I go to plays even though I am convinced, largely from the writings of Elmer Rice, that plays are a limited art form. Rice, who lived from 1892 to 1967, did many things. He wrote several novels and many short stories, essays, book reviews, and movie, television, and radio scripts. He directed and produced stage performances, helped run theater organizations, and was a noted civil libertarian. But first and foremost, Rice was a prolific and successful playwright. About thirty of his plays were produced on Broadway, and some of his two dozen unproduced plays were published. In 1914, when he was only twenty-one, his1914 On Trial stormed Broadway with its new technique of flashbacks. His expressionist The Adding Machine in 1923 helped usher in a new dramatic era. His 1929 naturalistic Street Scene ran for 601 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize. Dream Girl, a delightful comedy, was a hit in 1945. He wrote plays of political comment, including We the People (1933), Judgment Day (1934) and Flight to the West (1940), which provoked controversies. More than four decades after his debut, Cue for Passion (1958) opened on Broadway. As a result of this career, in 1958 a writer in the New York Times labeled him, not extravagantly, “Dean of Playwrights.” A student of the theater, Robert Allan Davison later said, “Throughout a fifty-three-year career, Rice showed genius, talent, and wisdom in his exploration of universal and timeless issues through the finely wrought specifics of his drama. Among the forty of his plays produced or published during his lifetime are some of the finest and most innovative plays in the history of the American Theatre.”
Today, however, even though a play of his is occasionally revived, Elmer Rice is largely forgotten even by the play-going public. He would probably not be surprised by his present obscurity because he maintained that although dramatic masterpieces may always endure, the work of a first-rate playwright was less likely to last than the work of other good writers. Rice thought that plays have a limited lasting potential because they are written to be performed, not merely published and read. He noted that “a play that is unperformed quickly falls into oblivion from which it is seldom rescued,” but a play’s production is an expensive, complicated affair. Large amounts of money and the assembled talents of many are required in addition to an author’s words, and each day a play runs continues to bring significant expenses. A new play almost always has to be instantly successful to last more than a brief time, and if its initial production does not succeed, it is unlikely ever to be produced again. For a play to generate that audience, it must almost always get favorable comments from the handful of critics attending opening night. A result is that few plays are initially produced, few will continue in production or be re-produced, and consequently few will have the chance to endure. Since the producer knows he needs an immediate, sizeable audience to recoup his investment, Rice wrote, “His choice of plays to be produced is determined by his judgment of their potential popularity. This state of things does not make for the choice of plays of great depth or literary value.”
Books are different. Many more books are printed each year than plays are produced. Less money is required to publish a book than to mount a play. Novels, unlike plays, often survive when not immediately successful and even without favorable reviews. While some book reviewers are more influential than others, a book may receive many reviews around the country with none being decisive. And since a distribution system is in place when a book is published, it continues to remain available after its publication date. Rice noted in his 1959 book about the social structure of the theater, The Living Theatre, “Even if time is required to overcome adverse reviews, it costs nothing to keep the books on the shelves while the public demand develops.” Consequently, for books, unlike plays, positive word-of-mouth can build over months and years, bringing new audiences to a book long after it is published.
W. Somerset Maugham is a case in point. He may not be considered a major writer today, but you can still find books containing his stories and novels. As long as you can, Maugham’s works still live as does the work of any novelist or short story writer if there is someone somewhere still reading it. Maugham, however, was also a successful playwright–he had ten plays produced in seven years with several of them running simultaneously in London. Few now have the opportunity to see those stage pieces. Without productions, those works, even if first-rate, cannot live. If he only wrote plays, Maugham’s name would be recognized by almost no one today. Even though successful, Maugham stopped writing plays. He concluded in The Summing Up, a book of reflections, “that a prose play was scarcely less ephemeral than a news sheet” and abandoned the theater.
(concluded on October 26)