Advice That Never Grows Old, A Review of 1949’s The Human Nature of Playwriting by Samson Raphaelson
by Nina Semczuk
The best books about writing combine craft practicalities—such as the necessity of rewrites—with a down-to-earth, encouraging spirit, and my favorites include a dash of memoir. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing come to mind as exemplars of this tricky mix.
As an insatiable reader of writing advice, from the interviews found on The Creative Independent to the nuggets found sometimes on Twitter, to the aforementioned titles (among many others), I was delighted to find a new-to-me e-book that hits all my wants in this genre: Samson Raphaelson’s The Human Nature of Playwriting, originally published in 1949, and then reissued digitally in 2015.
While you’ll find just 48 ratings on Goodreads, and a baker’s dozen on Amazon, I’m not alone in my praise, albeit I’m more than 70 years late to the game. In a 1949 review in The New York Times the drama editor wrote that while, “Mr. Raphaelson’s contribution is somewhat unconventional in treatment,” he lauded the work as “uncommonly worth while [sic].”
Raphaelson, an accomplished playwright and screenwriter, taught a beginner’s playwriting class to thirty students and graduates at the University of Illinois from February to May of 1948. What makes the Times herald The Human Nature of Playwriting as unconventional is that the book reads as a transcription of the class. Candid moments abound and personality shines through. Raphaelson’s transcribed (and edited, as the preface in the reissued volume notes) lectures are interspersed with student questions, interruptions and occasional asides.
Aimed mainly toward those who’ve never attempted playwriting, the writing advice he delivers is not new, but it is exceedingly practical and still relevant today—for both theatre and fiction. For example, he instructs his students to tell your story to someone and have them retell it back. “The hero of the first story can become the villain of the second. The heartbreaking scene, told back, may become a ludicrous scene…It is a short cut to perspective”
In another instance, he tells the class, “Don’t write what you think you ought to write. Write what comes most easily to you. If villainy delights you, dwell on villainy…Express the flavors that are in you.” Along with staying true to yourself, Raphaelson also supports the edict of writing what you know, especially when you’re a beginner to the form. He shares that within his group of creative colleagues, they “always agreed that the best writing, particularly in our formative years, [was] writing based on our own lives.” Not factual autobiography, he clarifies, but “characters, experiences, emotions, backgrounds with which we are familiar. Writing must ring true, and, especially for the beginning writer, you can make a character you know more authentic than a character you invent.” When students first share their play ideas, Raphaelson probes those which feature exotic locales or characters to see if the student has actual first-hand experience with the subject matter.
To encourage the class to draw from life, Raphaelson requests personal biographies and invites his students to come visit him at his home, in small groups, to discuss ideas and topics in a more casual setting. At the beginning of many classes—the book is formatted as dated entries, one per session—Raphaelson recounts the prior evening’s chat, if given permission by the student.
Is there anything more delicious to a writer than to read about how other writers think? How they approach writing? There’s a voyeuristic joy to it, and finding your inner worries within the minds of others is validating. And there’s something to be said about creative problems of yesterday still ringing true today. Raphaelson takes this joy in identification a step further—to the cusp of schadenfreude—when he calls out amateur mistakes in front of the class. In one episode, he takes to task a young man who wants to portray himself as the hero of a misunderstood family, in a play where all supporting characters reinforce his assumption that he’s an unrecognized genius. Raphaelson explains, without mincing words, “…a young writer’s troubles and pains as told by himself are likely to be irritating and boring…the young man is a monster, a pompous, strutting, overweening bore, [and] the father and mother are victims of the society in which they live.” This exchange reflects a theme repeated throughout the semester: with deliberate awareness comes a mellowing, an empathy and tolerance for people, a humility that Raphaelson argues is essential for writers.
Raphaelson himself comes from humble beginnings. Born in 1896 to a Jewish family in the Lower East Side, Samson Raphaelson defied his family’s wishes for him to become a rabbi and instead went to the University of Illinois, where he paid for school by working as a waiter. After college, he took a turn as a reporter and then began working in advertising. He wrote short stories on the side and one day, after the urging of his stenographer, he adapted one of his stories for the stage. After a number of rewrites, this became his first play, “The Jazz Singer,” which later became known as the basis for the first “talkie,” a movie with sound.
