-- Beth Henley
This section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and Kindle editions of Playwriting Seminars.
Plays nearly always tend to be about something that matters. Screenplays have the luxury – assuming you want that – of only needing to be about what-happens-next (for more on this issue see Part Six on Screenwriting). But plays need this something of consequence. Being about something that matters guarantees that a play comes with a theme.
Themes develop from a playwright’s personal values (moral, social, or political) expressed through a play's plot and characters. In a sense, the theme is your moral or ethical position about the story you're telling.
Playwrights don't often think consciously about their themes as they write. Their personal values tend to be so integrated into how they see the world that their themes flow into each play as the dialogue goes on the page. That's why the same theme often shows up in a writer's work from one play to the next. If you're new to dramatic writing, spend some time thinking about what matters to you socially, politically, and ethically as you look at the world and the people around you. Write about this in your journal as a way of clarifying your thinking.
Best Practice: What matters deeply to you will matter to your audience.
A sampling from plays currently in the seasons of regional theatres, ranging from an American classic to recent premieres.
1. David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. Believing in racial stereotypes will blind you to reality.
2. Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. A heavy price was paid by women who were the professional career path-makers and breakers of the 1970's.
3. Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. It's a crime not to follow your heart's desires.
4. Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Overly sensitive people are crippled by the lies of the world we live in.
5. Michael Hollinger’s Opus. Staying together emotionally is even harder than playing together harmoniously.
6. Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Parents who can’t release their children create havoc in their lives.
Most playwrights express their themes with considerable subtlety. That's the difference between having a theme and a message. If your primary goal is get across a message, there are probably more effective ways of doing that than writing a play, though one of the attractions of docudramas is that they can carry a significant message with ease.
Nearly all contemporary playwrights would say it’s a fool’s errand to try writing a play driven consciously by a predetermined theme or message. But it can be tempting to try. Doing this seems especially intriguing since it can be argued that Shakespeare did it with his political tragedies (Hamlet and Macbeth among them) and his history plays, probably to help support the monarchy that allowed his theatre company to operate. If the Bard could make this work, why not try?
The poster-boy for why this practically never works is the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, one of the major dramatists of the 20th century. He tried writing from a theme in most of his great plays including his masterpieces, Mother Courage and Her Children and Galileo. One of the liabilities he had in attempting this was the misfortune to create such compelling characters that they obscured his intended messages, but those characters were only part of the problem.
The main obstacle for Brecht (and contemporary playwrights) is that a playwright’s real themes – those deeply held and integrated personal values – always end up being infused into the play whether they want them there or not. As those values enter the play, they overwhelm and finally bury any consciously intended themes. Brecht’s overriding personal values – the way he lived his entire life – centered on a belief that wily survival skills were essential in the world. It’s no surprise that his major plays have title characters incorporating that same belief toward living and survival. In Mother Courage, he wanted us to take away the message that the title character was a stupid (his word) woman who never learned that the loss of her children and her own near ruin was being caused by her pursuit of capitalist ideas. That intended theme was overwhelmed for audiences by Brecht’s internalized theme: They always saw Mother Courage as a wily survivor fighting to make it against nearly impossible odds. Instead of seeing her as stupid, audiences always saw her as worthy of admiration. Despite reworking the ending of Mother Courage in subsequent years to make his intended theme clearer for audiences, he could never get it to break through his internalized theme.
Best Practice: For messages to work in plays, they need to coincide with your deeply held values.
A second danger in writing from a theme is that it can lead to unconsciously manipulating characters and plots to make the point rather than allowing the conflict between the characters to logically drive the play. The artificiality that nearly always results from this risks turning off audiences, primarily because the logic of the play’s climax and resolution won’t make sense to them. The best approach with themes is to allow them to flow naturally into the play as you write. Since it is nearly impossible to prevent your personal values from flowing into a play (if you take your characters seriously) it makes sense to just let this process happen.