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What does a Playwright do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A playwright is someone who writes plays. Playwrights may also be involved in the staging and marketing of their plays, depending on the type of training they have received and where they have worked. Some notable examples of playwrights include: Zhang Junxiang, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O'Neill, Aeschylus, Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare, Fumiko Enchi, and Mbongeni Ngema.

The practice of staging dramatic productions is ancient, and many cultures have a very long history of producing plays, operas, musicals, and other types of stage performance. The playwright is the person who writes the words of the play and provides rough outlines of staging directions. In some cases, a playwright develops a story and play entirely independently before seeking out a theater to stage the production. In other instances, playwrights are commissioned to write a work, and the person requesting the commission may provide directives, such as a request that the play be a staging of a traditional folktale. Playwrights can also work on adaptations, such as an adaptation of a book so that it can be performed on the stage.

Writing plays is very hard work. Since plays are performed, playwrights need to think about how their work will sound when it is spoken; much like the composition of poetry, the composition of a play must move beyond the way the words look on the page. Especially when a playwright is working on a historical play or a play featuring a different culture, he or she may need to do considerable research to learn about how the characters should speak, and to consider the social norms and morals which would guide the actions of the characters.

In some cases, a playwright may work with another theatrical professional to create a finished piece. For example, with an opera, the music composition and words are usually produced by two different people, a composer and a librettist. The librettist is a highly specialized type of playwright. Playwrights can also work with choreographers on productions which involve dance, and with dramaturgs on some types of work, with the dramaturg providing creative consulting.

In some traditions, the work of the playwright stops with the completion of the written work. In others, playwrights are also directors and sometimes even actors, participating in the staging of their written work. William Shakespeare is a notable example of a playwright who was fully involved in the staging process, a reflection of the way in which the theater of the time was organized.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By BoniJ — On Jun 03, 2011

@chivebasil - I commend you for attempting to write a play. I've written some little kids plays and it wasn't easy.

I guess one thing a playwright has to do is depend on the actors to interpret his or her words, and then use their body language and movement, and also their tone of voice to convey to the audience what the playwright is trying to say.

I think I'll take your challenge and try to write a play!

By sweetPeas — On May 31, 2011

I'd just like to add that black playwrights have not always been given due credit for their contributions to American theater. During slavery and for years to come, minstrel shows were written and were enjoyed by all. I remember performing in some in grade school.

Even the serious plays written after the Civil War were focused on slavery and all the fear and misery the slaves experienced.

It's interesting how the themes of black play writing continued to develop on to accepting or resisting racial feelings, to Civil Rights, to Black Power, to life in urban areas, and to social breakdown.

The black playwrights have done a great job of taking their writing from simple beginnings to a high place. I appreciate their contribution to American literature.

By chivebasil — On May 31, 2011

I have tried to write a few plays in my day and I can attest to how hard it is. I think the biggest challenge is trying to tell a complete story using little more than dialogue. Of course you can include stage directions and other non verbal details, but by and large the entire story is told through the vocal interactions between characters.

It is really a challenging way to work and it is unique to play writing. Filmmakers and fiction writers can rely on lots of visual cues to move the story along that are not available to the playwright. I would invite anyone who doesn't believe me to try it for themselves and see how well it turns out

By nextcorrea — On May 31, 2011

@MrMoody - I have to disagree. While Shakespeare has been a huge influence on every playwright that followed him, I think the Greeks really did establish the formula that is used by most playwrights today.

One reason that they did not write history plays is that there was not a lot of history to draw on. It was still a discipline in its infancy and the Greeks did not have the rich detail to draw on that Shakespeare was able to use to such great effect.

Also, when you read or see a Greek play, it feels largely the same as a modern play (within reason). All the classic elements are there and the experience does not differ in any really significant way.

By MrMoody — On May 31, 2011

@allenJo - I disagree. If you want to know the real beginning of the modern types of plays, you need to look at Shakespeare playwright productions. Shakespeare included the two types of plays you mentioned from the Greeks, but added a third type, history plays as well.

Examples of these kinds of plays were Antony and Cleopatra and Henry III to name a few. I think all modern playwrights look to Shakespeare for their pattern and inspiration.

By allenJo — On May 31, 2011

If you want to see where plays started, check out the Greeks. Greek playwrights were the forebears of most modern playwrights. They invented the tragedy and the comedy, and these have been the basic forms, more or less, carried on in the modern tradition. You can find complete plays online to get a taste of what the Athenian people heard and saw in their local theaters.

By SkyWhisperer — On May 31, 2011

I think one of the challenges for the playwright is when Hollywood purchases rights to a screen adaptation of their plays. In a lot of cases, they ask the playwright to work with them on the screen adaptation to make sure the film version holds true to the original play.

One example of this is the movie Holes. I remember reading Holes a long time ago as a teacher and so I knew the plot well, and was eager to see how it played out on the big screen.

Louis Sachar, the author, was called upon to help write the screenplay version of his work, so he was brought on the set and worked with the filmmakers every step of the way. Holes had a complex plot so I can see why they wanted to work directly with the author to make sure it told the story as he intended.

By Mammmood — On May 31, 2011

One of the first playwrights I read in high school was Anton Checkhov, the Russian playwright. I did this more for pleasure not so much for an assignment or anything like that. I had never heard of Checkhov before but when I read his works I was hooked. The thing that hooked me was the intense emotion in his plays and short stories, borne out of the deep struggles of the Russian people who were trying to make a living on their meager rubles.

After Checkhov I began reading other playwrights like Neil Simon. Of course Simon’s were American plays and unlike Checkhov’s, they were lighter and somewhat comical fare, although they dealt with the issues of everyday living as well.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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