Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Picks and Pans

Successful Authors -- Unsuccessful Playwrights

Writing for the theatre is a peculiar business…It involves a craft
that you have to learn and a talent that you must possess.
Neither are common and both are essential.

Noted American authors have produced some not-so-noteworthy works for the American stage. Many who have excelled in other writing genres have come up against the difficulty of writing a good play, of creating a visual and audible work that will touch and affect an audience through dialogue and action. In A Primer of Playwriting, Kenneth MacGowan puts forth the “cold fact” that “playwrights are born, not made.” He states:

It is not enough that he [the playwright] should be an inventor of good plots or a recorder and interpreter of human character. It is not enough that he should also be a master of dialogue. Besides all this, he must have a talent for the peculiar organization of plot, characters, and dialogue that creates the suspenseful and mounting excitement without which no audience is satisfied.

The ability to create a literary work that translates into a living experience that holds an audience ultimately determines whether a playwright succeeds or fails.

Mark Twain and Bret Harte

American authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte collaborated in 1876 on writing the play Ah Sin. The play’s title character came from a Harte poem, “Plain Language from Truthful James.” The authors wrote the play expressly as a vehicle for the actor Charles T. Parsloe who was noted for his portrayal of Chinese characters. Ah Sin opened in Washington, D.C. on May 7, 1877, and moved to Augustin Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City that July. The play was not a success and ran for only 35 performances. After the first performance, The New York Times wrote:

The representation of the play called “Ah Sin” at the Fifth Avenue Theatre yesterday evening afforded frequent gratification to a very large audience. The fact that a good many spectators grew perceptibly weary as the performance approached an end, and the still more significant fact that the audience left the house without making the slightest demonstration of pleasure when the curtain fell upon the last scene, may imply that the piece, as a whole, is scarcely likely to secure a really strong hold upon the favor of the public…Humorists, romance writers, and poets are never born and seldom become dramatists, and both authors of “Ah Sin”, are now truing their ’prentice hand in seeking fame and fortune through the medium of the stage.

The remainder of the review praised the acting and directing, but squarely laid the failure of the play on the authors. Even a witty appearance on stage by Twain after the third act could not save the play from failure.


Autograph scene from Ah Sin by Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. [1876].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

This is an additional scene for the opening of the show in New York that Mark Twain wrote at the suggestion of Augustin Daly. The scene introduces the love interest of the plot.


Tuesday Night, July 31st, 1877, Mr. Daly Will Begin His Ninth Season with the Production of a Dramatic Work, in Four Acts, by Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Written Expressly for Mr. C. T. Parsloe, and Entitled “Ah Sin!” Program for Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. [New York, 1877].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Robert Frost

“I will dabble in drama,” Robert Frost wrote to a friend in his sixty-ninth year. His dabbling had actually begun much earlier in 1917 with a one-act play, entitled A Way Out. In 1941, Frost wrote a three-act play, entitled The Guardeen, based on the same incident that inspired his one-act play—a summer trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1895, when he was courting his wife, Elinor.

Frost’s earnest dabbling, however, referred to a pair of dramatic pieces, written in blank verse, and entitled A Masque of Reason and A Masque of Mercy. The “masques” were based loosely on the Biblical characters of Job and Jonah and their suffering at the hands of God. Both plays were published, and the Bread Loaf Little Theatre put on A Masque of Mercy in 1948. Hortense Moore adapted Frost’s poem “Snow” for the stage and this also appeared at The Bread Loaf School of English. Frost inscribed the following to his friend Earle Bernheimer in a book of Bread Loaf plays: “To Earle: This may well have started me on my downward career toward playwriting. The first result is The Guardeen in your possession. R.” It appears that Frost, himself, doubted his strength in the playwriting genre.


