Production’s “dubious advantage”: Lesescenarios, closet drama, and the (screen)writer’s riposte


Part of "Lesescenarios": a special section.

This play is to be regarded merely as a spectacular narrative in which, for the purpose of tracing out the innermost workings of the soul, advantage has been taken of dramatic modes, without otherwise conforming to the stringent rules of theatrical composition or seeking the dubious advantage of stage production. ... A greater amount of incident is crowded together in this play than was possible to confine within the narrow limits prescribed by Aristotle and Batteux ... And for this reason, I would have been ill-advised to attempt bringing my drama to the stage.

~ Friedrich Schiller, Preface to Die Räuber (The Robbers), 1781

[T]he reading of a tragedy is a fine abstraction. It presents to the fancy just so much of external appearances as to make us feel that we are among flesh and blood, while by far the greater and better part of our imagination is employed upon the thoughts and internal machinery of the character. But in acting, scenery, dress, the most contemptible things, call upon us to judge of their naturalness. ... [The actress] never got more fame by anything than by the manner in which she dismisses the guests in the banquet-scene in Macbeth: it is as much remembered as any of her thrilling tones or impressive looks. But does such a trifle as this enter into the imaginations of the reader of that wild and wonderful scene? Does not the mind dismiss the feasters as rapidly as it can? Does it care about the gracefulness of the doing it? But by acting, and judging of acting, all these non-essentials are raised into an importance, injurious to the main interest of the play.

~ Charles Lamb, "On the Tragedies of Shakspeare," 1811

[These plays] were conceived and constructed wholly in the light of possible representation — representation in particular conditions which it was hoped they might successfully meet, but with which in the event they had not the good fortune to consort. They were addressed in each case with extreme, perhaps with extravagant, deference to a theatre, to a company, and especially to the presumable interpreter of the part supposed to be the most actable or the most "sympathetic," and are therefore experiments essentially proportionate and practical. They are also experiments in the line of comedy pure and simple. If it be very naturally and somewhat sternly inquired, accordingly, why, failing of their sole application, they appear in a form which is an humiliating confession of defeat, I am afraid the only answer is that the unacted dramatist has still the consolation — poor enough, alas ! — of the performance imaginary. There are degrees of representation, and it breaks his fall and patches up his retreat a little to be correctly printed — which is after all a morsel of the opportunity of the real dramatist. As Labiche and Ibsen would only be partly real to us if we had not their indispensable text, so the baffled aspirant may in offering his text delude or amuse himself with a certain pretension to indispensability. He recommends on this occasion his melancholy subterfuge to his numerous fellow-sufferers, who are surely welcome to such comfort as they can get. The covers of the book may, in a seat that costs nothing, figure the friendly curtain, and the legible " lines " the various voices of the stage ; so that if these things manage at all to disclose a picture or to drop a tone into the reader's ear the ghostly ordeal will in a manner have been passed and the dim foot-lights faced. The publication of these simple attempts — so calculated for a "fit" or for a "bid" that they doubtless missed their way through an anxious excess of simplicity — is in a word a faint make-believe.

~ Henry James, Preface to Theatricals, Two Comedies (Tenants & Disengaged), 1894

Readers will readily discern, too, that The Dynasts is intended simply for mental performance, and not for the stage. Some critics have averred that to declare a drama as being not for the stage is to make an announcement whose subject and predicate cancel each other. The question seems to be an unimportant matter of terminology. Compositions cast in this shape were, without doubt, originally written for the stage only, and as a consequence their nomenclature of "Act," "Scene," and the like, was drawn directly from the vehicle of representation. But in the course of time such a shape would reveal itself to be an eminently readable one; moreover, by dispensing with the theatre altogether, a freedom of treatment was attainable in this form that was denied where the material possibilities of stagery had to be rigorously remembered. With the careless mechanicism of human speech, the technicalities of practical mumming were retained in these productions when they had ceased to be concerned with the stage at all. ... Whether mental performance alone may not eventually be the fate of all drama other than that of contemporary or frivolous life, is a kindred question not without interest.

~ Thomas Hardy, Preface to The Dynasts, 1903

Much can be done, good in itself and possibly useful to others, even without a camera and money, in words.

~ James Agee, 1937

[A] new form, that of the published film-script ... is extraordinarily powerful ... [and] makes us wonder whether this may not be a pointer towards the way novels may be written in future. ... It is written, of course, in film language; we "dissolve to," the camera "tracks back," we see someone "in close up"; but we soon get used to all this, and adapt our imaginations to the whole movement, or the series of disjointed movements which make up the whole. The question arises: Do we need to see it on the film? Perhaps the answer is: We shall not need to see it only when the script is written so well ... That will be a rare occurrence, but a master in the art of the novel might well become a master in this new form.

~ The Spectator, 1953

[T]he film script may have excellent possibilities as reading matter. In a literary form where everything must be visible or audible the author must supply his reader with vivid experiences, not with explanations of what he means to say. ... [M]ovies, while essentially dramatic, are fluid and hypnotic enough to lend themselves to the poetic method of expressing ideas by means of images in suggestive combinations.

~ The Nation, 1953

Whether or not a screenplay is ultimately produced (read: performed) is a matter of consequence, not necessity.

