February 7, 2022
What do playwriting and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s 1956 book, The Power of Positive Thinking, have in common?
Peale points out that life is balanced by good and bittersweet events: every hard-won achievement requires some sacrifice or effort to reach the goal. This point struck a chord with me not only as I reflect on my personal achievements, but as I was taught to structure plays. To provide a broad overview of the craft, once the main character states their ”want,” (as in, “I want to start a tee shirt business in Hawaii,” or whatever their heart’s desire may be), the character is put through challenges, trials, and tribulations balanced by achieving short-term goals and milestones until they either attain their “want” (what Shakespeare would term a comedy) or they are thwarted in their attempt to be successful, or die before their goal can be reached (Shakespeare termed this type of play tragedy). If the character does not achieve their goal, but learns a valuable lesson, the play or musical follows the model of traditional Yiddish theater. Some of the most successful plays are written with characters experiencing the ebb and flow of happiness and setbacks of real life.
Ever since high school, it seemed to me that for everything I achieved, something detracted from having a completely happy, joyful experience. Something had to be given up in order to get the overarching prize or was lost in the process. I wondered, why is this so? When I read Dr. Peale’s book, I realized this is the way of success for anyone who has the courage and tenacity to pursue their dream. When this reality is injected into playwriting, in a condensed way, demonstrating cause-and-effect, it creates a story audiences can relate to experiencing. When the stakes are raised throughout the play, the audience is engaged until the very end.
The Power of Positive Thinking is a classic and well worth reading, or re-reading, filled with advice and examples of personal success stories to help all of us navigate the rough health, social, and economic waters we are treading today. One reason Peale’s words still resonate is because he was so forward-thinking. Over a decade before the Beatles visited India and made meditation cool, Peale was advocating taking time to sit in silence and quiet the mind. Peale advised this method as a form of therapy. Many alternative health professionals recommend this practice today. Peale noted how “noise producing gadgets” in the mid-1950s, which rattled nerves and disturbed the calm, did not exist in the day of his forefathers. The effects of everyday noise must be counteracted with periods of silence to maintain equilibrium. One wonders what Peale would think of our modern world of 24/7 technology. His common-sense advice for personal satisfaction rings as true today as it did nearly 75 years ago: have a goal, work toward it, take care of your health and well-being along the way.