Now (hitting stores March 3) Faber & Faber are bringing out another handy hint for budding Shakespeares, "The Playwright's Guidebook," by American playwright and teacher Stuart Spencer. It's true that Shakespeare — and Marlowe, and Coward, and Rattigan, and Osborne — all managed to produce great works without ploughing through textbooks on how to do so, and Ayckbourn himself is a good example of someone who lived and breathed theatre on (and back) stage before sitting down to write plays.
However, as with all books, there's always the potential of a new idea or a helpful path to follow, and with 16 chapters in "The Playwright's Guide," there's plenty to get your teeth into.
It's taken for granted that actors need teaching (hence drama schools), but playwrights could do with some handy hints, too. Perhaps the single most helpful advice in this guide is that writers need to be aware that a script needs many, and often radical rewrites. Actors take weeks of performances to get their performances honed: writers should not regard their first draft as a sacred text.
There's a line to be drawn between flexibility and surrender, however, as Ayckbourn himself realized. As a young playwright, Robert Morley, cast in one of his first plays, introduced himself with the words "I'm going to make you very unhappy — and very rich" and proceeded to rewrite his lines to his own — and the audience's satisfaction. The result was an appalled playwright and a massively profitable box office.
As with any discipline, the geniuses are the ones who break or rewrite the rules, but it helps to have some to rebel against in the first place, and both Spencer and Ayckbourn have some useful things to say to young playwrights.