From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A playwright, also known as a dramatist, is a person who writes dramatic literature or drama. These works may be written specifically to be performed by actors or they may be closet dramas or literary works written using dramatic forms but not meant for performance.
The term is not a variant spelling of playwrite, but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who crafts plays. The homophone with write is in this case coincidental.
The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are the Ancient Greeks, some of their earliest plays having been written around the 5th century BC. Such notables as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes established forms that are still relied on by their modern counterparts.
While the most famous playwright in the English language is William Shakespeare, whose classic tragedies, comedies, and histories are still being performed hundreds of years after they were written, the term 'playwright' appears to have been coined by Ben Jonson in his Epigram 49, To Playwright, as an insult, to imply an inferior hack-writer for the theatre. He always described himself as a poet, since plays during that time period were always written in meter and so regarded as the provenance of poets. This view was held even as late as the early 19th Century. However, it later lost this negative connotation.
Contemporary playwrights often do not reach the same level of fame or cultural importance that they have in the past, since the theatre is no longer the only outlet for serious drama or entertaining comedies, and must compete with films and television for an audience. In addition, the perilous state of funding for the arts in the U.S. and a growing reliance on ticket sales as a source of income for non-profit theatres has caused many of them to reduce the number of new works they produce. For example, Playwrights Horizons produced only six plays in the 2002-03 seasons, compared with thirty-one in 1973-74. As revivals and large-scale production musicals become the de rigueur Broadway (and even Off-Broadway) production, it has become much more difficult for playwrights to make a living in the business, let alone become major successes.
However, the most successful playwrights are often high-status figures in their industry, in stark contrast to the status of the screenwriter in Hollywood. While this may be considered to be a result of the more literary approach that has characterised the theatre since its roots in poetry, it is also because of the hard fact that according to Dramatists Guild , the playwright has the final say on a production — a situation which leaves less room for the director to be as much of an auteur as the film director, since the playwright’s vision takes precedence.