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Play Writing - Plot And Character Harmony

( Originally Published 1915 )

The plea that otherwise the plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such a plot should not in the first instance be constructed.—ARISTOTLE, Poetics.

Though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent-Ibid.

It may be observed, too, that although the representation of no human character should be quarrelled with for its inconsistency, we yet require that the inconsistencies be not absolute antagonisms to the extent of neutralization; they may be permitted to be oils and waters, but they must not be alkalies and acids. When in the course of the dénouement, the usurer bursts forth into an eloquence virtue-inspired, we cannot sympathize very heartily in his fine speeches, since they proceed from the mouth of the selfsame egotist who, urged by a disgusting vanity, uttered so many the earlier passages of the play.—EDGAR ALLAN POE, Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Willis, and the Drama.

The fundamental problem of the dramatist, as has been said, is the problem of plot-and-character harmony—which, being reduced to its lowest terms, amounts merely to a strict observance of natural logic. Observation may be most just and acute, and as a result men and women in plays may be exhibited with all manner of skill in contrast and grouping, as well as with sympathetic individual portraiture; and yet, if what they are fails to accord with what they do, they most likely amount to no more than wasted effort. In spite of this fact, however, a common defect in drama is the tendency to "plot-ridden" personages, who, for the sake of the fable, are forever belying their own selves.

To repeat, in the best serious plays everything of importance occurs as the result of an obvious and reasonable motive. We are never content to see a bad man do good deeds, or a good man bad ones; a wise man work stupidity, or a stupid man wisdom—merely that the story may easily advance. Such contradictions are always occurring in everyday life, but people act so for reasons of their own which are rarely apparent. In the play, however, we must be more than merely natural—probability is a sine qua non.

Lack of Harmony Between Plot and Character

In "The Big Idea," for instance, we are actually asked to believe that a New York theatrical producer would pay an unknown playwright twenty-two thousand dollars for an untried play. If the sum named had been a reason-able one—say five hundred dollars at the utmost—then the postulate upon which the extravaganza hangs—that the banker father cannot raise so much money to avoid ruin—would have fallen to pieces. In "A Pair of Silk Stockings," we must do the best we can to harmonize with the eccentric but straightforward character of Sam Thornhill the fact that, when piqued at his wife's preference in motors, he ostentatiously took up with a disreputable woman just to show that he was "a bit knocked."

Doubtless this difficulty is largely a matter of opinion; certainly it does not suffice to diminish the charm of the bright little comedy.

One notes the obvious fact that when these credulity-straining postulates deal with matters antecedent to the play itself—as Sarcey and others have pointed out—the spectator is usually willing to swallow the whole affair without much protest, providing that, these fundamentals being granted, the characters thereafter seem probable and consistent. In other words, resentment is likely to be aroused only when during the progress of the piece the characters are made to do what we feel they—being what they are—could not do, and all for the mere sake of furthering the advancement of the plot. Thus the character of the hero in Mr. Hubert Henry Davies's "Outcast" is belittled by his obstinate clinging to the inferior creature, who once heartlessly threw him over for a rich old suitor, in the face of the vastly more desirable love and personality of the girl his kindness has helped to develop into a woman of the strongest charm. In fact, the hero of this drama, in marked contrast to the heroine, is throughout a vague, indefinite figure. And the chief reason for this state of affairs is that Mr. Davies has not enough plot for a full evening's play. Certainly, if Geoffrey had been a convincing human being, in all the circumstances, the piece would have ended one act earlier than it did. Yet, whatever its deficiencies, "Outcast," at least for the character study of its heroine, is most moving and effective.

The unconvincing is always turning up. In Mr. B. Macdonald Hastings's arbitrary and conventional play "That Sort," reminiscent as it is of "East Lynne," "Miss Moulton," "Lady Windermere's Fan," "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," and even others, the ultimate self-sacrifice of Diana Laska is wholly unacceptable. In Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's "Mary Goes First," a political leader, among other personages, is portrayed as of an incredible stupidity merely in order that the cleverness of the heroine may be emphasized by contrast.

It should be understood that, in such criticism of specific defects as is offered here—and elsewhere in this book—sweeping condemnation of the plays mentioned is neither always nor often intended. Practically every drama referred to could be cited as exemplifying also innumerable excellences of technique and matter. Many of these pieces have won a deserved popularity: the point of the criticism is simply that they might have been even better. There are, of course, plays almost totally devoid of merit, but they have been generally so short-lived and so little known as to be useless for purposes of illustration.

