When Thomas Alva Edison…

When Thomas Alva Edison developed the first film studio (yes, it was Edison), it became quickly apparent that just having the technology to project a moving image was not sufficient to sustain an audience. A story was needed. Everybody wanted to see the picture move, but to get them to put another nickel into the nickelodeon, there had to be a reason to come back. Enter the storyteller, the writer.

Writers have been around since the beginning of man. So pretty much anybody that could put a good story together could write enough of a narrative to make the early movies. Often a simple joke was sufficient to storyboard a project, and initially, not having dialogue to contend with made the visual medium pretty easy. The technology was the attraction. But audiences are fickle. Even a good joke gets old. Substance, meaning, characters – all elements of drama, were required to bring them back for more. Enter the dramatist, the playwright.

Entertainment and playwrights have always had an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship. In the ancient world, if a playwright offended, the cost was his life. For Shakespeare, the message had to be masked in politically correct lore, or as the expression of the time goes, “off with his head!”  In Hollywood, the writer is often the first casualty of studio ire, and seldom the recognized talent for a project’s success.

The list of failed relationships is nearly as long as the list of playwrights that have tried to make movies. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Peter Schaffer… the names go on and on. The conflict lies in the vision. Writers, especially playwrights, see the world through words. The nuance of language effects the environment, whereas film continues to be seen through the eyes. For a filmmaker, words only serve to accentuate the environment.  When Shakespeare had his characters speak of the terrible storms, it was the words telling of the storm that inspired awe in the audience.

It is often said that if Shakespeare were writing today, it would be for television. An argument can even be made that television is modern theatre. The wit and imagery is similar, as is the structure. But still there are differences. For television does fall under the influence of the same constraint as film, where corporate control is far more influential than on live theatre. The truly gifted in television are the ones that make their point and do not fall victim to studio or corporate influence.

It is only in theatre that we see fully the unrestrained portrait of modern man. On stages large and small our focus is turned on our most intimate moments, and through poetic device presented for review. The trials and tribulations of the playwright can be felt and the connection from scribe to audience is direct, unfiltered and vulnerable. When you see a play, you sit in judgment of the author. As an audience you still have the power to say “off with his head!”. . . but let it stay, it may have something of wisdom to say.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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