~ Kevin Alexander Boon, Script Culture and the American Screenplay, 2008

The screenwriter occupies perhaps the loneliest and most uncomfortably liminal position of all wordsmiths. Kevin Alexander Boon reminds us, in his innovative and engaging monograph Script Culture and the American Screenplay, that even groundbreaking, forward-thinking texts like Peter Brunette and David Willis' Screen/Play1 -- widely credited with establishing the now commonplace imperative to consider films literary "texts" -- don't discuss the screenwriter or "the writing that prescribes film," that is, the filmscript: that "interstitial cog in the filmmaking process, ... the written text, ... the controlling narrative voice in most contemporary American film production."2 Hereafter, Boon aims his critical guns at both literary studies and film studies. And while this is estimable and ultimately necessary to the cause, the timber in the eye of the former is, I feel, that much larger. Quite rightly, film studies will always be auteur-dominated; Hollywood will always be film-sales oriented. But whether they be diaries, palimpsests, papyrus rolls, letters, marginalia, juvenilia, or scrawl on the back of Jack Kerouac's dinner napkin, textual artifacts are sort of our thing.

At least, they're supposed to be.

My people -- the established forces of literary studies, creative writing circles, and the publishing industry -- continually, and more or less implicitly, reaffirm the novel, short story, poem, and stage play's exclusive rights to critical, creative, and commercial attention. As such, we effectively undermine whatever campaign exists to validate the screenwriter as a "real" writer and assert the "literariness" of his text.3 This, of course, is to say nothing of code poets, asemic and tattoo artists, graffiti writers, and other marginalized authors and abject texts. As concerns the "screen poet" though -- as Scott Fitzgerald once mocked him4 -- he more or less accepted this status quo during the twentieth century as did critics, the academy, the film industry, and his fellow writers. But laminations over the alterity of screenwriters and filmscripts have grown more numerous and more vociferous of late. Articulate complaints arise from diverse quarters: from film critics and enthusiasts, from progressive literary types, and, of course, from the screenwriter himself. But no matter how obstreperous the clanging bells of complaint grow, this state of affairs isn't likely to change anytime soon, not without major shifts in the cultural perception of filmwriting, "entertainment" writing at-large, and commercial publishing's thinking about both.

While most narrative critics, facilitators, and creators (including screenwriters) continue more or less oblivious to the fact, writers have already created a handful of works that effectively bypass this social and intellectual logjam, texts that creatively undermine both the production imperative conventionally ascribed to filmscripts and, as a result, film's exclusive, but often indifferent, suzerainty over the genre. Therefore, while literary studies has long sniggered at him, and while his own industry and critical discourses have traditionally marginalized him, the screen poet may find his vehicle of vindication already at hand thanks to the literary trucmuches of writers like Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and James Baldwin. I hope drawing attention to these peculiar literary artifacts, and the fringe genre of "readerly" performance literature to which they belong,5 will help confirm the bold, empowering, and rather revolutionary assertions writers like Boon and Friedrich Schiller make regarding the dubious advantage of producing, and specious sense of necessity surrounding the production of, certain "dramatic" texts.

This essay serves three primary purposes.

First, I seek to introduce a larger audience to a predominately overlooked, and admittedly curious, textual form called the Lesescenario, or "closet screenplay." In so doing, I hope to initiate a broader awareness and discussion of this peculiar form and provoke (screen)writers into working more extensively in the genre, both as a means of validation and empowerment. Second, I want to situate this shadow-genre in a historical literary context by drawing parallels between the Lesescenario and Western "closet drama" and arguing we might consider certain instances of the latter proto-screenplays. Finally, I argue that writing these sorts of "readerly" performance texts is essentially an act of subversion whereby (screen)writers work in a performance mode only to intentionally bypass production. In this way, Lesescenario writers, like closet dramatists before them, (re)assert narrative representation's textual primacy and (re)claim a direct (re)connection with their audience. Doing so allows screenwriters to authenticate and empower themselves as self-sufficient artists (that is, "real writers") by taking their work directly to readers and establishing the sort of immediate textual connection with and literary authority over them that novelists, poets, and even playwrights routinely enjoy.

: :

While it's true that one might consider any published, or simply read, (screen)play a sort of closet drama, Japanese and Western writers have created plays and filmscripts expressly intended to be read rather than produced. (Of course, one doesn't necessarily cancel out the other. A modified version of The Robbers was staged nine months after Schiller articulated the "dubious advantage" of doing so, and some of the closet screenplays I discuss subsequently have been turned into motion pictures.) The first readerly screenplays emerged in Japan. As such, it was first christened "レーゼシナリオ".6 When discussed in the West, (we, as of yet, few) interested parties transliterate the term "Lesescenario" or, following Hepburn's romanization of Japanese, sometimes "Rezeshinario." In either alphabet, though, the term is a portmanteau of the German word Lesedrama ("read drama") and the English word scenario.

