Is There an Aesthetics of Playwriting? Or Why Don't We Talk about How Beautiful Our Plays Are Anymore?

by Ana Cândida Carneiro and Hank Willenbrink 

This panel begins with a provocative but simple question: What if we shifted our discourse about playwriting from craft to aesthetics? Much of US training in playwriting focuses on questions of craft and the interplay between form and content. Yet, by placing our emphasis on the discourse of technique, we play into a neoliberal vision of culture, emphasizing product over process.

Likewise, the dominant mode of teaching creative writing, the writing workshop, pioneered by the University of Iowa's Iowa Writers' Workshop, instills writing practices that came of age after World War II. As Eric Bennett details in "How Iowa Flattened Literature" (2014), Iowa Writers' Workshop was funded as a place of creative resistance against the Soviet state's bankrolling of programs at the University of Moscow. Bennett's essay challenges the idea of a sui generis writing workshop and forces us to see the larger geopolitical dimension behind its prominence. In addition to giving us that wealth of great American writers like Carver, Cheever, and Robinson, it also foregrounded aspects of craft over all else. Bennett states:

The thing to lament is not only that we have a bunch of novels about harpoons and dinghies (or suburbs or bad marriages or road trips or offices in New York). The thing to lament is also the dead end of isolation that comes from describing the dead end of isolation—and from using vibrant literary communities to foster this phenomenon. In our workshops, we simply accept it as true that larger structures of common interest have been destroyed by the atomizing forces of economy and ideology, and what's left to do is be faithful to the needs of the sentence.

The international movement toward different dramatic modes, like postdramatic writing, has offered a challenge to the workshop's dominant mode of creative production. Yet, as theatre in the United States aims toward greater inclusivity, addressing structural racial inequalities, and the goals of social justice, we haven't evaluated the processes by which our plays are created.

By reinserting aesthetics at the heart of our practice, playwrighting in the United States can have a greater opportunity to engage in change. But first, we need to identify the structures that have facilitated the present moment. The dominant mode of aesthetics in the West has been built upon Euro-centric ideas of whiteness and beauty. It's in our ability to recognize this as a historical practice and to work toward new aesthetic paradigms that the potentiality of this moment reveals itself. This is the transformative possibility that aesthetics offers us as playwrights by recognizing our work as aesthetic practice.

This panel conversation offers three provocations. First, we advocate for expanding the boundaries of US playwriting into international conversations about different dramatic models that could enliven playwriting through aesthetics-based discourse. Second, we reflect on ways that thinking about creative practice and the aesthetic process inform one another and can be changed to move away from questions of craft toward creative practices that offer greater potentiality. Finally, we gesture toward ways in which awareness of aesthetics influences identity and perception and may be used to work toward justice in playwriting by offering new spheres for practice rather than playing into the power structures of neoliberalism.

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Work Cited

Bennett, Eric. "How Iowa Flattened Literature." Chronicle Review. 10 Feb. 2014. Web. Available at: