The playwright David Edgar has done much to pioneer the teaching of playwriting in this country, an influence that began even before he established the now famous masters degree in playwriting at Birmingham University.
Edgar lays bare some of the mechanics behind the play in his excellent book How Plays Work, by which title he means “‘how some plays work’, or even ‘how some of some plays work’ or ‘how some of some plays work some of the time’.” Which is almost by way of acknowledging Somerset Maugham’s assertion that “There are three rules for writing…Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
This is a tricky state of affairs for anyone who teaches creative writing, for of course there is no solid body of knowledge to transfer, no strict code of conduct to impress; the best a teacher can offer is some provisional guidelines, tentatively outlined. Unarguable, however, is Edgar’s useful, if necessarily simplified, splitting of the creative process:
The idea was that theatre writing is both an art and a craft, a distinction which could also be expressed as first draft versus second draft, play-writing versus playwrighting, getting it good versus getting it right. Monday and Tuesday thinking became a shorthand: Stephen Lowe’s and later Richard Pinner’s Monday workshops were about fine frenzy, releasing the imagination, letting inspiration take you where it will. While Tuesdays were about creating order out of the chaos, cleaning up, fixing, licking into shape.
The recognition of these two distinguishable, though often intertwined, processes help to shape the manner in which this trail blazing course was taught. In case you were wondering, the fine frenzy reference comes from Act 5 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here it is in its wider context:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination…
So even Shakespeare, it turns out, was interested in laying bare the creative process. First we have the frenzied imagination, in the grip of some strange unconscious force, bodying forth ‘the forms of things unknown’. Only after this initial birthing of ideas can they be given some kind of shape, local habitation and name.
To Theseus this is a ‘trick’, to David Edgar and to other teachers of creative writing, this is the application of ‘technique’, but then, after all, what’s in a name?