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Play Writing - Devices And Conventions

( Originally Published 1915 )

The drama ought not to correspond in every respect with the scenes which we daily witness in real life. The mimic powers of the art are not without their bounds; and it is ever necessary that its deceptions should not be altogether concealed from our view.—SISMONDI, The Literature of the South of Europe.

The dramatic art is the ensemble of the conventions universal or local, eternal or temporary, by the aid of which, in representing human life on the stage, one gives to the public the illusion of truth....

I shall not cease to repeat it: the theatre—like the other arts, after all—is only a great and magnificent deception. It has not at all for its object actual truth, but verisimilitude. Now, verisimilitude exists much less in the reality of facts than in the impassioned imagination of the spectators before whose eyes the dramatic author exhibits these facts.—FRANCISQUE SARCEY, Quarante Ans de Théâtre.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the characterization, it would seem advisable to consider certain devices and conventions by means of which plots are erected, sustained, or relieved.

Time was when a sub-plot or secondary fable was a familiar element in play structure, a story within the main story, emphasizing the latter by similarity or by contrast, but not directly building it up in a vital way, and therefore not strictly part and parcel of the main action of the play. Thus the love affair of Lorenzo and Jessica mirrors that of Bassanio and Portia, and the tragic experiences of Laertes parallel those of Hamlet, but are not really essential to either story. Nowadays, however, it is generally assumed that neither playing time on the stage nor unity of impression allows for secondary development. Exceptions to this almost axiomatic principle are rare.

The Element of Relief

Perhaps the chief relic of the sub-plot may be found in the element of relief. As everybody knows, characters such as comic servants, quaint old people, and juvenile lovers, have long been employed to furnish a humorous or a sentimental contrast to the main action, particularly when it has been deeply serious. Neither hero nor villain, however, is at present considered above contributing to mirth, and the youthful amorists are now given something more to do in the story than mere billing and cooing.

After all, the best relief possible is that of contrast. The scenes of a drama ought to be as carefully varied as are the constituents of a concert programme, and such variety is to be obtained by changing the number of characters participating in the scenes, as well as by alternating the graver incidents with the gay.


Humor is displayed in drama by means of verbal witticisms, which retain their flavor even when detached from the text; of lines that are amusing because they illuminate amusing traits of the speaker's character; and of situations or contretemps depending on the development of the story. In other words, there is a type of humorous effect peculiar to each of the three elements-dialogue, character, and plot.

Humor of dialogue is merely a facile means of provoking laughter, and is dependent solely on the author's ability to devise and to insert his jests or epigrams in such a manner as neither unduly to delay the action nor seriously to belie the characters that utter them. The plays of Oscar Wilde are even overloaded with dazzling collections of this superimposed ornamentation. We know, when we hear them uttered, that they are the achievements, not of the personages giving voice to them, but of the brilliant author only. Less clever writers run great risks in imitating the manner of "Lady Windermere's Fan" or of "Fanny's First Play."

Above all things, certainly, the dialogue humor of a drama should be original. A few years ago a play was produced in New York which boldly repeated many of the best epigrams of Wilde. Every really experienced theatre-goer promptly recognized them. And it is so with most of the "pickings from `Puck' " with which some authors are prone to lard their stage works. In "Under Cover," for example, to quote a single instance, one notes the interpolation of that antique bit of dialogue wherein the "juvenile" with the "tango mustache" says, "Something's been trembling on my lip for weeks;" and the ingénue protests, "Oh, please don't shave it off, Monty!" It must be confessed that though this good old jest has been circulating in the public prints since before the days of Joe Miller, everybody seems willing to laugh at it just once more.

Plot humor, and especially character humor, are much more valuable in the drama than is mere detached verbal cleverness. It would be easy to cite no end of examples of both, alone and in combination. Plot humor is, naturally, the principal ingredient of farce; character humor of comedy; though each is often found in melodrama, and even in tragedy. The absurdly simple-minded Sam Thorn-hill's remark in the last act of "A Pair of Silk Stockings," that he thought his wife knew he was "a subtle sort of chap," is a rich instance of character humor. And when the young Assyriologist in "The High Cost of Loving" greets a conscience-stricken pillar of society as "Father," we have an obvious illustration of humor of plot.

Coincidence and Probability

As has been seen, events may occur, on the stage as in life, either inevitably, as in the case of pure comedy and tragedy, or arbitrarily, as in the case of melodrama or farce. It is the mingling of these two kinds that makes for much of that confusion of the genres elsewhere considered. The arbitrary determination of plot, moreover, is illustrated in the matter of the forced "happy ending," the sudden and incredible conversion of a character, the over-night reform or reconciliation. Of course, at any point in a drama the arbitrary may intervene at the sacrifice of inevitability.

