On Plays vs. Novels and Control

Fiction writers can be a twitchy, temperamental bunch, and the thing that makes us grow fangs even faster than being asked “Where do you get your ideas?” and “But, seriously, how do you make a living?” is the issue of control. What we lack in power over the real world–we’re usually broke and our collective influence is dwarfed by that of pop stars, politicians, celebrities, and accountants with good Twitter followings during tax season. But the one thing in this whole stinking world we can rule over is the page, and, because this is our one and only power, we guard it jealously.

But this power functions differently in prose fiction than in the theatre.

When I write a novel, I am its Lord. Its characters are my servants. They work for me. They do my bidding, exploring the themes I want them to explore in an environment I built specifically for them. Every letter in every word of their every thought is one I put on the page.

What about editors? What about them? They can cajole. They can badger. They can stamp their feet and hold their breath until blue, but unless I agree with what they’re saying, they can do nothing about what’s on the page. My publisher even gives me veto power over covers and back cover copy.

And I should say that I love this power. I certainly do. I don’t get an ermine cape or a gold scepter with it, but it feels both right and delicious. At least it does until my car starts acting up and I wonder if the mechanic will take a signed copy of my latest in lieu of the money I don’t have. (That hasn’t worked yet. If you know somebody, leave a note in comments.)

In the theatre, the playwright’s power is also absolute, at least insofar as a dissatisfied scribe can shut down an entire production if demands aren’t met. But this is the nuclear weapon of authorial power moves: ill advised unless you’re big enough to take heavy casualties and survive. It’s usually better for a playwright to understand that the job demands surrendering a certain measure of control.

After all, a script is not a finished work yet. It’s a guide for the director, actors, set designers, costumers, lighting designers, property masters, and sound engineers who are charged with creating the finished work: a work that, unlike a book or even a film, will vanish as it’s consumed. Through their combined effort, they’ll take the playwright’s script and imbue it with their interests, passions, biases, personal histories, and, with luck, their talents. And in the end, the creation belongs to all of them, for better or for worse.

That’s the part of playwriting that I like, that I’ve missed for a while, and that I’m raring to see again. I can’t wait to see what the director and actors come up with for Dr. Kritzinger’s 12 O’Clock. Even now I wonder which line reading I’ll hear that will stun me, or which gesture or facial expression will make me see the play differently from when it was words on a page. Once I’m done writing a book, it’s through surprising me. But a play changes with every production, even with every performance. A play, unlike a novel, can grow beyond my control.

Power is a marvelous thing. So, sometimes, is giving up a (tiny) bit of it.


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