Developed in the second and third decades of the twentieth century alongside modern narrative film, I would argue Japanese writers created the Lesescenario for two reasons: one proactive and constructive, the other reactive and subversive. First, Japanese writers of the early 1900s used the form to textually experiment with cinematic conventions like montage and abrupt scene and perspective cuts. In this way, early Japanese Lesescenarios share a certain kinship with texts like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. (1930-36) and the cinematic dreamscapes of Raymond Queneau's 1944 novel Loin de Rueil (literally, "far from Rueil"; more commonly in English, Skin of Dreams). I would also argue, however, that these writers composed Lesescenarios to challenge the emerging, and infinitely more powerful, visual medium of film by emphasizing the script's enduring literary value -- lest it be used up and forgotten in the filmmaking process -- and by making a coincident statement about the textual primacy of storytelling in general. While film and fiction writing have more or less become part of the same narrative continuum, there was no reason, in the early twentieth century, to believe the two forms wouldn't pursue more parallel, or even competitive, paths as most other genres do.7 As such, film represented an economic and aesthetic challenge to writers in the early decades of the 1900s, and the fear that readers would become watchers spurred Japanese literary innovators to develop a subversive genre like the Lesescenario that uses film's textual foundation against the visual medium itself. By seizing that foundation, giving it directly to readers, and thereby withholding the performance imperative that seems inherent to it, Lesescenarios challenge and even interrupt the very processes of film production, turn potential watchers back into active readers, (re)assert the textual primacy of storytelling, and endorse the value of the script as a literary artifact.

Critics generally credit Ryūnosuke Akutagawa -- author of "Rashōmon" and the so-called "father of the Japanese short story" -- with creating the first Lesescenario. Just before his suicide in 1927, Akutagawa wrote Asakusa Kôen (Asakusa Park) and Yuwaku (Temptation) -- which critics define either as "(closet) screenplays," a slight anachronism, or simply as "scenarios," more appropriately referencing the primary means of textually preparing a film at that time8 -- and Aru Ahō no Isshō (The Life of a Stupid Man).9 Earlier, in 1920, Akutagawa wrote "Kage," ("Shadow") which, like The Life of a Stupid Man, critics usually define as "short fiction" even though both, in translation at least, seem to follow the same basic form as Asakusa Park and Temptation.10 As Seiji M. Lippit and David Peace observe, whatever we call them, these four works read like extended Imagist prose poems or, as Akutagawa seems to have intended, like fragmented, slug-less/dialogue-less montages told from a steely camera perspective.11 Akutagawa's legacy lives on in works of contemporary Japanese literature, for example, Haruhiko Arai's 2004 adaptation of Kyojin Onishi's WWII-focused graphic novel series Shinsei Kigeki (Divine Comedy) and Hideo Osabe's 2007 Lesescenario Tenno No Tanjou/Eigateki Kojiki (The Birth of the Emperor/Record of Ancient Matters).12

Beyond influencing his own national literature, Akutagawa's work may very well have influenced the Lesescenario form in, and even introduced it to, the West. He was essentially the first modern Japanese writer translated into English and read outside his homeland. His novella Kappa and Lesescenario The Life of a Stupid Man were both translated and published in the West in 1927, and other collections containing his stories began to appear in Europe and the US as early as 1930.13 Nevertheless correlation does not always indicate causation, and profound differences exist between Japanese and Western Lesescenarios. As such, I believe the two forms likely developed more or less independent of one another.

Controversial French writer, and notorious Vichy-diehard, Louis-Ferdinand Céline gave the Occident its first closet script in 1936: Secrets dans l'île (Secrets on the Isle).14 And unlike Akutagawa's work, which dispenses with and in some ways predates modern screenplay conventions like sluglines, the Western form, beginning with Secrets, maintains these formal elements. By preserving the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the filmscript in the same way closet dramas maintain the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the stage play, American and European Lesescenarios seem acutely cognizant of the literary tradition of which they are a part and, therefore, accentuate their relationship to Lesedrama a step beyond mere nomenclature. This stands in stark contrast to the Japanese form that, at least in translation, reads less like closet drama and more like narrative prose.

The disconnect between the two regional Lesescenario forms can be explained in three ways.

I've already discussed one of these, namely, that the Lesescenarios of Akutagawa and Western writers appropriate standard contemporaneous forms of screenwriting: Akutagawa the "scenario" of the 1910s and 20s, Céline and later writers the more modern "screenplay" of the late 1930s and beyond. Second, even though Akutagawa studied English literature at Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) and was, therefore, likely exposed to the Western tradition of closet drama, there isn't any equivalent indigenous Japanese form. Indeed, Japan's appropriation of a foreign term, from a foreign culture with a rich history of "read drama," to designate the closet screenplay suggests this as does a brief consideration of Noh and Kabuki theatre. Like Western opera, performance is a matter of necessity, rather than consequence, for these highly-stylized dramatic forms that involve music, elaborate costuming, ritual movement, and dancing, all of which fundamentally contribute to meaning. And the idea that one could adequately, or even better, experience Aya no Tsuzumi (The Damask Drum) and Kanadehon Chūshingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) through reading seems as absurd as suggesting the same thing about performances of Aida or Wagner's Ring cycle and a reading of their respective libretti. Because the culture has no comparable indigenous form of closet drama, and because Akutagawa was primarily a (short) fiction writer, the Japanese Lesescenario developed out of prose narrative and, therefore, looks more like that literary form. The exact opposite could be said of the Western Lesescenario: it developed from a tradition of closet drama and, therefore, favors that form.

