Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Steele MacKaye? Dion Boucicault? W. S. Gilbert? Sanford B. Hooker? David Belasco? Daniel Frohman? William M. Tanner? Walter Winchell? James Thurber? Michael Crichton?

Dear Quote Investigator: A magnificent work of art emerges in its final form like Venus from a scallop shell; no modifications are required according to one unrealistic approach to creativity. Numerous writers and composers strongly disagree and emphasize the need for painstaking refinement. A family of sayings highlights this process:

  • Great novels are not written, they are rewritten.
  • A stage play is not written but rewritten.
  • Good stories are not written but are re-written.
  • The secret of good writing is rewriting.

Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Quote Investigator: In July 1889 the popular U.S. playwright and actor Steele MacKaye published in several newspapers a piece titled “How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil”. The first line presented his thesis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Plays are not written—they are rewritten.
In this lies the advantage of the creative, as distinct from the critical, literature of the stage.

By 1894 the saying had been reassigned to the Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, and by 1903 W. S. Gilbert had been assigned a variant referring to comic operas. Yet, the earliest evidence currently points to Steele MacKaye as crafter of the statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The name MacKaye is sometimes spelled without capitalization as “Mackaye”. In this article the preferred spelling will be “MacKaye”, but quotations using “Mackaye” will be preserved.

In August 1899 MacKaye’s essay and nascent aphorism were reprinted in “The Author: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help All Literary Workers”. 2

In October 1889 a harsh review of a mediaeval comedy by MacKaye titled “An Arrant Knave” appeared in “America: A Journal for Americans”. The main actor in the production was Stuart Robson. The reviewer compressed the adage by using the conjunction “but”. He also wielded the words against MacKaye: 3

Mr. Mackaye recently announced with an attempt at epigram that “plays are not written; but rewritten.” Granting this, it must be recommended that in justice to Mr. Robson. Mr. Mackaye rewrite “An Arrant Knave” with as little delay as may be.

In September 1894 the evening edition of the New York City newspaper “The World” attributed the saying to the prominent Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault who had died in 1890: 4

E. H. Sothern himself suggested a good many of the radical changes that have been made in “The Victoria Cross” at the Lyceum Theatre since the opening night. Sothern has worked hard with Mr. Potter, and the result is said to be extremely satisfactory. In the language of the late Dion Boucicault: “Plays are not written; they are rewritten.”

In 1897 “The New York Times” further disseminated the saying without attribution: 5

The stage manager’s annotations on the “prompt copy” of the play almost equal in volume the words written by the author. It has been said, and very truly, that plays are not written, but re-written.

In 1903 the columnist George Ade credited the celebrated librettist W. S. Gilbert with a variant saying: 6

W. S. Gilbert once said: “Comic operas are not written; they are rewritten.” That is why the first-nighters are to be envied. They hear lines and musical numbers which are denied the latecomers, who drop in after the performance has been “whipped into shape.”

In 1911 a journalist in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California employed the saying while criticizing the practice of rewriting: 7

It is an old joke that plays are not written, but, rewritten. This is what so frequently makes them rotten.

In 1914 “The Theatre Magazine” remarked that many individuals were at that time being credited with the saying: 8

It has been said–and the original assertion credited individually to a dozen or so of well-known dramatists, actors and producers–that “plays are not written, but rewritten.”

In 1915 an editorial by Sanford B. Hooker M.D. in “The New England Medical Gazette” applied the saying to good papers: 9

Finally, good papers are not written; they are rewritten.
S. B. H.

Also in 1915 a book about “The Art of Public Speaking” applied the saying to speeches: 10

Good speeches, like plays, are not written; they are rewritten. The National Cash Register Company follows this plan with their most efficient selling organization: they require their salesmen to memorize verbatim a selling talk.

In 1916 an article in “The Anaconda Standard” of Montana ascribed the saying to theatrical producer David Belasco: 11

David Belasco, one of the world’s most artistic and successful producers of the spoken drama and a playwright of world-wide fame, in an article written for the Saturday Evening Post, says: “A stage play is not written but rewritten.” He tells in his article how he has rewritten time and again his foremost successes.

In 1919 journalist Isaac F. Marcosson writing in the pages of “The Saturday Evening Post” credited theatrical producer Daniel Frohman: 12

Daniel Frohman once said: “Plays are not written but rewritten.” This applies to all the Phillips books.

