Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Playwriting

Stephen Jeffreys
Nick Hern Books
Released

It is very sad that Stephen Jeffreys did not live to see this definitive volume published, nor will he have the pleasure of discovering that this reviewer is tipping Playwriting to be the best theatre book of 2019.

On the surface, a tome devoted to delineating and explaining structure, character, how and what to write sounds perfect for budding playwrights but a dry read for anybody else.

However, this distillation of Stephen Jeffreys’s masterclasses is anything but. It is a gripping page turner that will prove the perfect manual for anyone wishing to improve their playwriting skills but is far more. In addition, this work will give every reader an insight into how plays are written, the techniques involved and will also help the uninitiated to understand what they are seeing every time they visit the theatre.

The key to its success lies in Jeffreys's expertise on two levels. First, he has hands-on experience as a playwright, working in a number of different genres. Secondly, he was also a reader at the Royal Court as well as a guru who helped numerous up-and-coming writers to achieve their potential.

The book is liberally garnished with examples from a wide range of reference points, everything from Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen to Caryl Churchill and other contemporary writers.

Above all, though, it is highly practical, breaking down the creation of plays into chapters on areas of significance.

While the initial impression might be that "Structure" is a dull starting point, this section proves highly informative, breaking the topic down into story, time and place and more experimental structures and, having built up a series of methodologies, showing how breaking them can also be highly effective.

Next is "Character", proving that Jeffreys is almost as much a psychologist as a man of the theatre, drawing on Aristotle’s four criteria but also Jungian theory and many other useful ways to invent and define people on stage.

The chapter on "How to Write" covers logic, dialogue and also looks into the differences between a methodical and a more abstract way of thinking.

Finally, there is a section on "What to Write". This starts by identifying the nature of the individual doing the writing, before developing out into a wide range of possible kinds of plays. Finally, Stephen Jeffreys has perfected what he describes as "The Nine Stories", into which every single play must naturally fall, although some might crossover between different categories. To give a taste, these include "The Love Story", typified by Romeo and Juliet, "The Fatal Flaw", which uses the story of Achilles, and "The Debt That Must Be Paid", which perhaps inevitably cites Faust.

Overall, this is a highly readable and very entertaining book that will enhance the enjoyment of general readers whenever they visit the theatre or even read playscripts at home. However, its target audience will be aspiring playwrights, who will learn a vast amount from the mind of one of the leading exponents of theatre lore and Playwriting.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher