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Play Writing - Kinds Of Plays

( Originally Published 1915 )

If the struggle is that of a will against nature or against destiny, against itself or against another will, the spectacle will generally be tragic. It will generally be comic, if the struggle is that of a will against some base instinct, or against some stupid prejudice, against the dictates of fashion, or -against the conventions we call Social.—FERDINAND BRUNETIERE, Les Époques du Théatre Français.

It is true that the tragic fused with the comic, Seneca mingled with Terence, produces no less a monster than was Pasiphae's Minotaur. But this abnormity pleases: people will not see any other plays but such as are half serious, half ludicrous; nature herself teaches this variety from which she borrows part of her beauty.—Lope DE VEGA, as quoted by LESSING, Dramatic Notes.

Under the general division of story plays will naturally fall melodrama and farce. As character plays, comedy and tragedy may be classified. Nondescript dramatic pieces in which story, character, or neither, may predominate may be conveniently designated—when they at all deserve the title—as plays of ideas.

Dr. Hennequin, in his "Art of Playwriting," mentions the following different kinds of plays: tragedy; comedy; drame, or Schauspiel; the society play, otherwise known as the pièce, or the emotional drama; melodrama; spectacular drama; musical drama; farce comedy, or farcical comedy; farce; burlesque; burletta; comedietta. And he further subdivides comedy into ancient classic comedy, romantic comedy, comedy of manners, and comedy drama.

At least when considering the drama historically, we have to take into account also the mystery, the morality, the miracle, the interlude, the chronicle, the history play, the tragedy of blood, the tragi-comedy, the comedy of humors, and the heroic play. And nowadays the satire—such as "What the Public Wants," or "Fanny's First Play; " and the fantasy—" Chantecler," "The Yellow Jacket," "The Poor Little Rich Girl," "The Lady from the Sea," "The Legend of Leonora"—have almost assumed the proportions and distinctiveness of separate forms.

Obviously, these are all to a large extent overlapping categories. Moreover, when we boil the entire nomenclature down to its essentials, we find that only comedy and tragedy are fundamental, and the principal distinctions arise according as the stress is laid on characterization or on plot.

Dramatists of today frequently hesitate to classify their works. They call their pieces "plays" and leave it to the critics to be more specific. Often enough, too, the dramatists are amply justified by the critics' disagreement. As a rule, the tendency has been to put on the loftier interpretation—to speak of farce or farce-comedy as comedy, and of melodrama and its variants as tragedy.

It must not be inferred, however, that it is unimportant for the playwright to be reasonably certain as to the proper classification of his work. On the contrary, one of the principal sources of failure is the "romantic" mingling of the genres" in drama, the variation in the same piece from true comedy to mere farce, and vice versa; from comedy to melodrama; from character stress to strictly plot emphasis, As has been pointed out, this does not mean to say that farce and comedy, farce and melodrama, melodrama and tragedy, comedy and tragedy, may not be combined in successful plays. But such blendings are full of risk, except where managed with the utmost skill. Nothing is more confusing to the spectator than an abrupt and awkward shift of emphasis or key. Yet s ch an effect is only too easy for the playwright who has ill considered his characters, and who accordingly is prone to slip into conventional grooves of story-telling.

Tendency toward Melodrama

Since the public likes plot, and the muthos is really more essential than the ethos, and, furthermore, because it is easier to tell a story than it is to portray character effectively in the play, the tendency is always toward the predominance of farce and melodrama. In fact, realistic melodrama is the classification that blankets the majority of successful American plays. Our "romantic dramas"—all the cloak-and-sword pieces of the end of the last century—are sheer melodrama. So is most of our "tragedy." Now there is distinctly no shame attached to the writing of the melodramatic, at least not when it confesses its identity frankly. The harm lies merely in the tendency to excess, the temptation to disregard truth and logic to the point of absurdity and to produce a lying "picture of life" capable of misleading the unsophisticated while it grieves the judicious. This is not to inveigh against idealism and fictional dreaming. By all means let us gild the dull realities of life with innocent illusions. But let us not deceive ourselves into accepting impractical visions for truth, since by so doing we are likely to lead ourselves into hypocrisy and sloth.

