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Newsflash: novelists suck at writing plays

The Guardian explores the phenomenon of novelists who write great books yet suck at penning plays. Or, as Philip Hensher puts it: “[James Joyce’s play] Exiles, like most plays written by novelists, is a notoriously plonking effort.” Zing!

Hensher’s musings on the “curious fact that very few writers have ever been able to write both good novels and good plays. Almost invariably, even the most acclaimed and technically skilled novelist turns into a rank amateur when writing for the theatre.” He goes on to document the most famous example — Henry James published a handful of plays, and then complained that no one was putting them on until someone agreed to stage his work Guy Domville.

According to the Guardian article, “the first night of Guy Domville was one of the most famous theatrical disasters of the 19th century. The play staggered on for only five weeks, almost never to be staged again. A glance at the text shows why: the plot is something about a Catholic priest renouncing his vocation, delivered in the novelist’s famous subtle dialogue, which proved impossible to speak on stage with any conviction. James, clearly, just couldn’t write for the stage.”

Other novelists who failed Drama 101 include, he says, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Graham Greene, William Golding, Muriel Spark. But, to be fair, he also claims that many playwrights can’t write a novel to save their life, such as Tom Stoppard and Joe Orton. He does allow that there are a few stars such as Anton Chekhov and Michael Frayn who can rock both forms, though.

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Read the Guardian story here