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Poet Ben Johnson is believed to have coined the word "playwright" in his Epigram 49, "To Playwright." Wright is an English term for “craftsman or builder.” At the time, "playwright" had a negative connotation implying that a playwright was a simple “tradesman” who put together works for the theater. The term lost this negative meaning by the early 19th century.

Western theater started in Athens in ancient Greece. Ancient Athenians created a theatrical culture between 500 and 200 B.C. The form, technique, and terminology of that culture have lasted over the years. In the 4th century Aristotle wrote Poetics, the first manual for writing plays. It encompassed ideas that playwrights use today such as the principle of action or praxis as the basis for dramas, plots, characters, though, music, etc. Playwrights of that time, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes, created great works of drama, making the ancient Greeks the earliest playwrights in Western literature. They wrote plays for annual Athenian drama competitions in the 5th century B.C..

Over time, plays became a central part of Western culture. They experienced great popularity at different times and places. Plays in Renaissance-era France and Italy followed the principles set out by Aristotle, though bawdy commedia dell'arte, which involved improvisation, became more popular in Italy. In Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare wrote and staged many plays now counted as classics of English literature that ignored Aristotelian dramatic principles. Nineteenth-century playwrights invented the concept of the "well-made" play, which emphasized plot above character.

Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, plays received increasing support and attention from academic and cultural organizations. Today, drama is widely studied. Playwrights may look to a variety of opportunities for academic work or to submit their plays to competitions or for theatrical production. Most major cities house active drama communities with theaters and productions at many levels of accomplishment from local playhouses to major municipal theaters to the great, white lights of Broadway in New York City.