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A playwright, also known as a dramatist, is someone who writes dramatic literature or drama. These works may be written specifically to be performed by actors or they may be closet dramas or literary works written using dramatic forms but not meant for performance.
The term is not a variant spelling of playwrite, but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who crafts plays. The homophone with write is in this case coincidental.
The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are Ancient Greeks with some of the earliest plays being written around the5th century BC. These playwrights are notable as they established forms that are still relied on by modern playwrights. Notable among them are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.
Shakespeare is considered to have written classical tragedies and comedies which lots of other work is based on. For example, Kiss Me Kate is based on The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet has been remade more times than can be counted.
Many playwrights are never known because only historical successes and current successes such as Broadway hits become known. Many more off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, student playwrights, and plays that never see the light of day, among others, are still playwrights even if they never achieve commercial or popular success.
Contemporarily, successful playwrights – in stark contrast to the lot of the screenwriter — are often high-status figures in their industry. This is a corollary of the more literary approach that has characterised the theatre since its roots in poetry. The form has a greater reverence for the text and is much less oriented around a director. The playwright’s vision often takes precedence.
In recent years this attitude has started to be slowly overhauled. A less rigidly formal approach to text for performance is now common, informed by practitioners like Jerzy Grotowski, Joan Littlewood and her protégé Mike Leigh.
Documentary plays are also a common feature of the theatrical landscape since the middle of the Twentieth Century when they were employed, often tendentiously, in agit-prop or general political protest. These plays demand something different of a playwright, often the editing and reproduction of the other people’s words within a narrative structure. A recent example is Stuff Happens, David Hare’s 2004 play about the Iraq War, in which many of the speeches were taken verbatim from George W. Bush, Tony Blair et al.
- Playwriting 101 - A playwriting tutorial written by playwright and screenwriter Jon Dorf.