One prominent example of this intervention takes the form of the greatly overworked coincidence. There are, doubtless, frequent strange accidents in real life which wholly upset all rational courses of events. On the stage, however, the workings of chance—at least in serious drama—are regarded with suspicion. Time, that arch satirist, as Mr. William Archer and others have reminded us, has his joke out with Tess of the D'Urbervilles because a letter slipped under a door happens to slip also under a car-pet. In the employment of this expedient in his novel Mr. Hardy is as usual doing the thing best fitted to his purpose. On the other hand, critics have often pointed out that arbitrarily controlled action on the part of a main character in a comedy or a tragedy, to bring about a desired plot development, necessarily renders the person-age unconvincing. And likewise, if the intervention of chance be utilized to produce a major movement in the plot, the audience will be apt to lose faith and interest in all that follows.

This is, of course, merely going back to our fundamental principle of logic, here traveling under the name of probability. In real life a long-lost daughter, reared among gypsies and ignorant of her parentage, might, indeed, by pure chance stroll one evening unawares into the home of her unsuspecting father; but nowadays, when such an event occurs upon the stage, we grow restive and suspicious of the author's inventiveness or his good faith. Time was when important coincidence was accepted in the theatre as a matter of course, or even of preference. To-day, however, it has been for the most part consigned to that limbo of antiquated devices and conventions which, for the present at least, has swallowed up the soliloquy, the "apart," and the "aside," along with eavesdropping behind portières and letters fortuitously left lying about.

One recalls how purely coincidental it is that Paula Tanqueray's former lover should become engaged to her step-daughter. In Mr. Augustus Thomas's play, "As a Man Thinks," it is pure coincidence that discovers to Vedah Seelig, in Act I, that her fiancé De Lota has been in serious trouble: De Lota happens to have been involved with the very model Burrill employed and whose photograph the latter is exhibiting because he happened to have sold to the father of Vedah the figurine of which Mimi was the original. Moreover, this coincidence is doubled—in strangeness as well as in usefulness —when it is also made to serve as the means of apprising Elinor Clayton that her husband, who happens to have become involved with this self-same model, is justifying her fears as to his infidelity. Again, in Act II of this play, Clayton learns of the apparent infamy of his wife through the highly improbable coincidence which leads her father, on his way to Clayton's home, actually to see her entering with De Lota the apartment building in which he lodges. Perhaps it is the effectiveness of Scribe's "triangle of information," which the author employs in each instance, that reconciles us—if we are reconciled—to this bold use of the arbitrary.

This explanation, however, certainly does not apply in the case of the telephone incident in Act III. For the purposes of the plot it has become necessary for the Seeligs to learn of De Lota's evil record. The only person who could inform them, however, is Julian Burrill; but, as an honorable rival of De Lota for Vedah Seelig's hand, Burrill would be going contrary to his character if he were to turn informer. So the author has De Lota, who is alone with Burrill, start to answer a telephone call and then, when the receiver is off the hook, admit his guilt in full. It happens that the confession is heard not only by Dr. Seelig, answering the call on a branch instrument, but also by Frank Clayton, who is the husband of the woman with whom De Lota is involved, and who happens to be at the other end of the line. Thus a third astonishing coincidence is utilized, and the common sense of De Lota is belied by his stupidity in making damaging admissions into the connected transmitter of a telephone.

In Mr. Haddon Chambers's "Passers-by," the female waif who is called in from the London night turns out to be the mother of the hero's child. In Mr. Augustus Thomas's play, "The Model," the girl the Frenchman urges the painter to make his mistress, it develops, is the Frenchman's own daughter. In Messrs. John Stapleton and P. G. Wodehouse's farce, "A Gentleman of Leisure," the hero on a bet goes with a burglar to rob a house and enters the home of the very girl he has just been flirting with from the second cabin of the Lusitania. In Mr. W. C. DeMille's melodrama, "The Woman," a political boss and his son-in-law set out to ruin a woman unknown, who proves to be the former's daughter and the latter's wife. Each of these plays has won its measure of success, I am sure, not because, but rather in spite of this sort of expedient.

