In 1948, an instructor at the University of Illinois strode into a classroom to tell his playwriting students everything he'd learned about writing for the stage and, by extension, the screen. His students were many things — ordinary college kids, men recently returned from the war, women who were the first in their families to pursue higher education. The professor had written a few plays and some screenplays. You probably wouldn't recognize his name. The book, compiled from his lectures and conversations with students, could have been a minor tome.
But it wasn't. The result was (and still is) the greatest book ever written about the craft of dramatic writing — or maybe just writing, period. Published in 1949, it's a uniquely American work, in both its preoccupations and its conception. It perfectly captures a country on the brink of a new world order that it would stand astride with relative confidence and ease.
But because life is cruel and the publishing industry is random, the book, called The Human Nature of Playwriting, slipped out of print. For decades. Until now.
The Human Nature of Playwriting focuses heavily on — what else? — human nature
The Human Nature of Playwriting is a document of the aforementioned playwriting course at the University of Illinois; it's a print version of the conversations Samson Raphaelson had with his students. Raphaelson wrote many plays and several screenplays, including the classic play The Jazz Singer (which would become the first motion picture with sound) and the scripts for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner.
Thus, the book is a kind of play itself. It's built around a long dialogue, and it develops "characters" over the course of the semester. Even though it's a slim volume by any measure, there are even a handful of genuine (if minor) dramatic arcs.
The most useful thing The Human Nature of Playwriting does is help readers understand how the raw materials of their own life experiences can make for powerful dramatic writing. Raphaelson can be a bit of a hard-liner on this point — he regularly dismisses fantasy and science fiction writing as beneath his consideration — but his central point is a good one. Don't just write what you know; write what you feel deeply, what scares you, what makes you laugh, what makes you want to wake up and face another day.
Thus, the book is less about the craft of writing — though it touches on it here and there — and more about how to achieve emotional impact. It's about how to turn your specific, personal experiences into storytelling that touches on the universal, how to go from something that happened to one person to something that will resonate for all people.
This can be the hardest thing for many writers to learn. Making yourself the subject of your own work can be hard to stomach at first, but if you give it time and work at it, your writing can attain even more power. The idea is to speak to others who've felt your pain or joy. Above all else, Raphaelson conveys this concept perfectly.
The book is back in print thanks to a labor of love
In a way, it's not surprising that The Human Nature of Playwriting fell out of print — writers are always looking for easy how-to manuals that will tell them how to best tell a powerful story, and the book is more interested in helping them understand that a story's power often resides in its raw humanity.
But a vocal cult of those who love it has kept it alive for decades. I first learned about it from a mentor, and I later managed to find a used copy for far too much money; it's become a treasured possession. Some libraries occasionally have a copy (particularly in cities heavily associated with stage or screenwriting), which is usually how I've advised others to get hold of it.
However, fans of the book have managed to take wing on the internet, to compare notes and bring The Human Nature of Playwriting back to a sort of prominence — and that's why it is now widely available once again for the first time since its initial printing. The book's new publisher, S.A. McLean, first heard of it through posts on an Iowa screenwriting blog, and the pull quote blurb on the new edition's cover is from an article I contributed to in 2010.
So the book's fans are out there, but the title still remains mostly unknown. That's what makes the book's resurrection such a labor of love. It exists thanks to the efforts of Raphaelson's son and the Toronto publisher Tessellate Media.
The newly reissued Human Nature of Playwriting is currently only available in e-book form, which will strike some as lacking when compared with print, but which at least will allow you to get your hands on it without spending hundreds of dollars. And even though it reflects some of the attitudes of its time — in its sense that fantasy and sci-fi aren't worthy of recognition and its belief that women are destined to become housewives — it's still a crackerjack look at how to transform the seemingly mundane corners of your own life into terrific fiction. For any and all aspiring writers, it's worth picking up.
The Human Nature of Playwriting is available in e-book form from Tessellate Media.