It has already been noted how dramatists have often exhibited a tendency to get away from reality into theatricism somewhere about the middle of a play. Mr. Porter Emerson Browne, for example, began his melodrama, "The Spendthrift," with an excellent portrayal of the extravagant wife who heedlessly ruins her husband. In the second act, however, he departed incontinently from material inherently of true drama and plunged into an artificial melodramatic situation, for the purposes of which he had to bring on a character that had scarcely been named theretofore and that was utterly unreal. Frankly fabricated stage fables, like Mr. Browne's "A Fool There Was," or "Madame X," or "The Master Mind," or "The Hawk," have their place; but authors—and we—should know what it is.

Improvement in Melodrama

An inevitable result of the workings of the realistic movement has been the moderation and general improvement of the tone of both melodrama and farce. We are forcibly struck with this fact when we read—and more especially when we witness revivals of—old specimens of these genres and compare them with the modern product. The old-style melodrama was a fabric of what we now consider absurd fustian and bombast. The hero was outrageously heroic, the villain incredibly villainous, and the heroine unspeakably guileless and naïve. Obviously they were but puppets: when their strings became inextricably tangled, the Master of the Show appeared in the character of Deus ex Machina and swiftly straightened them out. For example, after George R. Sims, in "The Lights o' London," has made his hero lose wife, liberty, and fortune, he restores all three at the final curtain by means of a sub-villain turned state's evidence and an unsuspected will that gets conveniently discovered.

In our melodrama today we require unconventional complications, soft-pedalling upon the arbitrary, and at least some pretense of inevitability, together with a naturalness of dialogue directly opposed to the stilted rhetoric of the early Victorian period. In other words, we are elevating our melodrama, at least in some respects. We certainly are not impressed as we used to be, in the theatre, with blood-and-thunder mountain feuds and Wild West primitivism—witness the recent experience of "The Battle Cry" and "Yosemite." Heaven knows, we get more than enough of this sort of claptrap in our motion pictures.

However, the fact of this change of attitude does not mean that we are not still willing to swallow almost unlimited doses of the arbitrary, particularly when the dialogue is fairly realistic and there is a superficial pretense of actuality in the characterization. We strain at a gnat like "Rosedale," but we make no bones of swallowing camels like "The Nigger" or "La Rafale." In Mr. Sheldon's piece we have a hero who happens to be of the proudest and most conspicuous family in a Southern state and at the same time of negro blood. The envious villain happens to discover a letter that reveals the taint. The hero's negro cousin happens to be in danger of lynching and to appeal to him for protection. And when, in Act I, this cousin's mother goes to the very verge of revealing to the hero this undesirable consanguinity, the hero happens not to grow curious enough to ask her what she is so obviously on the point of disclosing. All this is of the theatre merely and wholly foreign to life as everyone knows it. Yet "The Nigger" gets a much more respectful hearing than "The Lights o' London"—gets almost the hearing, in fact, that it would have deserved had it been the great tragedy its theme implies.

As for Monsieur Henri Bernstein, his popular pieces are all artificial specimens of theatrical joinery, built often of specious materials: he is obviously Scribe plus Sardou plus the trappings of modern realism, and his contribution to the drama is a renewed emphasis on the climax which delivers "the punch" by seeming to reach its height and then resuming its activities on a still loftier emotional level. The device is similar to that of the idolized tenor of the hour, who wins and holds favor through reserving a super-high-note for the moment when the top of human lung-power would already appear to have been reached.

