(An Argument for Style)
By: Scott Doughty
Few playwrights tickle my funny bone quite as hard as Noel Coward. If you’ve never experienced one of his plays, they tend to be devilish romps about rich people behaving monstrously. While the plots are never overly complicated, his comedies have delighted audiences for nearly a century for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, they are master classes in wit. Secondly, they are nearly unparalleled in style. They all feature sexy people, in elegant clothes, smoking cigarettes, and flirting over cocktail glasses. In fact, as one critic once said, “if you take the gin and cigarettes away, are you still watching a Coward piece?”
Which brings us to the point of this article. We have the benefit of nearly 100 years of production success to know that Coward’s particular formula works. However, it’s interesting to imagine what it would be like to encounter Private Lives today as an original work from an unknown playwright. I imagine a script development company would see several issues that would need “fixing.” The first element to get chopped would almost certainly be the gin and cigarettes.
See there is this trend, or pressure really, to make scripts lean. Playwrights are encouraged to cut out any story elements that do not directly advance the plot or further a character’s emotional journey. To include such extraneous pieces is considered either naïve or indulgent. Young playwrights are taught that best practice is, invariably, to “kill our darlings”. In other words, great playwrighting requires habitually cutting our favorite pieces from our work.
There is an argument to be made in the other direction, though. What about style? Yes, you must have solid structure. Sure, you must have character development. But to be genuinely great, you must have something more. What is the piece that weaves the magic? What’s the spice that gives this script its particular flavor? Where is that “Je ne sais quoi” that pulls this script out of mediocrity and sets it apart for the ages? What is your version of gin and cigarettes?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting your script will benefit from being indulgent. Much of good writing is, in fact, learning how to accomplish more with less. I’m just saying don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good taste means being able to discern in both directions. It is as important to boldly fight for elements that are working as it is to bravely cut elements that are not. So, if you are a playwright, script doctor, or director… don’t forget the gin and cigarettes.
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