The two regional Lesescenario forms also differ because of the way the relationship between film and textual narrative evolved during the first half of the twentieth century. By the time Céline gave the West its first closet script -- seven years after the birth of the "talkies" -- the adaptation imperative and fairly constructive partnership that now exists between textual fiction and films had been established. The release of Fleming and Selznick's Gone with the Wind was only three years away, and Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty, Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and Sabotage, and Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had already hit movie palaces. Film, therefore, no longer represented the sort of threat to textual storytelling that Akutagawa faced, and the Lesescenario was free to become more of an experimental curiosity than the tip of a spear. Amidst this détente, the (screen)writer didn't need to wrench his closet script back into a standard readerly prose form to wage his guerilla war against le septième art. As cinema producers and literary writers began establishing their now routine partnership, the writer could, instead, loosen his armor, turn aesthete, and experiment freely with cinematic formatting conventions in otherwise readerly prose. This not only allowed the relationship between traditional readerly texts, filmwriting, and film to become more of a creative interplay than a war. It also, as a result, increased the visual oddity of the Lesescenario by turning it into a crossbreed of literary and cinematic textual formatting. Since the 1960s, this is the sort of Lesescenario writers have produced, at least in the West. And it was during this period that the genre reached perhaps its greatest Occidental prominence, if indeed one can call a handful of works "prominent."

Three decades after Céline circulated Secrets, Queneau and William S. Burroughs published novels-in-screenplay-form titled Le Vol d'Icare (The Flight of Icarus)15 and The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, respectively.16 Critics and lay readers sometimes also consider Burroughs' Blade Runner: A Movie a Lesescenario as well.17 But while the subtitle and prose style clearly express a cinematic intent, as do the random strips of film running along the book's pages, the text's formatting is not terribly screenplay-like, even compared to Akutagawa's work. Instead of a filmscript meant to be read rather than produced, I actually read Burroughs' Blade Runner as an attempt to use prose as a projector that flashes scenes on the readers' mental screen and, therefore, as a movie-in-novel-form rather than a screenplay-in-novel-form. The text is also an adaptation of a novel -- Alan E. Nourse's The Blade Runner (1974) -- which makes it seem even more like a film since that discourse frequently adapts its narratives from existing source material, especially novels. Therefore, even though The Last Words of Dutch Schultz is almost certainly the only work in which Burroughs overtly appropriates the screenplay form, one could plausibly consider Burroughs' Blade Runner: A Movie a sort of Lesescenario. As such, I cite the text so others can make up their own minds about it.

In perhaps the only critical treatment of the Western closet script to date, Brian Norman reminds us that James Baldwin published his One Day When I Was Lost18 -- a screenplay whose production fell through -- as a stand-alone text in 1972.19 And Leonid Leonov's classic narrative of alienation and moral decadence in the urban West, Бeгcтвo миcтepa Maк-Кинли (transliterated: Begstvo mistera Mak-Kinli; translated: The Escape of Mr. McKinley), was published more than a decade before it was made into a movie in 1975.20 More recently, Darius James (aka, "Dr. Snakeskin")21 and Illuminatus! Trilogy co-author Robert Anton Wilson published (graphic-)novels-cum-filmscripts.22 Finally, because of his extensive work in film (most notably on the Oscar-nominated scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider), some have also considered Terry Southern's "Love is a many Splendored" and "Apartment to Exchange" Lesescenarios.23 Not completely implausible, to my eye these pieces of fiction instead read like closet drama. But, as I do with Burroughs' Blade Runner: A Movie, I reference Southern's texts here so others can decide for themselves.

: :

Not nearly as overlooked as the Lesescenario, Western closet drama nevertheless suffers from its own sense of literary alterity. This isn't the result of any quantitative deficiency, though, as example closet dramas stretch back, in some opinions, to antiquity. However, as with the Lesescenario (closet drama's modern inheritor), one has to be careful not to stretch the taxonomic boundaries of Lesedrama into meaninglessness while still accommodating the form's latitude. After all, like the Lesescenario, one could plausibly consider any play read as a text -- as many plays are, including, perhaps most commonly and prominently, those of Shakespeare24 -- closet drama. Moreover, playwrights like Arthur Miller and G.B. Shaw routinely heighten the textual, vs. performative, quality of their plays by including long prefaces and stage instructions that a theatre audience will, most often, never come into contact with. It isn't always easy, therefore, to strike a balance between the genre integrity of closet drama and its flexibly. Nevertheless, those who consider the works of Cicero and Strabo closet dramas commit the error of over-extension, I think. Charitable in the extreme, one could consider some of Cicero's works performative monologues to a point, but fully formed closet drama, especially in its modern and early modern forms, involves a minimum of two voices and, more often than not, fictive/adapted narrative content. (The former principle would also, I think, exclude works such as Browning and Tennyson's dramatic monologues.) This isn't to say there are no ancient forms of closet drama. Certainly, Plato's Socratic dialogues would qualify as read drama, and some critics have persuasively argued for (and others equally persuasively against) Senecan tragedy as recitation-oriented rather than performance-oriented.25 Some have even read the Gospel of Mark as a sort of closet drama (though more in terms of content than for any formal reasons).26 And in the Middle Ages, playwrights like Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim essentially copied the ancient dialogue model. By the early modern period, though, the form had taken the shape we recognize today.

