The Four Tempraments of Playwriting

greg orr

In a 1988 article  in American Poetry Review, Gregory Orr identified “Four Tempraments and the Four Forms of Poetry,” speculating that four inborn orientations in writers account for a gift of generating language in a creative way. Most poets are gifted with one, and develop the other three, tempraments, and peoms exhibit the gifts in various combinations. The greatest poet or poem would exhibit all four in natural abundance –although Orr notes that ” no one in English but Shakespeare could be said to exhibit all four with equal vigor.”

These tempraments seem applicable to other forms of writing, but before addressing that…


Story: dramatic unity—a beginning, middle and end. Conflict, dramatic focus, resolution.  

Structure: the satisfaction of measureable patterns…. the beauty and balance of equations…  [in poetry, mostly verse forms]  

‘Music’ …rhythm (pitch, duration, stress, loudness/softness), and the entire panoply of sound effects (alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, etc.).

Imagination: the flow of image to image or thought to thought….a stream of association, either concretely (the flow of image) or abstractly (the flow of thought).”

Orr opposses the  intensity, limits and law inherent in Story and Structure to the unconditional, limitless liberty of “Music” and Imagination:

LIMITING, RATIONAL:  The Aristotlean power and Hollywood grandeur of “discovery” and “reversal” function as pivot points in the best stories, but in some stories they are “magical” and “enthralling,” and certain works or writers  have the Platonic  “..something straight, or round, and the surfaces and solids which a lathe or a carpenter’s rule and square produces….beautiful, not in a relative sense; they are always beautiful in their very nature, and they carry pleasures peculiar to themselves and which are free of the itch of desire.”

LIMITLESS, IRRATIONAL:  The “musical” temperament is related not only to the individual sounds of the langauge but the overall aural soundscape of the play. If that sounds irrational, Orr would agree: “Dionysus’ flute rather than Apollo’s lyre—more ecstasy and trance than measure and order, and Imagination can be either concrete or abstract. Again, this seems irrational as a category, and is more easily seen in  concrete examples.

Orr proposes “a kind of Chinese menu—one from Column A…. one from Column B…” suggesting that a writer needs to possess both limiting and limitless, or rational and irrational aspects. Like any system of four, Orr’s dualities yield possibilities of various pairings and  triads, and seems a useful way of categorizing works of astounding range.

One can see how this would apply to the work of theatrical writers. And though it is difficult to confine great playwrights to only one category, one can list playwrights who are most easily discernible in each category.

STORY: Inge, Williams, Miller, Shanley, Marguiles, Lindsay-Abaire

STRUCTURE: Wilder, Anderson, Ayckbourne,  Frayn, Kushner

“MUSIC”: Wilde, Shaw, Pinter, Stoppard, Shepard, Mamet

IMAGINATION: Beckett, Ionesco, Orton, Albee, Durang

It is an interesting prism through which to view a playwright’s work, or even one’s own.

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