and Goncourt had written plays they were
essentially novelists with no instinctive understanding of the drama as
a specific art. Nor did either Pailleron and Meilhac make any
contribution of importance. But Dumas and Sardou were both of them born
playwrights of keen intelligence, having a definite understanding of the
principles of playmaking; and what they said to M. Binet and his
associate was interesting and significant.

Dumas declared that he made no notes for any of his plays and that he
never composed a detailed scenario. He thought of only one piece at a
time, brooding over it for long months sometimes, and then throwing it
on paper almost at white heat, if it dealt with passion. If, on the
other hand, it was a comedy of character, a study of social conditions,
the actual composition was necessarily more leisurely and protracted. He
had carried in mind for six or seven years the theme of ‘Monsieur
Alphonse;’ and he had actually put it on paper in seventeen days. He had
written the ‘Princesse Georges’ in three weeks and the ‘Etrangère’ in a
month; and the second act of the ‘Dame aux Camélias’ had been penned in
a single session of four hours. But he had toiled seven or eight hours a
day for eleven months over the ‘Demi-Monde,’ the second act alone
costing him two months labor. He rarely modified what he had written by
minor corrections; but sometimes, when his play was completed, he
discovered that it was weak in its structure or inadequate in its
motivation, in which case he reconstructed one or more acts, or even the
whole play, writing it all over again.

M. Dumas admitted that he took little interest in the setting of his
plays or in the manifold details of stage-management. He indicated
summarily the kind of room that he desired; and he put down in his
manuscript only the absolutely necessary movements of his characters.
The rest he left to the manager and the stage-manager.

Here–as indeed everywhere,–Dumas revealed himself in the sharpest
contrast with Sardou, who designed his sets himself and placed his
furniture precisely where he needed it for the action of his play,
sometimes finding that a given scene seemed to him to lose half its
effect if it was acted on the left side of the stage instead of the
right. He was a constant note-taker, putting down suggestions for single
scenes or for striking suggestions, as these might occur to him; and as
a result of this incessant cerebral activity he had always on hand more
or less complete plots for at least fifty plays. When he decided to
write one of these pieces, he assembled his scattered notes, set them in
order, amplified and strengthened them; and when at last he saw his way
clear he made out an elaborate and detailed scenario, containing the
whole story, with ample indication of all the changes of feeling which
might take place in any of the characters in any scene.

Then when he felt himself in the right mood, he feverishly improvized
the play, laughing over the jokes, weeping over the pathetic moments and
objurgating the evil deeds of the more despicable characters. But this
was only a first draft of the play; and it had to be gone over three or
four times, altered, condensed, sharpened, tightened in effect. The
first version was always too long; and the successive revisions reduced
it to scarcely more than a half of its original length. Sometimes he was
able to compact into a single pregnant phrase the substance of a speech
of many lines. And as the play slowly took on its final form Sardou not
only heard every word which every character had to speak, he also saw
every one of the movements which would animate the action. M. Binet
reminded him that when Scribe and Legouvé were collaborating on
‘Adrienne Lecouvreur,’ Scribe asserted that he visualized all that the
actors would do, while Legouvé heard all that they would say; and Sardou
then claimed that he was fortunate in possessing the double faculty of
both seeing and hearing.

Of course, Sardou stage-managed his plays himself, teaching the
performers carefully, and going upon the stage, if need be, to act the
scene as he wanted it to be acted, indicating the expression, the
intonation and the gesture which he felt to be demanded by the

He was equally meticulous in designing the scenery and the costumes; and
he was inexorable in insisting on the carrying out of his wishes. He had
a lively interest in painting, in sculpture and in architecture; and, in
fact, he confest, that if he had not been a playwright he would like to
have been an architect. This, it may be noted, is conformation of the
statement that there is a strong similarity between the art of
architecture and the art of the drama, due to the fact that both arts
are under the necessity of providing a solid structure to sustain the
fabric and to support the decoration.


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