Autograph manuscript, the first version of “The Guardeen,” by Robert Frost. With 12 January 1942 presentation inscription to Earle Bernheimer. [1941].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Moore, Hortense, ed. Bread Loaf Book of Plays. Middlebury, VT: Middlebury College, 1941. Inscribed to Earle Bernheimer by Robert Frost.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


William Faulkner

In his youth, William Faulkner sporadically attended The University of Mississippi. There he became involved with a theatre group called the Marionettes. In 1920, Faulkner wrote a one-act play that he entitled The Marionettes and submitted it to the group as a possible performance piece. Faulkner hand-lettered and bound six copies of this play, illustrating them with drawings in the Art Nouveau style, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. Heavily influenced by the French Symbolist poets, pantomime, and commedia dell’arte, the melancholy play centered on a dream in a garden. The male character, Pierrot, sleeps through the entire performance, while the dream unfolds, acted by the “Shade of Pierrot,” who seduces and then abandons the maiden Marietta. The Ole Miss theatre group declined to stage the play, finding it too difficult to produce. Faulkner, of course, went on to answer the call of fiction writing, leaving behind his brief career as a playwright.


Autograph manuscript, with drawings, of “The Marionettes” by William Faulkner. 1920.

The University of Virginia’s copy was given by Faulkner to his friend, Ben Wasson, whose ownership signature is on the first blank leaf.

John Dos Passos

Early in his writing career, John Dos Passos attempted playwriting, intrigued by experimental expressionistic drama. He completed his first play, The Moon Is a Gong (later renamed The Garbage Man), in 1923, and the Harvard Dramatic Club initially produced it in 1925. Set in New York City, The Moon Is a Gong explored the struggles of the working-class individual in American society. In 1926, the play was staged at the Cherry Lane Playhouse in Greenwich Village, but unsuccessful, it ran for only eighteen performances. Not to be deterred by its failure, Dos Passos launched himself actively into the world of theatre. He received the invitation to become one of the directors of the New Playwrights Theatre. To Ernest Hemingway, Dos Passos wrote:

I’m deeper and deeper in the drahma [sic] every moment…I do a lot of (against union rules) carrying about & painting of scenery and switching on and off of lights which is very entertaining—but I don’t feel its my life work, quite. Anyway it keeps me from writing or worrying and I’m merry as a cricket.

Dos Passos produced two more plays, Airways (1928) and Fortune Heights (1933), neither commercially or critically successful. In a letter to his friend, Robert Hillyer, Dos Passos lamented, “Robert, don’t you ever write any plays—believe me there’s nutten in it, kid—except worry and the loss of hair and hours and wishes causing dyspepsia after midnight.”


Typed manuscript, with autograph corrections, of “The Moon Is a Gong” (also entitled “The Garbage Man: A Ballet of Shouting”) by John Dos Passos. No date.
From the Papers of John Dos Passos.


John Dos Passos membership cards for The Dramatists’ Guild. 1928 and 1929.
From the Papers of John Dos Passos.


United Press International photograph of John Dos Passos (right), with his first wife, Katy, and brother-in-law, Bill Smith. [Provincetown, MA, 1932].
From the Papers of John Dos Passos.


Peter Taylor

Award-winning novelist and outstanding short-story writer, Peter Taylor also pursued playwriting as a form of literary expression. Taylor loved the theatre and early in his writing career focused on drama. In a letter to his friend, Robie Macauley, dated October 31, 1947, Taylor wrote while teaching at the University of North Carolina, “This fall I have gone to bed with the new darling of my heart, playwriting, and I barely manage to drag myself out of it to meet my classes.” Taylor continued to write plays for the rest of his life, with a few finding their way to the stage. Although many of his plays were published in book form, the strength of his writing lay in his short stories and novels dealing with the American South.


Autograph play notebook, containing notes on “Mrs. Border’s Resignation,” “Two Ghosts,” “A Missing Person,” and “A Father and a Son.” No date.
From the Papers of Peter Taylor.


Photograph of Peter Taylor by Wright Langley. [Key West], no date.
From the Papers of Peter Taylor.


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