When Playwrights Go Wrong: Script Reviews from the Guthrie Theater Archives

By Hannah Korb,  Student Worker for the Guthrie Theater Archives Grant

When I first joined the Guthrie Archives back in September, my only experience with theater came from watching plays. I knew very little of what went on behind the scenes – and practically nothing about what it took for those scenes to make it to the stage in the first place. The number of original works that made it to the Guthrie only comprise a fraction of those that were submitted for consideration. They rejected thousands for each they accepted – but unless you’re a literary agent or professional reader, you’ll probably never have a chance to see what didn’t make the cut. Reviewing scripts, it seems, is like panning for diamonds: readers sift through piles of plays in hope of finding a gem, but most of what they get is junk. There may be hundreds of Ed Woods for every Chekhov-in-the-rough, and thousands more playwrights whose quality of work falls somewhere in between. But the Guthrie’s readers saved the most acerbic criticism for the private, internal review sheets, and returned the unpublished scripts with gentle, but usually impersonal, letters of rejection.

Just for reference, here’s what the rejection letters usually looked like:

Letter reads as follows: Genuine thanks for letting us read your play. I'm sorry we can't produce this script; out of hundreds received we use but a handful. Unfortunately, considerations other than quality--contrast with prior choices, design and technical demands, etc--help determine selection. Our apologies for the use of a form letter. This time it saves, given the number of individual replies that would otherwise be necessary, is put into reading more plays. The return of your play does not mean we aren't interested in your writing. We hope you'll send us your future work. Thanks again for allowing us to have read this script.

Because the Guthrie returned scripts instead of archiving them, I can’t tell whether the ones they received were really as bad as they sound, or if the readers were so frustrated by the number of mediocre scripts piled on their desks that they exaggerated the awfulness of the writing. But either way, since some of their comments are so vicious, I think they’re probably more entertaining than the plays for which they’re written. And since they’ve been sitting in storage for over thirty-five years, I hope it’s safe to share my favorites without offending or embarrassing anyone.

Summary of the Play: The Fool travels through the rest of the Tarot deck. It is in the words of the author "An interpretation of the Tarot developed as an occult musical extravaganza complete with ballet, music and lyrics with Shakespearean-type dialogue." Reader Comment: It is in the reader's words, "Garbage." It has nearly twice as many impossible character notes as it does dialogue, no sense of through line, an irreverence to the Tarot in general and, if the dialogue is truly intended to be of a Shakespearean type, from this script I assume there is another writer calling himself Shakespeare whose writing I haven't read.

Play Synopsis: The play takes place in pre-revolutionary China and concerns a peasant family which is oppressed by the Mandarin ruler Kow Min LIn. Although Kow Min Lin is actually the father of the peasant Yim Chu, he doesn't care one bit and arranges for the garrotting of his son because the young man has kidnapped his half-sister and had her feet unbound. In the end, for some reason unknown to everyone including the playwright, evidently Kow Min Lin has a change of heart and garrotes himself instead. Reader Comment: I couldn't put this script down -- it's awfulness was a compelling thing. Although I could hardly believe that it could get worse, each new page revealed something more stupid, ludicrous, or nasty. It is a truly hopeless script which could benefit most heartily from a lighted match. (all 153 pages of it, the hand-drawn Chinese torture device thoughtfully added by the writer, and the cover, too)

Summary of Play: An Italian POW camp. Whole stole the rations? play. Appraisal of Play: A blank verse Hogan's Heroes/Stalag 17/Great Escape. I couldn't bear to read the whole thing, but this is probably the script Zero Mostel was looking for in The Producers. Self-piteous slop. The plot is basically the old Lifeboat/Flight of the Phoenix/Who's the Dirty Bastard What Ate All the Rations story in verse. TS Eliot would be proud, if it threw in a few more metaphors.

Reader Comment: As bad as it sounds. Although the author does have some skill with language, the play is unrelentingly hysterical in tone and so melodramatic that the characters lose whatever sympathetic qualities they might, accidentally, have had. Also, the author's habit (underlined) of underlining (underlined) the words he wants the actors to emphasize (underlined) is absolutely maddening (underlined).

Appraisal of Play: Atrocious. Ludicrous. You thought Christopher Fry was bad? These suffering, pained, starving, dying animals give long-winded eloquent soliloquies that are so self-righteous they'd induce audience nausea sooner than any sort of visually portrayed squalor. The plot is bumblingly crafted, off balance. The playwright has no sense of structure, and his sense of poetry is at least as bad as his sense of drama. I get the funny felling that this author has been through a similar experiences, possibly, and wants to share it; but, please, not on the stage...

And you have to applaud this playwright’s confidence, even if his script doesn’t receive much of an ovation:

Dear [redacted]: Here is a copy of my script, [redacted]. As you will see, I took the "no limit" on cast you indicated in Dramatists Guild Quarterly seriously. This is a big one, --but a very good one. I have other, more modest plays if you are interested, but I'm very hot on this one. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, [redacted]

Dear [redacted]: I am sending you a copy of [redacted]. My agent thought I shouldn't send it out because I might get a reputation as a nut that wrights [sic] plays for a cast of 35. Which this one needs. However, I'm taking your listing in "Dramatists Guild Quarterly" that says no limit on cast literally. And also, I send [sic] you a copy of [redacted] a while ago, so you know I write more modest plays once in a while. Other than the size,the play is brilliant, if I do say so myself. It should be done by someone. Please. Sincerely, [redacted]

Summary of play: The Pope and political necessity destroy the country of Occitania in spite of the efforts of two generations of local kings. Appraisal: This is another truthful history play that tells us once again just how corrupt the papacy was. It mainly deals in atrocities. It is nearly a list of atrocities committed within the parameters of certain political intrigues. It is tedious and pointless. It is too large in scope. An exhaustive and insightful version of any one of the incidents described in the play would be sufficient material for a full-length play.

Out of curiosity, I checked the Guthrie’s play submission policy to see if it was as open now as it was in the 1970s — and it’s not. They stopped accepting unsolicited scripts in 2009.

P.S. If you’re interested in submitting an unproduced play, the Guthrie’s website offers a few alternatives: http://www.guthrietheater.org/guthrie_opportunities/artist_opportunities/_playwrights/script_submission_policy

All images and quotes are from the Guthrie Theater Archives (PA 3, Series 6), Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

Hannah Korb is a student worker in the NEH-funded Guthrie Theater Archives project. She’s graduating May 2016 with a BA in art and plans to pursue a career in arts administration.

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