“Most playwrights contain more than three participants.”

He manages “playwrights,” which most of my students spell “playwrites,” with aplomb; perhaps he’s so sure of himself that he doesn’t then read the sentence he wrote (and wrought).

Does he in fact think that “playwright” is the long form of “play”? There is that remote possibility. The less real reading our students do (fiction, non-technical and non-instructional nonfiction, and preferably from the printed page in a calm atmosphere), the less sensitivity they seem to have to language use. They happily embrace trendy neologisms and misapplications; they equate passive voice with professionalism; they jumble formal, informal, and slang terms and patterns indiscriminately; they prefer the long general word over the short specific word every time. Maybe this student thought “plays” looked too much like recreation and added “wrights” to give it heft.

I speculate on this because if he meant to write about playwrights, the rest of the sentence just doesn’t work on any level, beginning with the word “contain.”

The most probable explanation is that he unintentionally deleted the phrase “write scenes that” immediately after “playwrights.” The sentence wouldn’t necessarily be true, especially nowadays with our one- and two-actor plays (and small production budgets), but at least it would make sense.

I prefer to think that he’s expressing a deeper insight: that playwrights have, within them and available, multiple personae. After all, Shakespeare is so elusive to us as a person partly because so many of his characters, from leads down to bit parts, have so much presence, so much person-hood if you will, that he himself seems to be all of them. He contained hundreds of participants. Many writers of plays and fiction have commented that once established early in a work, the characters they create seem to take over the plot and development, through the force of their early dialogue developing motives and from those motives deciding on actions that the writer may not have anticipated or intended: a life of their own. Speaking from my own experience: I have written only one full-length play, and it a parody/satire; but even characters so derivative began to move and breathe and feel, to the extent that I sometimes felt they were writing their own dialogue—no small feat in a play written entirely in iambic pentameter!

I’m sure that I corrected the hell out of that sentence on my poor student’s paper, but I think that now, for awhile at least, I’ll let myself believe what I’ve imagined here and give him credit not for an honest mistake (that possible phrase-deletion) but for a genuine insight ineptly phrased.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

4 responses to ““Most playwrights contain more than three participants.”

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