Closet drama, and some would say English drama as a whole, experienced its golden age at the hands of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers such as Fulke Grenville, William Alexander, Mary Sidney, and Thomas Killigrew, all of whom wrote closet dramas, often as a result of the theaters being closed for both health and moral reasons. For the purposes of this essay, though, closet drama as a means of subversion and media prescience -- rather than social circumstance, as was the case in the early modern period -- begins with John Milton's Samson Agonistes (1671) and moves through Romanticism via texts like Schiller's The Robbers (1781), Lord Byron's Manfred (1817), P.B. Shelley's The Cenci (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's two-part Faust (1806, 1832). These texts all maintain formal dramatic conventions -- such as act and scene breaks, scene descriptions, and offset character names and dialogue -- but are expressly intended to be read rather than performed. As such they very likely helped frame the development of the Lesescenario, especially in the West.

Absurd as this might initially seem, I would argue that such instances of post-Miltonic closet drama can be read as proto-screenplays. Not only are many of the texts I list adaptations and compressions of other stories, a fact that makes them seem acutely modern and comfortably cinematic, living as we do in what Linda Hutcheon calls a "postmodern age of cultural recycling" when "85 percent of all Oscar-winning Best Pictures [are] adaptations."27 Writers from Milton to Goethe also chafed against the representational limitations of the stage, deliberately employing, as they did, various forms of epic grandiosity that defer to the limitless flexibility of the human imagination. Taking this commonly drawn conclusion one step further, I would argue that these works also implicitly anticipate a more powerful performance medium that could adequately produce such narratives in the manner their writers envisioned. Namely, they anticipate the sheer technicolor and special-effect possibilities of modern film. Admittedly, Schiller seems to have had more intellectual quarrels with classical, Aristotelian principles of stage production and the prudish sensibilities of eighteenth century theatre audiences.28 And perhaps this is why Schiller so eagerly compromised The Robbers and eventually turned playwright altogether: he was less interested in exploring the subversive, experimental possibilities of form and anticipating more powerful media than he was in challenging social probity and theatrical mores. These other writers, though, use their closet dramas to directly attack and draw attention to the limitations of the stage. In his preface to The Cenci, for example, Shelley refers to his incest- and parricidal-soaked adapted story as "eminently fearful and monstrous" and suggests that "anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be insupportable."29 Certainly, The Cenci, like The Robbers, has proven historically difficult to stage because of it violates of any number of social taboos. But both plays, like other post-Miltonic closet dramas, also employ elaborate visual opulence that would have been difficult to adequately stage before the birth of modern film and cinematic special effects.

Other examples of post-Miltonic closet drama similarly chafe against the theatre's "dry exhibition" and anticipate more powerful dramatic media. Perhaps none do so more directly than the fifteenth, so-called "Circe," episode of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).30 Acutely interested in film, Joyce discussed adapting Ulysses with Sergei Eisenstein, envisioned parts of Finnegan's Wake as acutely cinematic, and served as the proprietor of the first cinema in Dublin.31 Representing the surreal, hallucinatory quality of Dublin's red-light district, the "Circe" episode of Ulysses also uses the following sorts of stage-director-maddening, but comfortably cinematic, action descriptions: "Snakes of river fog creep slowly. From drains, clefts, cesspools, middens arise on all sides stagnant fumes" (354); from the forehead of "His Honour, sir Frederick Falkiner, recorder of Dublin ... arise starkly the Mosaic ramshorns (384); "The beagle ... grows to human size and shape. His dachshund coat becomes a brown mortuary habit. His green eye flashes bloodshot. Half of one ear, all the nose, and both thumbs are ghouleaten" (385).32 These are but a few examples of an extensive list that would also include: the resplendent parade that follows Bloom's election as Lord mayor of Dublin (391-92), the erection of the "Bloomusalem" (395), the giving of alms to the poor (396), and the other Kafka-meets-David-Lynch action directions that pepper the chapter. As such, it seems Joyce's closet drama, as well as these others since Milton, were written in anticipation of a medium like film that could adequately represent severe, immediate scene/perspective shifts and the booming crumble of the Philistine temple; the soaring heights of the Bernese Alps; the supernatural experiences of Prometheus at the hands of Zeus; and the splendors of heaven and the horrors of a medieval dungeon. Only modern film approaches the representational vigor of the human mind, and writers from Milton to Joyce seem to have intentionally staged their closet dramas there until such time a powerful enough performance medium arose could do these narratives justice.

Like Lesescenario writers, post-Miltonic closet dramatists, including the Schiller of 1781, also acted as agents of literary subversion by writing dramas explicitly meant to be read rather than performed on a traditional stage. By mocking the limitations of the stage, and deferring to the human mind to deliver what the theatre could not and in some ways still does not, these closet dramas, like the closet screenplay, draw attention to the limits of performative, dramatic storytelling and re-emphasize the art's essential textuality. In this way, they, like the Lesescenario, also bring writer and reader into an intimate proximity that's often threatened, if not completely compromised, by full-scale production. By writing Lesescenarios, then, modern (screen)writers are, in a very real way, writing modern closet drama and, concomitantly, engaging a longstanding tension between performance literature and readerly texts. Doing so allows these writers at least the possibility of furthering the literary value of screenplays and validating themselves as writers.

