(This is a revised version of a post that was first published in October 2009. I went back and changed some stuff so it sounded better.)
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Playwright. “play”, from the Saxon “plega“, meaning “recreation”; and “wright,” from the Old English “wryhta“, meaning “worker.” First recorded use of word: 1687.
I am a compulsive word-use-corrector, a ruthless proofreader, a highly-critical grammar snob. Anyone who has ever made the mistake of asking me to edit a paper for them can verify that this is true. I love my red proofreading pen with an unhealthy passion. While it’s partly because I’m a judgmental pain in the ass, it’s also because I’m a giant etymology geek. I love words (certainly I use a lot of them) and I find them really interesting. Which is why the word “playwright” fascinates me. It drives me bonkers when people spell it “playwrite” but of course I completely understand why. “Play” is the thing. “Write” is what you do. The verb form is “playwriting.” So you’d think the noun form would be “playwriter.” If you’re in the act of dog-catching, you’re a dogcatcher. If you’re in the act of shipbuilding, you’re a shipbuilder. If you’re in the act of screenwriting, you’re a screenwriter. So if you’re in the act of playwriting, you should be a playwriter. Right?
Totally and completely wrong. Wrong for the coolest possible reason.
Here are the other words in the English language that end in “wright”:
wheelwright: one who builds and repairs wheels (a vital job in the agricultural communities of the Middle Ages)
millwright: one who builds and mends mills and performs other highly-skilled agricultural carpentry work
shipwright: one who builds and mends ships, from wooden frames to sails and rigging
wainwright: one who builds and mends wagons (and also, if I remember correctly, barrels)
What do these all have in common? Besides backbreaking manual labor you couldn’t pay me enough to do even in 2012, let alone in the 1600’s? Originally these all referred to the guilds of craftsmen and artisans – the Shipwright’s Guild, the Wainwright’s Guild, etc. They were acknowledged to be specialists in their trade who provided a vital service to society. During medieval times, sacred pageants depicting stories from Scripture were used as teaching tools for the mostly-illiterate public; wagons depicting scenes of well-known Bible stories would roll through town, kind of like floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade if each float stopped in front of you to present a short play teaching you a moral lesson. (And with fewer of these, more’s the pity.) The medieval guilds helped produce these pageants; for example, the Shipwright’s Guild might find themselves in charge of building the scenery for the wagon with the play about Jesus sailing out with the apostles and calming the sea of Galilee. You’d expect the dudes from the Shipwright’s Guild to be better than anyone else at building something that was supposed to look like a ship. But of course it doesn’t necessarily follow that the dudes from the Shipwright’s Guild would necessarily be the best at writing about ships. Somebody had to be in charge of telling the story – what were the people on that ship thinking and feeling and saying? So they decided that there should be a Playwright’s Guild too.
I like this for several reasons.
#1) It acknowledges that writing a play is real work. There is toil and labor. There is as much wright-ing as writing in the craft – wrestling with an idea, sitting in front of your computer or typewriter for hours until you feel like your forehead is sweating blood. Writing is hard. (Although of course, as Dear Sugar wryly tells us, “Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”)
#2) Writers aren’t just artists, we’re also craftsmen. When I sit down to start writing a play, I sometimes have what feels like a sprinkling of loose diamonds in the palm of my hand – a few lines, words, moments of connection that I already know are exactly right. If you’re an artist, you know what I’m talking about. We all have those bits and pieces that pop into our heads fully-formed, shining and brilliant, seemingly out of nowhere, the stuff you already know is good. Inspiration. “The muse.” (God, please don’t call it that.) The Holy Spirit. (That’s what I call it.) Whatever name you give it, it’s there. We all have a handful of loose diamonds. The problem? You still have to write a whole f***ing play. That’s the craftsman part. The diamonds are the little moments that I know are really good because I didn’t think of them. I mean, I didn’t work at them. They just dropped into my lap from God. But my job is to turn those things into a story, and wrap characters around them. I don’t think the difference between a good writer and a brilliant writer is that their handful of diamonds is bigger; I think it’s that they just use them better. And I believe that the harder I labor over each play, the more diamonds I’ll get in my hand the next time. That’s where the “wright” comes in. The building, training, skills. The practice of a trade. Weighing, measuring, crafting. Staying up until 4 a.m. with a pot of coffee and a red pen, crossing out and revising until it’s perfect. It’s not just pretty, shiny words and sentences. It’s digging a foundation and then building a scaffolding and then testing it to make sure it holds and then creating a structure around it that can withstand the hard weather. The diamonds are inside. You can draw a picture of a really pretty ship, but if you can’t build it and sail it to sea without it sinking ten feet out of port, you are not a shipwright.
#3) If I may just wax political for one brief moment about etymology, like a giant nerd: we live in such a polarized time and place that we’re constantly facing the fairly widespread perception that creative workers and blue-collar workers MUST live on opposite sides of the spectrum, that there could not possibly be any overlap in a Venn diagram of, say, theatre lovers vs. guys who build mills. It’s an election year, and we’re all living somewhere along that blue-state-vs.-red-state divide, and it makes us more binary, and we settle deeper and deeper into the safety of our corners with our own people and we watch whatever news outlet reflects how we’ve already decided we feel about things and we – artists, especially – are at constant risk of losing sight of this very simple fact: that theatre used to be a place where people came together. In Ancient Greece, plays were part of free public festivals. In Shakespeare’s time, plays were highbrow enough to be performed for royalty and lowbrow enough that audience members ate standing up and then threw their food garbage down on the ground. Some of the greatest dramas in the English language premiered on a bill with, like, firebreathers and dancing bears. When did Shakespeare start being snobby? Do people who say that have any idea how much of it is sexual innuendo and fart jokes and stabbings? In Portland, where people wear jeans to the opera, that line is blessedly more blurred than in other places; but it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a country that’s split, often venomously, on sharp ideological lines, that there will always be people who think building more missiles is a better use of money than bringing back the NEA’s individual artist grant and fellowship program, that movies and TV are egalitarian and populist and for everyone but plays apparently aren’t. And when that stuff starts to get me down, I like to remind myself that the word “playwright” came from a time when artists and skilled laborers were on the same team, using their talents for the shared goal of reaching new audiences, when it wasn’t unusual for a bunch of burly medieval wheel-menders to get together and say, “Let’s put on a show!”
Says Aston Parkhurst in his fabulous article “Understanding the Meaning of the Word ‘Playwright’: A Proud Title”:
The word “wright” means one who builds. Used as a suffix, it indicates what someone builds. The word “playwright” has a different root from the word “screenwriter.” It recalls an earlier time when playwrights were not just people who put words on the page, but skilled artisans on whom the other guilds relied. The word “playwright,” it is plain to see, is not the writer of plays, but rather the builder of plays. Drama is not transient – it is not merely words on the paper. It is, at its highest, a construction. It is words placed together to build a chapel – a monument that stands for generations to come. The word “playwright” is a proud title. To call oneself a playwright is to be a builder of plays, and to understand the meaning of the word is to understand the power and responsibility that comes with it.
Hell yeah I’m a playwright.