I think a well-crafted play requires…RETHINKING!
We’re not making tiny ships to fit in glass bottles, we’re not making fine wine (again, made to fit in glass bottles), we’re not creating anything that can be weighed or measured or quantified. Not really.
We are making stories that look, at first glance, like writing. But that’s an illusion. The play is not the ink laid out on dead leaves. The play needs to be taken from the page, played on the tongue, worked through the body, and made alive on the air. The play is alive, moment to moment, whether in the rehearsal room or in the theater. The play goes on living in the imagination. The imagination of the director, the actor, the patron, even the playwright. The work of the play is to keep the mind occupied long enough to steal the heart of the viewer.
Well-crafted? Perhaps. But not always, and to my taste, rarely.
Look at the work of Sara Kane. Raw talent that squishes your lungs out in broad, clumsy mashing and scratches. reading her work changed the way I write, and it also changed the way I look at the world.
What about early Tony Kushner? The man grabbed on to big themes and big problems and organized them around the notion of angels, going as far as having one break through a ceiling. Who doesn’t recognize that moment now? At the time it was crazy. What guts to actually lay it on the page so that we could someday be in the room with it.
Plays are flawed creations. They have problems. It’s not the work of the playwright to smooth out things and make them tidy, palatable. The work of the playwright is to make the world of the play so compelling, to make the problems so interesting, that some director picks up the play and says, “I want to solve this problem.” It’s the problems, the grit, the contradictions, the impossibility contained within the play that makes it exciting, immediate, and interesting.
Craft? I heard Romulus Linney say that, “The craft of writing plays is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.” That’s craft.
A great play? It comes out of craft, but goes beyond that into something truer. And we know truth when it’s in the room with us because it will allow itself to be messy and flawed while in our presence. Good manners are for Sundays. Theater is a Saturday night occupation.