David Belasco did employ the saying without attribution in his 1919 book “The Theatre Through Its Stage Door”: 13

Almost invariably the exceptionally successful play is not written, but rewritten. However attractive it may seem in the form in which it comes to the producer, it is capable of improvement. This axiom of the theatre, which is as old as the theatre itself, has been verified again and again in my own experience.

In 1922 a textbook on “Composition and Rhetoric” by Boston University instructor William M. Tanner contained a variant referring to good compositions: 14

From the very outset we should understand what every successful student of writing knows by his own experience to be true: Good compositions are not merely written; they are rewritten.

In 1927 Percy MacKaye published a book about his father titled “Epoch: The Life of Steele MacKaye: Genius of the Theatre”, and he tackled the question of attribution for the popular adage. He mentioned the 1889 article by his father called “How Plays are Written”: 15

It commences: “Plays are not written: they are rewritten.” This aphoristic phrase, since widely quoted, has been ascribed, by mistake, to another dramatist, Boucicault.—On calling this reference to the attention of Mr. Townsend Walsh (the biographer of Boucicault), Mr. Walsh has told me (in 1926) that he knows of no definite data or reason for ascribing the phrase to Boucicault.—Steele MacKaye’s inveterate custom of rewriting his own plays many times doubtless caused him to coin the opening phrase of his article, which —syndicated, in July, ’89,—was widely commented upon as his utterance at the time.

A 1949 volume about journalism titled “News Men at Work” included a variant saying, but did not fully embrace it: 16

Newspaper, press association, and radio depend upon the rewrite to achieve timeliness or to give variety and difference to the copy. Whatever the motive, if well done rewriting makes for good journalistic writing.

All good writing is rewriting may sound like a pat generalization. In literary production it is not accurate. Masterpieces have been struck off at a sitting by poets and essayists and story writers who work that way.

In 1955 widely syndicated columnist Walter Winchell posited one of the secrets of good writing: 17

“The Merchant of Yonkers” was a quick flop several seasons ago. Thornton Wilder proved another secret of good writing is rewriting. So he rewrote it and named it “The Matchmaker”. The big street’s latest smash laugh-riot.

In 1958 Winchell employed a version of the saying again while discussing humorist James Thurber: 18

James Thurber explaining that the secret of superior writing is rewriting: “A story I’ve been working on was rewritten fifteen times. There must have been close to 240,000 words—2,000 hours. Yet the finished version can’t be more than 20,000 words.” As we have frequently noted—the way to write is to write, write, write, write, write . . .

In 1968 the author William Barrett was interviewed in the “Detroit Free Press” and applied the saying to novels: 19

Q. Do you do a lot of rewriting?

A. Yes. I think everybody does. Somebody said a long time ago that the really good novels are not written, they’re rewritten.

Also in 1968 Edward Dahlberg applied the aphorism to books: 20

Books are not written, they are rewritten, and so many times that when the vision is ended, one wants to step out of it straightway.

In 1971 an author named Pearl T. White shared a version referring to good stories: 21

Mrs. White said that she has been told that good stories are not written but are re-written, and she has worlds of material — stories, diaries and poems — packed away which she plans to re-write . . .

In 1977 Associate Professor Michael Mewshaw was interviewed in the alumni magazine of The University of Texas, and he shared a variant expression: 22

The first draft is never the way the novel looks ultimately. A lot is jettisoned and a great deal needs to be reworked, but the early going is the most painful part of it for me.

After the first draft, it’s a matter of rewriting. I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve said it a million times since: Novels are not written so much as they are rewritten.

In 2013 a newspaper columnist in Indiana attributed a version about books to mega-selling thriller writer Michael Crichton: 23

Even the great writers of today and yesteryear have communicated that taking the time for revision is the key to writing well:

“Books aren’t written. They are rewritten” — Prolific writer Michael Crichton, a doctor trained at Harvard Medical School who wrote numerous bestsellers, including “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence Steele MacKaye should receive credit for founding this family with an adage about plays in his 1889 essay. The ascription to Dion Boucicault appeared by 1894, but it is not well supported. Variants referring to comic operas, novels, stories, and other artworks were probably derived directly or indirectly from the words of MacKaye.

