Recently my short story “Escape” was published by Stone Canoe. It is now available at stone canoe 6 online through stonecanoejournal.org. I’ve been writing short stories for a long time, but never made much effort until recently to get any published. Yet as I’ve come to consider short story writing necessary to my playwriting, I’ve finally realized that it would be useful to have stories published as well as plays produced.
As playwriting and short story writing are considered separate arts, their connection has not been sufficiently looked at. The most famous example of a playwright writing short stories is Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is rightly considered to be the greatest of short story authors, surpassing even Guy de Maupassant. While Chekhov worked as a doctor, he supported his family by writing short stories for magazines.
Yet throughout his brief life, Chekhov had a passion for the theatre. He wrote plays, but, with the exception of farces, had little success in the theatre for many years. It was only near the end of his life, when his body was all but consumed by tuberculosis, and he was no longer able to practice medicine, that Chekhov emerged as Russia’s leading playwright.
Certainly Chekhov’s extensive work in short fiction prepared him for his major work as a dramatist. While his stories have strong action, this action is subtly presented. Chekhov went from writing comic short stories to writing serious short stories to writing novellas. His novellas, such as The Duel and Ward No. 6 have all the rich arrangement of theme that would become the hallmark of his dramatic work.
It seems that in the twentieth century, following Chekhov’s death, many playwrights considered short story writing as mere preparation for their later literary work. Yet a number of mature playwrights have come to take the short story form quite seriously. Romulus Linney, who started as a novelist, published a number of short stories. Arthur Miller wrote enough stories near the end of his life to make a collection, Presence. And Sam Shepard has, especially in recently years, published several short story collections.
Michaelangelo, who worked as a sculptor, painter and architect, said that everything in the visual arts was design. The great poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht could have said that everything in literature is story. For at the base of all Brecht’s art is story. Strong stories are the spines of his best poems, songs, plays, screenplays and short stories. It should be noted that a number of Brecht’s short stories are outstanding.
For as Brecht has taught me, a play must have a strong story under it. Some stories will be told in a straightforward manner, as with Brecht. Or the story teller may follow Chekhov’s lead in subtly arranging events so as to conceal structure. But nonetheless, without a story’s strong undercurrent, a play is mere talk and gesture.
While I am aware that only a small part of my work consists of short stories, I hope to continue learning from the form. The short story is now as essential to playwriting as the sonnet was in Shakespeare’s time.