: :

While this tension may have experienced a fairly constructive armistice since the 1930s -- an armistice that has increased the cultural cachet of film and enriched the pockets and positions of novelists, directors, and producers -- the peace and partnership between novels and film has done little to empower the screenwriter or to establish the literary value of the screenplay which, after all, serves as the core binding agent of the novel-film partnership. It may be time, then, for screenwriters to tap back the Akutagawan tradition and create Lesescenarios, and even performance-oriented filmscripts, with an assertive literary intent.

Of late, screenwriters have begun taking a larger, more public ownership stake in the literariness of their filmscripts. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, for example, auteur extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino took the unusual step of publishing an "exclusive scene from his script," amidst a Brigitte Lacombe photo-spread, to publicize Inglourious Basterds (2009).33 Doing so may be a matter of course in trade publications, fan magazines, and online (via sites like and But publishing an excerpt from a screenplay in a traditional, mass media magazine -- when the screenplay form itself still likely reads strangely to the majority of laypeople -- indicates Tarantino's level of investment in the literary value of his script and the degree to which he's willing and eager to seek popular approbation for this opinion. Additionally and perhaps even more importantly, the inclusion of this script excerpt in a leading, sales-driven magazine by circulation-minded editors suggests the extent to which publishers may be developing a new literary market for screenplays, either as a creative business foray or, perhaps more significantly, at the prompting of their readers. Not an isolated event, the publication of Tarantino's script in Vanity Fair seems to be part of a larger pattern. Indeed, the recent publication of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Story to Screenplay -- wherein Eric Roth's screenplay is published alongside the Fitzgerald story that inspired it, by a publisher long interested in squeezing every possible dime out of its famous Lost Generation writers34 -- could lead one to draw similar conclusions about the emergence of screenplays as a viable literary commodity.

These, and scores of other recently published screenplays by the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen,35 Cormac McCarthy,36 and, posthumously, Stanley Kubrick, aren't Lesescenarios per se -- save Kubrick's Napoleon which is only unintentionally so37 -- but they do suggest publishers have begun ascribing a certain amount of sustained, mass-marketed literary value to screenplays for perhaps the first time. This is hardly surprising, considering publishers are, like all members of the "old media" club, facing a paradigm-shifting moment in their profession and all the financial instability that accompanies such moments. Moreover, because it's such a natural part of what they do anyway, it makes sense that commercial publishers have begun looking to screenplays as a new, largely untapped potential source of revenue. If traditional market forces are any guide, these literary objects, which at present few buyers seem to be aware of, could be acquired on the cheap and resold with wide profit margins, especially if publishers and (screen)writers commit the sorts of publicity and marketing efforts to selling them that they routinely commit to nonfiction books and novels. Novelists frequently get paid twice: first by the publisher that puts his work into print and then by a studio for the inevitable "movie version." Screenwriters, who now toil in virtual obscurity and have little if any financial outlet for a spent or passed-over script, would likely welcome similar opportunities, save in reverse: being paid once when a studio purchases the rights to his script and then again when a Penguin or Knopf or Faber & Faber publishes that same script. Initially, I suspect scripts would need to be produced before they acquired any commercial value and that the publishing possibilities for unproduced scripts would likely continue to be limited. However, this isn't an absolute. As the Lesescenario form suggests, there is some evidence that scripts, like production-oriented plays and closet drama, can be written, sold, and read in their own rights whether or not they're ever produced or even intended to be produced.

In the age of visually-dominated (new) media, Lesescenarios may seem like ludditeish reaffirmations of textual culture and, as they were in Akutagawa's time, snarky bids to reclaim readers and readership from motion picture audiences. Certainly, it's no small thing for a (screen)writer -- with his relatively tame blacks and whites -- to shake a fist in the face of the audio-visual splendor of one of the most powerful narrative mediums ever devised. But a certain Akutagawan attitude may be necessary if screenwriters are ever to successfully subvert their literary alterity as well as that surrounding their texts. As a tool of guerrilla war, the Lesescenario can help collapse the distance between writer and audience. And along with increased publishing opportunities for all scripts, the closet screenplay is perhaps the screenwriter's most powerful weapon for parrying attacks against, and launching vigorous ripostes in the insterest of furthering, his literary bona fides and his text's literary value.


My thanks are due Darius James (aka, "Dr. Snakeskin") for helping me build my first list of primary Lesescenario resources and Twitter user Lesescenario for (a) contributing Asian-language resources I would have almost certainly otherwise missed and (b) helping drive the ongoing Lesescenario discussion.

I've taken the James Agee epigraph from his 1937 Guggenheim Fellowship application, which can be found in The Collected Short Prose of James Agee (Ballantine, 1970), 164. The Spectator epigraph comes from Bonamy Dobree's review of Dylan Thomas' The Doctor and the Devils (10 June 1953. 763-64) while The Nation's comes from Jacob Korg's review of the same ("Thriller into Art,” 14 November 1953. 413).


