Why TV is Poaching Playwrights and How to Get Them Back

year of lear
The Year of Lear

A few days ago, I read a review by Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books of James Shapiro’s latest book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which, if it is even half as good as Shapiro’s previous A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, will be worth every minute spent reading it. In the review, O’Toole notes that, with the arrival of James I in 1603 to succeed Elizabeth I, things changed dramatically for Shakespeare’s company. Previously known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company was immediately claimed by James as his own and renamed the King’s Men. James loved theater, which was great for finances but had its challenges. “This royal patronage,” O’Toole writes,

imposed new demands. Typically, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had performed for Elizabeth two or three times a year. As the King’s Men, they performed for James nine times in 1603–1604, ten times the following year, and ten times again in 1605–1606—more court appearances in the first three years of James’s reign than in all of Elizabeth’s. Shapiro reckons that around twenty of Shakespeare’s previously written plays were probably staged for James in these years.


The royal demand for more Shakespeare plays had grown but the supply was running short. By his own prodigious standards, Shakespeare was in a relatively fallow period. In those first three years of the Jacobean era, he wrote just two plays, “Measure for Measure” and “Timon of Athens” (with Thomas Middleton), even though he was no longer appearing as an actor at the Globe and presumably had more time to write. He seems to have been spending more time in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, using his earnings from his theatrical career to build up his status as a prosperous landowner. Whatever the reason, Richard Burbage, who played all of the main tragic roles in the King’s Men, had to admit to the court in January 1605 that they had “no new play that the queen has not seen” and could offer only an old comedy, “Love’s Labours Lost”. Their star playwright would have to get his acts together.

And that is exactly what Shakespeare did. In a single astonishing year, “Shakespeare finished the first version of King Lear, probably wrote all of Macbeth, and almost certainly wrote and staged Antony and Cleopatra.” Read that sentence again: King LearMacbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In one year. One. Year. It occurred to me that this was a perfect example of what can be done by a seasoned playwright at the height of his powers responding to the needs of a company that serves an interested audience.

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Tony Kushner

A look at our contemporary seasoned playwrights and how long it takes them to get a play produced reveals an entirely different situation. Shakespeare was 42 years old in 1606 when he ground out three masterpieces in a single year. How does this compare to Tony Kushner, for instance, a seasoned playwright with a style and expansive vision suitable to be mentioned, if not in the same breath then at least in the same atmosphere as Shakespeare? Kushner turned 42 in 1998 — what has he written since then? Caroline, or Change opened in 2002; The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures opened seven years later in 2009. Since then? Nothing original. A couple translations, an English libretto for the opera Brundibar. In other words, after 17 years, Kushner has yet to match Shakespeare’s output in 1606. In an interview in Time Out in 2001, Kushner admitted, “I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” Well, you sure as hell can’t support yourself at that rate of production, that’s for certain.

Paula Vogel / via
Paula Vogel / via

What about David Mamet, who in 2002 was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and then was named a “Grand Master of American Theater” by the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award (Kushner received this same honor in 2002)? Since Mamet was 42 in 1989, he’s written eight plays, an average of one every 3 years. Better than Kushner’s output, though nothing to write home about. Sam Shepard? Since his 42nd birthday in late 1985, he’s written eleven plays — about one every three years. Paula Vogel? In the 22 years since she turned 42, she’s written seven plays. One every three years. See a pattern?

Let me hasten to make myself clear — I’m not accusing these playwrights of laziness. Many of them are writing screenplays or TV shows or essays, or teaching, or doing any number of things. What I am saying is that we have created a theatrical system, whether Broadway or the regional theaters, that takes forever to get a new play from the page to a production. Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change, for instance, was first workshopped in 1992, for God’s sake, and took another 11 years to get a full production at the Public Theater. Note: by 1992, Kushner had taken the American theater by storm with both parts of Angels in America — if you had his next play in your hands, why would you wait eleven years to produce it? Hell, if it had taken eleven years for Shakespeare to get King Lear produced, he’d have been dead already, giving an entirely new meaning to Steven Dietz’s acid statement that plays are “developed to death.” When it takes so long for a play for be produced, is it any wonder that playwrights are being lured away to television where the demand for new material is strong enough to allow playwrights not only to make a living, but also to see their work actually done?

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Eugene O’Neill

Something is wrong — is it fear on the part of producers and artistic directors? All one need do is compare the output of our contemporary playwrights to those from the past. Here is what Eugene O’Neill wrote after his 42nd birthday:

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Eight plays in 11 years, and arguably most are masterpieces. Neil Simon turned 42 in 1969 — what did he write thereafter?

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Twenty-four plays in 33 years. Obviously, previous generations of playwrights could get their work done much more quickly than today. So what has changed? Surely not playwrights, who I sincerely believe would love to write play after play if they could see them produced in a timely manner. No, the road to a full production has become so long, the process so arduous, and the likelihood of success so tenuous, that it becomes illogical for playwrights to devote themselves to theater except as an audition for television.

Sarah Ruhl / via
Sarah Ruhl

And who loses when a playwright decamps for Hollywood? The theater, of course. Although conventional wisdom is that writers can transfer their skills from theater to film to television and back again without much effort, I would argue that this is far from the case. The theater demands unique skills and full-time attention — it is diminished when it becomes “live television,” in other words when the techniques of television are transposed onto the stage. To do the theater justice takes years of practice and attention. If Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” has any validity at all, this 3-year production rhythm is not only making it impossible for playwrights to make a living in the theater, it is also keeping them from achieving the level of maturity necessary to make a lasting contribution. Shakespeare would have been unable to write King Lear earlier in career — he needed to have thirty plays under his belt before he could attempt something with that level of complexity. Will Sarah Ruhl have the opportunity?

Furthermore, it isn’t an insignificant matter that Shakespeare wrote for a single permanent company — a company that he had a financial stake in. He knew his actors, and could write plays with their talents in mind; the company knew its playwright, and that they could trust him to give them something of quality. And they all needed him to write plays in order to eat, which is extremely important. I suspect the ink was barely dry on the page before the King’s Men were in rehearsal. There was no need to workshop the script — get it on the boards! The contemporary theater’s tendency to dawdle is a vivid indication of how little we think plays matter, and how weak is the demand for them.

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The reality is that, at least to some extent, playwrights writing for television have the benefits of the conditions that made Shakespeare successful and productive, and perhaps that accounts for television’s attraction. If they are writing a long-form series, they know the actors, they know the characters, and they know that their work will be filmed in a reasonable amount of time. Like the King demanding something new from his players, the studio demands a certain number of episodes be created in a limited amount of time. That pressure forces playwrights to produce, in the same way that an empty repertoire and a motivated monarch forced Shakespeare to create.

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But until the American theater can provide the conditions for playwrights to see their work produced quickly and consistently, until a single company insists that a resident playwright produce new work more quickly than once every three years, until these conditions provide a playwright with a way to make living within the theater — until all this happens, the American theater will continue to lose its best talent to a medium that does provide those conditions.

We can’t afford those losses.