THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PLAY ***
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PAPERS ON PLAY-MAKING
The Autobiography of a Play
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
Printed for the Dramatic Museum of Columbia University
_in the City of New York_
Introduction by Augustus Thomas The Autobiography of a Play by Bronson Howard Notes by B. M.
The qualities that made Bronson Howard a dramatist, and then made him the first American dramatist of his day, were his human sympathy, his perception, his sense of proportion, and his construction. With his perception, his proportion, and his construction, respectively, he could have succeeded as a detective, as an artist, or as a general. It was his human sympathy, his wish and his ability to put himself in the other man's place, that made play-writing definitely attractive to him. As a soldier he would have shown the courage of the dogged defender in the trench or the calmly supervising general at headquarters, rather than the mad bravery that carried the flag at the front of a forlorn hope. His gifts were intellectual. His writing was more disciplined than inspired. If we shall claim for him genius, it must be preferably the genius of infinite pains.
He saw intimately and clearly. His proportion made him write with discretion and a proper sense of cumulative emphasis, and his construction enabled him so to combine his materials as to secure this effect. He was intensely self-critical; and while almost without conceit concerning his own work, he had an accuracy of detached estimation that enabled him to stand by his own opinion with a proper inflexibility when his judgment convinced him that the opinion was correct.
He worked slowly. At one time, in his active period, it was his custom to go from New York, where he lived, to New Rochelle, where he had formerly lived. There, upon the rear end of a suburban lot, he had a plain board cabin not more than ten feet square. In it were a deal table, a hard chair, and a small stove. He would go to this cabin in the morning when the tide of suburban travel was setting the other way, and spend his entire day there with his manuscript and his cigars. He carried a small lunch from his home. He once told me he was satisfied with his day's work if it provided him with ten good lines that would not have to be abandoned. I did not take that statement to imply that there were not in his experience the more profitable days that are in the work of every writer--days when the subject seems to command the pen and when the hand cannot keep pace with the vision. He was often too saturated with his story, too much the prisoner of his people, for it to have been otherwise; but his training had verified for him the truth that easy writing is hard reading.
Then, too, while Bronson Howard arranged his characters for the eye and built his story for the judgment, he wrote his speeches for the ear. This attention to the cadence of a line was so essential to him that when writing as he sometimes did for a magazine he studied the sound of his phrase as if the print were to be read aloud. This same care for the dialog would retard its production; and critical revision would enforce still further delay.
William Gillette once said to an interviewer that "plays were not written, but were rewritten." The experience of many play-wrights would support that statement. In the case of Bronson Howard, the autobiography of his 'Banker's Daughter' certainly does so. His most profitable play, perhaps, and the one which also brought him the greatest popular recognition, was 'Shenandoah'. That play was produced by a manager, who, after its first performance, believed that it would not succeed. A younger and more hopeful one saw in it its great elements of popularity, and encouraged him to rewrite it.
Mr. William H. Crane, in a recent felicitous talk to the Society of American Dramatists, said that the 'Henrietta' was played exactly as its author had delivered it to the actors, without the change or the need of change in a single word, and with only the repetition late in the play of a line that had been spoken in an early act. That fact does not exclude the possibility of rewritings before the manuscript came to the company, but rather, in view of Bronson Howard's thoroness as a workman and his masterly sense of proportion, makes such rewritings the more probable. The effect, however, of his rewriting, wherever it may have been, and the slow additions of his daily contributions, was that of spontaneity.