For the most part, the comments at the end of this article are driven by an on-going discussion of the Lesescenario canon. Over time, this evolving conversation has become fairly convoluted and will likely grow more so in the future. As an antidote, I've created this Google document:

  • Quimby Melton, "Lesescenario Bibliography" (Google Docs, 15 October 2012. [accessed 15 October 2012]).

It offers readers a comprehensive, easy-to-reference bibliography of primary and secondary sources relevant to the Lesescenario canon. Anyone can contribute to it by contacting the author or, preferably, by posting a comment at the end of this article.

The comment thread, bibliography, and "Closet Screenplay" Wikipedia entry (24 March 2012. [24 March 2012]) are, at times, mutually reinforcing, but the bibliography will always be the most comprehensive and up-to-date of the lot.

This is especially true with respect to secondary sources.

  1. Peter Brunette and David Willis, Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory (Princeton UP, 1989).
  2. Kevin Alexander Boon, Script Culture and the American Screenplay (Wayne State UP, 2008), vii.
  3. Boon observes that most writing about the screenplay genre falls "primarily under the auspices of vocational instruction" (vii) but lists a handful of exceptions. These include Kristen Thompson's Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Harvard UP, 1999), Lance Lee's A Poetics for Screenwriting (U of Texas P, 2001), and, what Boon calls "perhaps the closest example of screenplay scholarship to date" (viii), Andrew Horton's Screenwriting for a Global Market (U of California P, 2004). Along with Boon's text, these might be considered the leading foot soldiers in the campaign to validate screenwriting's aesthetic and academic bona fides.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Pat Hobby Stories (Scribner, 1995), 93. Scorn notwithstanding, Fitzgerald was, of course, an alumnus "screen poet," having spent the final years of his life in Hollywood writing for MGM.
  5. Roland Barthes' terms lisible and scriptible are usually translated into English as "readerly" and "writerly," respectively. See Barthes' S/Z (Hill and Wang, 1975) and "From Work to Text" (in Image-Music-Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1978). But while his terms emphasize the distinction between traditional literary works like the realistic novel (readerly) and more formally experimental twentieth century texts (writerly), I use the former term much more casually: simply to reference texts experienced through reading rather than performance.
  6. See the Concise Dictionary of Katakana Words (Sanseido, 1994).
  7. For more information on the contemporary interrelationship between film and novels, and the narrative continuum this interrelationship has created, see my essay "Ghidorah Attacks! Modern narrative's three-headed monster" (Bright Lights Film Journal 65 [August 2009]. [1 January 2010]).
  8. Boon helpfully charts the historical development of the screenplay genre in Script Culture, from numbered narrative frame to its modern form (3-24). During the time Akutagawa wrote his closet scripts, the silent picture scenario would have been the standard form of screenwriting. Comparing Akutagawa's translated closet scenarios to texts like Edwin S. Porter's scenario for The Great Train Robbery (1904) (Boon 6) reveals their consanguinity and, to my thinking, confirms that this is the form of filmwriting Akutagawa sought to appropriate.
  9. For a readily-accessible, English translation of Akutagawa's Asakusa Park, see (10 May 2009. Trans. Seiji M. Lippit., February 2004). An English translation of The Life of a Stupid Man can be found in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin, 2009), but Temptation remains available only in Japanese (in Konan no ōgi [Bungei Shunjū, 1927]).
  10. Like Temptation, Akutagawa's closet scenario "Shadow" remains published only in Japanese (in Kage tōrō [Shun'yōdō, 1920]). Unable to speak or read Japanese, I cannot absolutely confirm that they follow the scenario-based form of Asakusa Park and The Life of a Stupid Man. Translating these, though, would help Western critics better understand the development of the Japanese Lesescenario and give us a more concrete idea of their formal dimensions.
  11. See Seiji M. Lippit, "The Disintegrating Machinery of the Modern: Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Late Writings" (Journal of Asian Studies 58:1 [February 1999]: 27-50) and David Peace, "Last words" (The Guardian, 8 September 2007. [10 May 2009]).
  12. Osabe's (Shūeisha, 2007) and Arai's (Ōta Shuppan, 2004) Lesescenarios remain untranslated into any Western language. (The same can also be said of Onishi's graphic novel series [6 vols. Gentōsha, 2006-07].) As such, I cannot confirm whether Osabe or Arai rendered their Lesescenarios in Akutagawa's scenario-based form or according to the formatting standards common to contemporary filmwriting. Discovering which, by someone who can read Japanese, would help Western critics better understand the development and current state of the Japanese Lesescenario.
  13. See Olive Classe, Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (Taylor & Francis, 2000), 31. For those interested, an English edition of Akutagawa's novel Kappa remains in print (Peter Owen Ltd., 2004).
  14. For a readily-accessible, English translation of Secrets dans l'île, which journal editor Lucas Klein refers to as a "film sketch" (, see (10 May 2009. Trans. Mark Spitzer. Cipher Journal, n.d.). Published versions are available, in French, from Gallimard (2001) and Editions du Rouergue (2003).
  15. Raymond Queneau, The Flight of Icarus (New Directions, 1973). The text's French subtitle is "Roman en forme de scénario" ("A novel in the style of a filmscript").