One hastens to admit that it is evident from the box-office records that this frequent use of coincidence—let the critics rail as they will—is condoned. In that exceedingly popular play, "The Man from Home," for example, the personage whom the unsuspecting hero makes friends with and thereafter addresses as "Doc," turns out to be the very Russian grand duke whose intervention can save the Kokomo lawyer's protégé. When presently, moreover, this fugitive proves to be the former husband of the woman who is conspiring to ensnare the hero's ward, the agglomeration of the fortuitous becomes fairly bewildering. When Victor Hugo abuses the arbitrary, as in "Ruy Blas," Sarcey explains that it is no great matter, since over "this strange fairy tale" is flung "the purple of his poetry." The French critic finds excuse in the fact that "Ruy Blas" is "precisely a marvel of style and of versification . . . Et quel vers! comme it est toujours plein et sonore!" It would be interesting to consider the possible excuses that might be offered in the case of "The Man from Home."

In the writing of serious plays, by all means the beginner should avoid the fortuitous coincidence that makes dramatic problem-solving over-easy.

Generally speaking, the expedient may be safely employed in the serious modern realistic drama only—to adapt Sarcey's familiar and often quoted principle—when it brings about comparatively unimportant changes. Mon-sieur Tristan Bernard, speaking of his play "Le Danseur inconnu," observes that "the events in it are ordered sometimes through the will of the personages, as in comédie de caractère, sometimes by pure chance, as in comédie romanesque. And is it not thus, after all," he queries, "that it happens in life, wherein we labor to construct our destiny with our own energies and the collaboration, benevolent or malign, of fate?" Because it is thus in life, however, by no means makes it necessarily correct in art.

Certainly, in the more artificial forms—the variants of farce and melodrama—coincidence may be used much more freely. Time was—and that not so very long ago—when the romantic costume melodrama, with all its extravagances of arbitrary plotting, was the most popular form of stage amusement. To-day, however, when the fashion calls for an approximation of life, unexaggerated, unemphasized, even unelected, the coincidental is largely under the ban. First-nighters show their sophistication by laughing at it, in their sleeves if not openly, as they have been known to laugh at the use of the "apart," the "aside," and the soliloquy.

Weak Illusions

What future decades will find amusing in, the other conventions of our present-day stage, it is, of course, impossible to predict. Undoubtedly, however, we are accepting quite soberly what will eventually serve as food for ridicule. We still allow ourselves to be startled, thrilled, emotionally played upon by all manner of childlike devices, some—but not all—depending upon an elusive novelty for their effect. Sophisticated audiences of to-day that scorn the soliloquy, for instance, yet find little difficulty in accepting such an expedient as that employed in Mr. Edgar Wallace's "Switchboard," wherein an exchange girl hears, presumably over the telephone, the remarks of numerous actors concealed behind a thin curtain. What seems most to matter is whether the particular device happens to be in or out of fashion.

I know of few more interesting subjects connected with the stage than that of the conventions on which the illusion of the theatre is based—a subject, by the way, which Sarcey has treated at length in his "Quarante Ans de Théâtre." How these conventions vary in different lands and periods, we need not here discuss. A single instance, however, may be cited. In Monsieur Rostand's miracle play, "La Samaritaine," there is a scene in which various disciples hold a discussion intended to be delivered in a "stage whisper." When the Master, who is across the stage, breaks into the conversation, they are amazed at His presumably miraculous hearing. As the spectators have heard very plainly all that has been said, however, they do not share in the disciples' astonishment. Instead, at least here in America, a discordant titter passes over the audience, when Peter exclaims somewhat grotesquely, "He hears everything!"

Trite Expedients

There is a manifest distinction between stage conventions and stage conventionalities. The former are largely necessitated by the physical conditions of theatrical representation. The latter, however, are chiefly the result of a lazy uninventiveness on the part of playwrights who prefer following beaten paths to striking out into newer territory. By dint of much repetition a vast number of stage expedients have become thoroughly hackneyed and, for the time being at least, should be regarded as taboo by amateur dramatists. Persecuted foundlings who turn out to be noblemen's heirs, hidden wills, dropped or miscarried letters, and innocent ladies caught in villains' apartments, are no longer so useful for dramatic purposes as they were when they were new-if, indeed, they ever were new. Still, they are constantly turning up, even in our modern realistic drama. The marked libretto that Elinor Clayton drops in the second act of "As a Man Thinks" is probably only a variant of the lost handkerchief or fan of ancient vintage. In "The Thunderbolt" Sir Arthur Pinero boldly—and superbly—deals with the stolen will and the cross-examined woman.