After all, the legitimate business of melodrama, like that of the astonishing tenor, is to furnish thrills. At the Grand Guignol in Paris the thrill is founded upon horror. In our popular detective-and-criminal shockers—" The Conspiracy," "Within the Law," "The Deep Purple," "The Argyle Case," "Jim the Penman," "Arsène Lupin," "Raffles," "Sherlock Holmes," "Under Cover," "Kick In "—it is audacity and the narrow escape that make us grip our chair-arms and lean forward in our seats. Melodrama, then, will be successful in proportion as it provides ever-heightening suspense and a series of pulse-quickening situations in the order of climax.


As for farce, its business is to provoke hilarity, not merely intermittent and casual, but continual and increasing. Its situations must be always more and more excruciatingly funny up to a grand climax of mirth, and thence quickly to a still laughable solution. No mere aggregation of verbal felicities and inserted jests will suffice: the humor must chiefly arise from the complications of the plot, like those in "Twin Beds" or "A Full House," and whenever the fun lags disaster is imminent.

Amateur melodramatists usually err on the side of excess, amateur farceurs on the side of insufficiency of situations. There is less necessity, indeed, for humanizing the figures in farce than there is in melodrama. The puppets must be dexterously manipulated every moment.

And success usually depends upon the spectator's willingness not to look for any actual relation between the play and life. Everyone knows that as a rule in farce the story would end almost any time that one of the characters became human enough to explain to his fellows the point of mystification upon which the entire action turns. And likewise one may be interested in the violent manoeuvres of the figures in a melodrama like "A Fool There Was" or "To-day" or "The Story of the Rosary" only so long as he makes no effort to see in it a reflection of life. When one does that, the whole preposterous fabric becomes intolerably grotesque. Illusion—voluntary illusion—is the spectator's only passport to enjoyment.

Character Plays

If an excess of plot with a deficiency of characterization is likely to fail of public approval in the theatre, so also mere stage galleries of portraits, even though of distinct individuals, if unrelated in an interesting fable, are ill calculated for success. Many of the pundits of to-day would doubtless be pleased if drama demanded nothing more than casual revelations of human nature, but the populace persists in requiring that these revelations be made through stories. And primarily the theatre depends for its existence on the populace.

Of course, there have been character plays of very slight plot that have won a deservedly large measure of success. One readily recalls "Pomander Walk" and "The Passing of the Third Floor Back." But one can also remember many plotless plays that have regularly "died a-bornin'."

There is, to be sure, the so-called "comedy of atmosphere," which is a mere representation of some specific phase of existence, without emphasis upon either plot or character. "The Weavers" of Hauptmann and "The Madras House" of Barker belong in this class—neither of them calculated to make a popular appeal in the theatre. In view of the attitude common to the mass of playgoers, the dramatist certainly should select from the lives of the real men and women he is putting into his comedy or his tragedy those possible incidents and episodes of conflict which not only best reveal the characters themselves but can also be arranged in an orderly and climacteric series adapted to the maintenance of suspense. Beyond doubt, it requires much skill and patience to do this well—far more, indeed, than merely to troop the personages cinematographically across the stage in insignificant disorder —but the effort is richly worth the while.

"To combine as much as possible of the theatric," says Mr. Henry James, "with as much of the universal as the theatric will take-that is the constant problem, and one in which the maximum and minimum of effect are separated from each other by a hair-line. The theatric is so apt to be the outward, and the universal to be the inward, that, in spite of their enjoying scarcely more common ground than fish and fowl, they yet often manage to peck at each other with fatal results. The outward insists on the inward's becoming of its own substance, and the inward resists, struggles, bites, kicks, tries at least to drag the outward down. The disagreement may be a very pretty quarrel and an interesting literary case; it is only not likely to be a successful play."