  16. William S. Burroughs, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script (Arcade, 1993).
  17. William S. Burroughs, Blade Runner: A Movie (Blue Wind P, 1979). While this text did not form the narrative basis for the 1982 Ridley Scott film, Burroughs and Alan E. Nourse (whose 1974 novel, The Blade Runner, Burroughs adapted into his textual "movie") did sell Scott the titles of their texts so the director could use them as the title of his film. Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, who wrote the Blade Runner screenplay, of course based their script on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  18. James Baldwin, One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Dial P, 1972; Dell P, 1992; Vintage, 2007).
  19. Brian Norman, "Reading a 'Closet Screenplay': Hollywood, James Baldwin's Malcolms, and the Threat of Historical Irrelevance" (African American Review 39.1-2 [Spring/Summer 2005]: 10-18).
  20. Leonid Leonov, The Escape of Mr. McKinley (Pravda, 1961; Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1963) and The Escape of Mr. McKinley (Dir. Mikhail Shveitser. Mosfilm, 1974).
  21. Darius James, Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (St. Martin's Griffin, 1993).
  22. Robert Anton Wilson, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With (New Falcon, 1996) and The Walls Came Tumbling Down (New Falcon, 1997).
  23. "Love is a many Splendored" and "Apartment to Exchange" both appear in Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (Citadel, 1998).
  24. In his 1811 article "On The Tragedies Of Shakespeare," Charles Lamb argues that performances of Shakespeare's tragedies -- King Lear chief among them -- should be subordinte to readings because the former tends to homogenize, trivialize, and reduce the audience's experience: "It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. ... There is so much in them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do. ... [I]n the best dramas, and in Shakespeare above all, how obvious it is, that the form of speaking, whether it be in soliloquy or dialogue, is only a medium, and often a highly artificial one, for putting the reader or spectator into possession of that knowledge of the inner structure and workings of mind in a character, which he could otherwise never have arrived at in that form of composition by any gift short of intuition. ... [T]he practice of stage representation reduces everything to a controversy of elocution. ... [B]y the inherent fault of stage representation, how are these things sullied and turned from their very nature by being exposed to a large assembly; when such speeches as Imogen addresses to her lord, come drawling out of the mouth of a hired actress, whose courtship, though nominally addressed to the personated Posthumus, is manifestly aimed at the spectators, who are to judge of her endearments and her returns of love." Originally published in The Reflector, the essay has been reprinted a number of times, in print and on the web. See, for example, Charles Lamb: Selected Writings (Ed. J.E. Morpurgo. Routledge, 2003) and Wikisource (27 January 2011. [3 September 2011]).
  25. Arguments for Senecan tragedy as recitation-oriented often refer to the work of Friedrich Leo (1851-1914). Contrarian arguments for it as performance-oriented refer to works such as George W.M. Harrison's Seneca in Performance (Duckworth, 2000).
  26. Stephen H. Smith, "A Divine Tragedy: Some Observations on the Dramatic Structure of Mark's Gospel" (Novum Testamentum 37:3 [1995]: 209-231).
  27. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006), 3-4.
  28. While the Schiller epigraph capably supports my first assertion, one may need to read the whole of Schiller's preface to get a sense of his frustration with "the finer feelings" of late eighteenth-century virtue and "the delicacy of [those] manners." This preface is readily available online, at Project Guttenberg for example (8 December 2004. [15 June 2009]) and can also be found reprinted in the BiblioBazaar (2007) version of the play. Inexplicably, it is absent from F.J. Lamport's otherwise excellent, and widely available, 1980 Penguin edition.
  29. Shelley's preface to The Cenci is readily available online, at for example (July 1999): (15 June 2009).
  30. Other modern texts like William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun (Random House, 1951) approach closet drama in a much more conservative way and, as such, lend themselves to traditional staging quite readily. In the case of Faulkner's Nun, Albert Camus staged it at the Théâtre des Mathurins-Marcel Herrand in Paris in late 1956 as Requiem pour une nonne.
  31. Publications like the James Joyce Quarterly have documented Joyce's connection to and fascination with film. See, for example, their featured section "Joyce and Film" (42/43:1-4 [Fall 2004/Summer 2006]: 49-132).
  32. James Joyce, Ulysses (Vintage, 1986).
  33. "Tarantino Goes to War" (Vanity Fair, May 2009, 146-51, 178-79).
  34. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Story to Screenplay (Scribner, 2008).
  35. Collected Screenplays 1: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink (Faber & Faber, 2002). Presumably, this series is on-going, but no new volumes have appeared since 2002.
  36. The Gardener's Son: A Screenplay (Ecco, 1996).
  37. Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made (Taschen, 2009).

Citation: Melton, Quimby. 27 January 2014. "Production’s “dubious advantage”: Lesescenarios, closet drama, and the (screen)writer’s riposte." (accessed [PST / -7:00]).

Updated: January 27, 2014 at 12:44 pm (PST / -7:00)

By posting a comment, you agree to's privacy policy.