Perhaps, after all, it is impossible to go very far in drama without being obliged to make use of one or more antiques. In that event, it were doubtless better to select such as have not been especially overworked in recent days. When, for example, "The Lady from Oklahoma" was produced, it was found to deal with two conventionalities that had already been exploited during the season: the neglected wife who wins back her successful husband's interest, as in "The Governor's Lady;" and the faded woman who regains her bloom artificially, as in "Years of Discretion." The fact that "The Lady from Oklahoma" had been written before either of the other pieces did not save it from failure. That, however, was the author's misfortune, not his fault.

The following satirical recipes for conventional plays, taken from the New York Dramatic Mirror, may well serve to warn the beginner with regard to several dramatic schemes he should sedulously avoid:

POLITICAL PLAY—A boss, thick-necked and large of stature, who talks in a bullying tone and smokes fat cigars at an angle of forty-five degrees, and who in the end is completely outwitted by a resourceful little girl weighing about one hundred and ten pounds.

COMEDY of MANNERS—New twist given to Oscar Wilde's epigrams. At least two butlers. In tea scenes characters must wear summery clothes and discuss with just a trace, of malice the approaching nuptials of Lady Vere de Vera Rich. In last act dress clothes are essential.

AMERICAN PROBLEM PLAY—Woman must visit man's apartment at night unescorted. Extravagance of the wife discovered at 10:15, after which there must follow a stormy repetition of "Why did you do it?" until the climax is reached by the demolition of the chamber door.

AMERICAN MELODRAMA--One Colt automatic. One stupid and heartless detective. One or more slangy women characters, who furnish comedy relief. Theme to concern the chief form of whatever vice or corruption is occupying the immediate attention of the public.

RURAL COMEDY OF PRESENT TIME—A broken-down emporium run by a lazy, shiftless individual in the first act.' A well-kept emporium run by an energetic, ambitious individual in the last act. Reason? A good-looking vixen who knows the art of flattery.

RURAL COMEDY OF PAST TIME—City chap with riding breeches. One mortgage on the farm. A ruined daughter and an erring son. One sawmill.

If it is hard to avoid the trite in the construction of plots, it is possible to make up for such defects by means of novelty—more especially of truth—of characterization. Plots are necessarily artificial, but human nature is always new and always a fact. Seeking reality wherever he can find it, the latter-day playwright can follow no better course than that outlined by Stevenson in one of his essays. "Let him," writes this high authority, "choose a motive, whether of character or of passion; carefully construct his plot so that every incident is an illustration of the motive, and every property employed shall bear to it a near relation of congruity or contrast; avoid a sub-plot, unless, as sometimes in Shakespeare, the sub-plot be a reversion or complement of the main intrigue; . . and allow no . . . character in the course of the dialogue to utter one sentence that is not part and parcel of the business of the story." And, as the root of the whole matter, continues R. L. S., whose -words concern the novel but apply equally to the play, it is to be borne in mind that the work "is not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude, but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity."

"The germ of a story with him," asserts Henry James in writing of Turgénieff," was never an affair of plot—that was the last thing he thought of: it was the representation of certain persons." The critic goes on to explain, how-ever, that Turgénieff realized his own defect—want of "architecture," or composition. The playwright is rather more dependent upon this element of "architecture" than is the novelist; but he is none the less obligated—if he takes his art at all seriously—to the utmost veracity in "the representation of certain persons."

It is obvious that the skilful dramatist will make full use of the many legitimate devices of his craft. He will, for instance, provide the element of relief and variety through humor and especially through contrast. He will bear in mind that humor of plot or of character is usually the most telling and certainly the most dramatic. He will learn to look askance on the overworked coincidence, which so often mars the logic of characterization, and which is generally regarded as "old-fashioned." In fact, he will—so long as our modern realistic attitude prevails—ignore illusion-shattering expedients of every sort and devote himself to those conventions which are the foundation of verisimilitude. Above all things, the painstaking playwright will scrupulously avoid hackneyed themes, situations, and types, and depend for his material upon first-hand observation of human nature.


1. From any plays, give examples of the distinctions between humor of dialogue, of plot, and of character.

2. Do the same by giving original examples. Repeat this exercise at your own option, or that of the instructor.

3. Substitute a more natural and convincing device for any one of the weak coincidences cited in this chapter.

4. Cite an instance you have observed or read in a play in which mere coincidence is made more plausible by fresh and clever handling.

NOTE: The student of drama can undertake no more helpful exercise than the practice of inventing fresh devices to take the place of lame coincidences in plays seen, read, and offered in the class-room. This exercise should be continued until real invention is shown.

5. Devise a plan to do away with the necessity for the use of (a) the "aside," (b) the "apart," (c) the "soliloquy," in some definite case you may either invent or cite from a play.


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