In Mr. Augustus Thomas's "Arizona" a sensible army officer, having been told that his former friend, who is accused of attempted murder, has, at the noise of an unexpected shot, merely fired his pistol mechanically into the floor, does not, in seeking evidence, even think of probing there for the bullet that fits the prisoner's weapon. In Mr. James Forbes's play, "The Traveling Salesman," when a question of vital importance arises, a supposedly intelligent heroine is made to put implicit confidence in the obvious villain, refusing to believe the manifestly honest hero. In "Nobody's Daughter," the parents of an illegitimate child, though young, prosperous, and in love, do not marry—for no apparent reason except that the heroine would then be somebody's daughter. In Mr. Arnold Bennett's "The Great Adventure," an artist with the fame and skill of a Titian is made to give up his art as well as his name and state of life for no credible reason other than the purposes of a highly improbable plot.

These are all in a sense instances of the "plot-ridden" character in the drama: in each case somebody is forced by the exigencies of the fable to do what he could not possibly have done in real life and so to incite the immediate resentment of the thoughtful spectator, because, in asking him to believe the unbelievable, the playwright casts an inferential slur on the playgoer's intelligence. Often enough, too, it is for the sake of the most conventional melodrama that these distressing compromises occur.

More frequently still, as has previously been noted, the dramatic personage is made to barter his birthright of actuality for that most specious mess of pottage, the "happy ending." For example, the American adaptor of Miss Elizabeth Baker's "Chains," made the monotony-mad clerk, about to escape from the deadening bondage, hail with joy that news of his prospective paternity which in the original was the death-blow to his last hopes of relief. Obviously this tampering merely perverted not only the character of Richard Wilson, but also the entire purpose of the play.

A few years ago, on the other hand, when Mr. Joseph Medill Patterson's play, "The Fourth Estate," was first produced, it ended with the suicide of the hero, an idealistic young journalist who had been baffled at every turn in his struggle to emancipate the press. Though thus invested with a specious air of tragedy, neither story nor hero was worthy of the dignity of death. Purely melodramatic, the termination was entirely arbitrary. For its probability it depended chiefly upon the exact interpretation of the protagonist's character. If he was a half-mad fanatic or an overwrought neurotic, suicide might be expected of him. But he was hardly either. As a result, when an alternative "happy ending" was substituted, wherein the hero accepted temporary defeat, set his jaw, and resolved on eventual victory, the play had not suffered in effectiveness.

But all melodrama is not capable of similar adjustment. In the case of Monsieur Henri Bernstein's "Israel," the American version was made to accord with the alleged national requirement by means of a peculiarly atrocious violation of the sense and spirit of the play. The young hero, who has been an ardent Jew-baiter, has just learned that the Hebrew he has particularly assailed is his own father. In the original version this intelligence suddenly thrust upon him drives the protagonist to suicide as the only possible relief from the terrific race-conflict that wages within him. For American gratification, in the last act there was evoked practically from nowhere a young woman who considerately married the hero to save his life. Even in melodrama strict logic of dénouement is more to be desired than an arbitrary conclusion which strains probability to the breaking point and destroys character consistency.

Of late years it has been fairly well demonstrated that the demand for conventional endings is not inevitable. Laura Murdock's tragic relapse into the "easiest way"is a case in point. Farce and melodrama, being chiefly dependent upon plot, require a definite rounding up of loose ends. And surely we may say, in general, that serious comedy should at least be finished and not simply stopped. Of course, if it be mere photography, it will man-age to subsist without much reference to the rules of art.

Plot-and-character harmony, let it be repeated, is both the chief problem of the dramatist and the first essential of a good play. Even in sheer melodrama, if it is to be worth while, the personages must not for the sake of the story be forced into glaring inconsistency. And the popular demand for the "happy ending" is decidedly not to be regarded as a legitimate excuse for last-act insults to the spectators' common sense.


1. Suggest improved harmony between character and plot in any two of the cases criticised with which you are familiar.

2. In your opinion, in any of the successful plays cited, which show weakness in plot-and-character harmony, would a correction of these defects have resulted in greater success?

3. Examine two of your previously constructed plots to see if you have offended in character probability. Frankly state your view.

4. If you have found any such defect, say how you propose to correct it.

5. In your observation, do audiences easily discover defective harmony between plot and character, or are they usually blindly complacent? Give examples, if possible.

6. How have these matters previously affected you?

7. From plays you have read or seen cite other instances of a lack in plot-and-character harmony.


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