Image Notes: Picture of writer working with a laptop from lukasbieri at Pixabay. Picture of seats in an auditorium from ruthchia at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kaijanaho mentioned variants referring to musical comedies, stories, books, and good novels.)

Notes:

  1. 1889 July 28, Democrat and Chronicle, How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil: So Says Steele MacKaye (Written for the Democrat and Chronicle), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1899 August 15, The Author: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help All Literary Workers, Volume 1, Number 8, Editor and Publisher: William Henry Hills, How Plays Are Written by Steele MacKaye in The Milwaukee Sentinel, Start Page 118, Quote Page 118, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1889 October 3, America: A Journal for Americans, Volume 3, Number 1, Dramatic Notes, Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 2, Slason Thompson & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1894 September 14, The World – Evening Edition, Stage News and Gossip, Quote Page 6, Column 6, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1897 November 28, The New York Times, Getting the Play Ready for the Stage (From Leslie’s Weekly), Quote Page 22, Column 5, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1903 April 23, Muskegon Daily Chronicle, The Making of a Comic Opera by George Ade, Quote Page 4, Column 3,Muskegon, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1911 September 3, San Francisco Chronicle, Section Dramatic- Society, Carle in Characteristic Converse by Ralph E Renaud, Quote Page 21, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1914 March, The Theatre Magazine: The Magazine for Playgoers, Volume 19, Number 157, Section: The Theatre Magazine Advertiser, Article: The Typist and the Drama, Start Page 152, Quote Page 152, The Theatre Magazine Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1915 January, New England Medical Gazette: A Monthly Journal of Homoeopathic Medicine, Volume 50, Number 1, Editorial by S. B. H. (Sanford B. Hooker), Start Page 37, Quote Page 42, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1915 Copyright, The Art of Public Speaking by J. Berg Esenwein and Dale Carnagey, Series: The Writer’s Library, Chapter XVI: Methods of Delivery, Quote Page 175, The Home Correspondence School, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1916 October 8, The Anaconda Standard, Photoplays and Photo Players, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Anaconda, Montana. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1919 August 16, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 192, Number 7, Some Literary Friendships by Isaac F. Marcosson, Start Page 8, Quote Page 107, Column 3, Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1919, The Theatre Through Its Stage Door by David Belasco, Edited by Louis V. DeFoe, Chapter 2: The Evolution of a Play, Quote Page 46, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1922 Copyright, Composition and Rhetoric by William M. Tanner (Instructor in English in Boston University), Chapter V: Writing an Original Composition, Quote Page 86, Ginn and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1927, Epoch: The Life of Steele MacKaye: Genius of the Theatre, A Memoir of His Son Percy MacKaye, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 24: Recuperation, Quote Page 213, Boni & Liveright, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  16. 1949, News Men at Work: Reporting and Writing the News by Laurence R Campbell and Roland Edgar Wolseley, Chapter 6: Starting and Building the Story, Quote Page 89, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  17. 1955 December 15, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Best of Broadway: Rewrite Job Turns Flop Into Smash Laugh-Riot by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 35, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1958 March 27, Lebanon Daily News, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 43, Column 3, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  19. 1968 September 29, Detroit Free Press, Book & More Books: How William Barrett Plotted ‘Wine and Music’ by John Askins (Free Press Staff Writer), Quote Page 5B, Column 1, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  20. 1968 Copyright, The Carnal Myth: A Search Into Classical Sensuality by Edward Dahlberg, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 11, Weybright and Talley, New York. (Verified with scans)
  21. 1971 June 25, The Augusta Chronicle, Why don’t more women write?’ Mrs. White accepted the challenge by Mary Turner (Women’s Editor), Quote Page 5C, Column 1, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  22. 1977 November, Alcade: The University of Texas Alumni Magazine, A Story Only You Can Write: Interview with Michael Mewshaw (Univ. of Texas Associate Professor of English), Start Page 30, Quote Page 30, Published by The Ex-Students’ Association, University of Texas, Austin, Texas. (Google Books Full View)
  23. 2013 November 9, The Daily Journal, Daughter, sorry for unfair exam by Janet Hommel Mangas, Quote Page B2, Column 4, Franklin, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)