Playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson would have been 54-years old when he guest taught a class one semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana back in 1948. At that time, along with his play (The Jazz Singer) that was performed over 300 times in Broadway, he had more than 25 feature credits as a screenwriter.
Yet I think the book that came out of teaching that class (The Human Nature of Playwriting) is an excellent example of what I’ve said before—produced screenwriters often don’t make the best teachers. They have a gift and talent to tell stories—and tell them like few can. When they write, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase, the ghost comes by.
But where Raphaelson’s book is thin on technical advice on writing he does give some great anecdotes from his writing career that can be extremely helpful.
“The worst play I ever wrote and my biggest flop was The Wooden Slipper. I worked on it harder and longer than anything else in my life—three years—and it was completely meaningless, full of technique and nothing else…The Wooden Slipper was a devastating failure when it opened in 1933. On the second night there were a hundred people in the house, many of them on passes. On the third night Dwight Wiman, the producer, decided to give no passes and about twelve people came…sitting there alone in the balcony, I saw the obvious —what was wrong with the play, how bad it was and why; and that was a great moment…When I think of that night, I remind myself to write about living people; to write unpreteniously, for I have no grandeur; to write humorously, for it is intolerable to see people as they are without the grace of humor; and to not write at all unless there are people in my heart—to live instead, and that isn’t easy, either.”
As the saying goes, “Success is a poor teacher.” The lesson of touching a burning stove is quickly learned.
In the class and book Raphaelson spends a lot of time letting students develop their ideas which I didn’t find very interesting. In Raphaelson’s later years he did teach playwrighting at Columbia University in New York and perhaps there is where he further developed a teaching style. (Any former Raphaelson students out there?)
Maybe all Raphaelson was doing in Urbana was what the best teachers do—simply investing time encouraging and fostering talent that some students have. Slogging through bad ideas and dead end scenarios in hopes that one or two in the class will have a break through and eventually have their work find its way to the big screen.
May your “Wooden Slippers” find their way to the stage or screen. And if flops, may you learn from your mistakes and make the next one better. Keep in mind that seven years after Raphaelson’s flop, the script he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion helped actress Joan Fontaine win an Oscar for her performance.