Speaking of “The Jazz Singer,” a film that follows a Jewish man becoming a jazz singer in blackface, as with many books from years past, some parts of The Human Nature of Playwriting have aged better than others. I’d be remiss to neglect pointing out that the book includes shadings of sexism and racism. (In regards to the former, I did appreciate the sentiment expressed in Raphaelson’s response to a female student asking about his advice that seemed to be aimed strictly at the men in the class: “…women writers have found time, in the interludes of housework and raising a family. It may be a little rough on the husband—but, if you are a writer and he doesn’t like it, divorce him.”) Raphaelson explains that one of his plays, a tragedy about a Black man who looks white, was a flop. He was trying to be an intellectually aware citizen, he tells the class, but didn’t know how to write the character with authority. As he put it, it was his effort to be important.
Placing the book in historical context matters too, because of the students and what stories they’re interested in telling. Early in the semester, Raphaelson mentions that of the seventeen veterans in the class, seven are writing war stories. Most of the women either served in some capacity (such as in WAC) or had family or spouses who served. Several of them talk about broken engagements and what sounds like living with a partner with PTSD. In regard to backgrounds, some of the class grew up poor, one person ran away from home, and a handful of the students come from homes with divorced parents.
Here’s where I confess to my bias toward this book: as an Army veteran, I enjoyed how military service was the norm of the class. I’ve often served as an “other” in writing environments that aren’t exclusively designed for vets and I felt as if I was among student peers in a way, as I read this text. How the material is presented also felt familiar and chatty to me, reminiscent of that old self-help founding father, Dale Carnegie. Both Carnegie and Raphaelson use numerous real-world examples and case studies when they give advice, infusing credibility and anecdotal truths with their wisdom. And finally, an embarrassing truth. A tension in my romantic life is reflected on the page. One student wishes to write about a Jewish man who is afraid to tell his family he’s dating a Christian girl, and Raphaelson tells the class about how a producer asked him to include a Gentile/Jewish doomed romance in one of his plays. Sometimes, reader, you feel scarily seen—and that some dramatic conflicts unfortunately don’t mellow with age.
Occasionally, fidelity to the class format bogs down the text. In a few instances, a student’s play that Raphaelson reads aloud is included. These early script drafts, while illustrative of his students’ baseline writing ability, can be clunky and boring. That said, when a seventh draft is read by the class toward the end of the semester, the sense of growth and accomplishment derived from following a student’s idea to realization is tremendous (and the play is much quicker and more enjoyable to read).
One aspect of playwrighting in which Raphaelson shines is in emphasizing to his novices that writing rides on the emotional undercurrents of the central character. For those who pester him about plot, he says: “action is only something that follow the inside of a human being. You can have guns booming people running in and out, punching each other in the nose, until everybody goes crazy, and your audience will yawn its head off. But have two people quietly talking, with tension growing between them, and you can hear a pin drop.”
At the end of the semester Raphaelson’s students pepper him with questions that many of us writers wonder, especially in the early days of a creative life, such as “What if you don’t make any money?” Raphaelson answers “getting a job is the best idea…very often you find material in your job.” Other questions range from whether you have to be single and childless, how to find time to write after a long day of work and what it’s like being established. In regards to the latter, he cautions, “You must always be ready to drop apparently everything that has served you and start all over again, learning anew, trying anew. On the day when you haven’t the heart to do this, you have become old.”
As might be clear to you by now, I highlighted many passages in The Human Nature of Playwriting. So many, in fact, I wasn’t allowed to export my notes as they exceeded the allowable threshold. But I can’t recreate the book in its entirety in this review. Here’s one last piece of advice. Let it serve as a reminder to all of us—and especially myself, who often receives feedback about a lack of interiority in my writing:
“Writing is revealing yourself, not concealing yourself. Revealing yourself does not necessarily mean exhibiting yourself. Revelation and exhibitionism may be the same thing, but not inevitably. If you conceal yourself, you are no writer. You may be a banker, a general, certainly a statesman—but not a writer. Writing need not be an unabashed revelation of the emotions, but when you write you express, even through other characters, what you are and who you are. You cannot repress and express—they are contradictory terms.”
Nina Semczuk‘s work can be found in places such as Too Well Away Literary Journal, The Line Literary Review, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. Previously, she served in the U.S. Army for five years. Nina lives in Brooklyn.