Kenneth Thorpe Rowe (1900–1988) was a professor at the University of Michigan. Rowe taught Shakespeare and modern drama, but was best known as an influential teacher of playwriting.
Approach to playwriting
Rowe regarded playwriting not as a mystical experience, but as a craft that could be understood and analyzed; he had remarkable insight into how a writer could construct a play with an eye toward the most effective development of plot and emotion. Across the span of six decades at Michigan, he taught and inspired legions of notable students, including Josh Greenfeld, Lawrence Kasdan, Dennis McIntyre, Robert McKee, Arthur Miller, Davi Napoleon (aka Davida Skurnick), Betty Smith, and Milan Stitt.
Professor Rowe began his playwriting seminar each semester by asking his students to read "The Poetics" by Aristotle. He then taught them how to identify the workings of classic structure. In Rowe's view, all successful plays built dramatically from an "attack" (the introduction of a conflict) through a crisis and finally to a resolution. He applied his methods even to modern plays that were not unified in time and place; it was Rowe's contention that even non-realistic plays had the classic underlying structure.
Arthur Miller enrolled in Rowe's seminar in 1937. He later described learning from Rowe that the theater "was not a carousel one jumped onto but an instrument one had to learn to play." His early plays Honors at Dawn and The Grass Still Grows were written under Rowe's tutelage, and his teacher's influence was evident in the careful structural revisions that Miller made as he revised them over time. Honors at Dawn was recognized with a Hopwood Award at Michigan (1937), while The Grass Still Grows won the attention of a theatrical agent. Thus for Miller, Rowe became "a combination of critical judge and confidant," bringing together a unique "interest in the dynamics of play construction" with "his friendship, which meant much to me.".
Generosity to his students
Kenneth Rowe's kindness and generosity were legendary and inspired great devotion in his students. According to an article in Michigan Today, Rowe helped Arthur Miller in making his first steps in Broadway by connecting him with people Rowe knew personally in the theater world. When another of his students, Josh Greenfeld, graduated from Michigan, Rowe referred him to Arthur Miller.
Rowe’s student Robert A. Martin (1930–2008) wrote his doctoral dissertation on Miller under Rowe’s direction and went on to edit The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Martin spent most of his career teaching literature, drama, and creative writing at Michigan, and remained lifelong friends with his mentor. For his 1982 collection Arthur Miller: New Perspectives, Martin asked Rowe to write a special essay-memoir, "Shadows Cast Before," in which Rowe recalled and analyzed Miller’s work as a student playwright at Michigan. As Rowe wrote in the opening passage of his essay,
"The image of Arthur Miller as a student at the University of Michigan that recurs most frequently and vividly to my mind comes from the spring of 1938, his senior year....I was in my office at my desk....There was a knock on the door, slightly ajar for the spring weather, and I called "Come in." The door swung open, Arthur stepped inside and stopped at the foot of the steps, looking up, eyes glowing and face alight; and that is the picture that is in my mind, the moment before he announced, 'Professor Rowe, I've made a discovery!'"
To Rowe’s delight, Martin and Miller opened the Theater Essays with the following joint dedication: "For Kenneth Thorpe Rowe--teacher, scholar, friend."
In 1939, Rowe published 'Write That Play' which dealt with several fundamental topics that relate to the process of writing a stage play, including:
- What A Play Is
- Finding Dramatic Material
- Building The Play
- Analysis of a Great Play: More about One-Act Plays
- Analysis Of A Long Play
- Before And After The First Draft, Scenarios And Revisions
- Historical Conventions
- Functions And Values.
The signature of Rowe's written work was his patient explication of the role and impact of each part of a play's structure; his lucidity and insight were evident in his line-by-line analysis of sample plays such as Ibsen's A Doll's House. The passage of time has done little to diminish the book's value in helping a writer address the enduring practical issues involved in constructing a play. The book was re-published in the United States in 1944 and again in 1968.
Many years later, Rowe's second book 'A Theater In Your Head ' was published in hardcover. Its aim was to help readers of a play visualize a dramatic production, and it also dealt with problems of appreciating dramatic structure.