Plays of Ideas

Doubtless the recipe for writing the play of ideas begins "First catch your idea." And when it has been captured, it will have to be mirrored by means of more or less human personages, in at least some semblance of a plot. As a matter of fact, almost any good play is a play of ideas plus a play of characters plus a play of plot. It is the piece that is deficient in the last two ingredients that often enough falls back upon its ideas for its only means of support. A play that is most readily and exclusively classifiable as a play of ideas is likely to be a very poor play, if, indeed, it does not turn out to be no play at all. It may be a mere series of scenes, with almost no story and the merest types for personages. In that case, it is really an animated tract—little more than a modern Pseudo-Augustinian sermon—dependent for its success upon the moral it involves, and therefore not amenable to the ordinary canons of art.

Much is being said nowadays about this "new" drama, which is in reality only the result of an increased effort on the part of the theatre to relate itself to the characteristic social and political unrest of the times. After all, the very term "drama of ideas" is in a sense self-contradictory, since the drama is essentially not a matter of intellectual, but of emotional appeal. And so far as morals are concerned, and as for problems individual or social, the theatre is far more available and effective as a teacher by example than by precept. The play of ideas is usually only a masquerading preachment; and, of course, if there is an ass in the lion's skin, sooner or later he is recognized by his braying.

We are told that in Paris, which is the home of cubism and futurism and every other bizarre and outré pretense of artistic evolution and reform, the "new" drama has been carried even to the point where silence or mere general talk about the weather is to be employed for conveying the impressions of the most violent passion—since in real life people who are angry or jealous usually remain silent or employ language only to conceal emotion! After all, this preposterous undertaking is only the logical out-growth of Monsieur Maeterlinck's mystic endeavors to "express the inexpressible by means of that which does not occur."

Perhaps the only thing of significance about the "new" drama is the fact that it is urging forward the slowly developing popular feeling for character and for the spiritual and the psychological, rather than for mere physical action in the theatre. As the masses grow in discrimination, they will naturally put less and less emphasis upon mere narrative, more and more upon the significant facts of human nature and experience. But this process may be easily urged too far, with consequent reaction and perhaps retrogression. Certainly there is no possibility of abruptly wrenching the drama out of the emotional and into the intellectual realm. When that can be done, drama will, in fact, have ceased to be drama.

What is chiefly desirable in the theatre is not so much plays of ideas as plays with ideas. As men like Huxley have frequently reiterated, the emotional and the intellectual processes are not separate and distinct; and the higher the degree of general civilization the more completely will these two phases of self-activity coalesce and cooperate. The great questions of human conduct and relationships are nearly all worthy, not only of debate, but also of dramatic treatment. Character in conflict with environment and heredity is at the bottom of all our chief individual problems, and such conflict is essentially dramatic in the extreme.


1.From all the sources at your command, make as full a list of kinds of plays as you can.

2. Adopt some general scheme of grouping and place each kind in a suitable category.

3. In a sentence or two, describe the essential nature of each. Try to differentiate each kind from others akin to it.

4. Without forcing, try to find a play that illustrates each kind, but remember that many popular and entertaining plays overlap as to kind. We are now trying to differentiate types with technical accuracy, not condemning plays as worthless because they contain technical defects. They would be better plays technically had their authors observed more carefully these well-known laws—that is the viewpoint to take in trying to fulfill this assignment.

5. After you have succeeded in completing this table as well as possible, copy it in a note book, being careful to leave room for additions.

6. In a considerable number of plays point out the passages embodying exposition, characterization, conflict, situation, complication, increased suspense, crisis, contrast, connotative dialogue, humor of plot and of character, surprise, climax, dénouement, and the expression of the theme.

7. It is now time to be about writing your full-length play. Reread this volume, note-book in hand. Decide on a theme or a foundation incident, outline your plot, sketch the grouping of characters, develop your characters by description for your own guidance, determine on their relative prominence, and assign the space to be given to each act. Before beginning the actual writing, however, study carefully the next two chapters and leave the material gathered for the longer piece of work until you shall have labored faithfully at the writing of several one-act plays, both adapted and original. Take plenty of time to revise and re-revise; study the stage-books of successful modern plays; and lay your work aside to cool.


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