The Importance of Stage Directions

This week I happened to reread The Importance of Being Earnest, which went down even smoother and faster than I had remembered it and inspired me to immediately revisit the 2002 film adaptation starring Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. I don’t know that I’ve ever juxtaposed an original work and its adaptation so immediately, and it was fascinating to see the choices and changes made all around. First of all, the world of the film is vastly larger than the play’s as it reads on the page: whole cities and country landscapes, as seen by train, carriage, and of course handbag—even a hot air balloon. Time is stretched as well, with scenes chopped up and interspersed with long sequences of fantasy and flashback. It makes sense for a play to flash by on the page faster than on stage, but in this cast the contrast is especially striking—and makes the film feel not only more expansive, but also quite a bit heavier.

Also interesting, probably most because I’m a rank amateur when it comes to appreciating theater and don’t fully understand the jobs of an actor or especially a director, were the choices made in interpreting Wilde’s stage directions. Meaningful, directed gesture is something I’m conscious of and trying to use more mindfully in my own writing. For obvious reasons, theater is a great place to find examples. Wilde’s stage directions are often abstract and/or slapstick, leaving a lot up to the actor/director and yet with much of the scene’s comedy hinging on the delivery. Maybe my favorite example is the scene in which Jack and Algie, both newly heartbroken, fight over muffins. The scene’s humor and depth, and the relationship between the characters themselves, all live primarily in spare stage directions like “ [Begins to eat muffins.]” and “[He seizes the muffin-dish from Jack.]”

For your edification, and appreciation of Colin Firth al fresco in a white suit, here’s how that scene plays in the 2002 film:


Lately I’ve been experimenting with a drafting technique I learned from a grad school professor: writing scenes almost as stageplays first, the early drafts just dialogue and very occasional bracketed stage directions. After a first draft, I go back and flesh out the scene itself, genre-bending it fully into prose. In addition to getting me to move the story from point A to point B before I get bogged down in description, this also saves me from my own tendency to overwrite early drafts.

I read plays much more rarely than novels and story collections, but after this experience with Wilde I think it’ll be a useful exercise to read and then watch theater whenever possible. It helps to think of a story as malleable—always room for the addition of a hot air balloon, no matter how polished the “final” version. Perhaps it’s productive to think of some novel and story projects as theater with very, very thorough stage directions.