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Play Writing - The One Act Play

( Originally Published 1915 )

In both the short story and the play the space is narrow, and the action or episode must be complete in itself. In each case, therefore, you must find or invent scenes which put the greatest amount of the story into the least space: in more technical words, scenes which shall have the greatest possible significance.—J.H. GARDINER, The Forms of Prose Literature.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, "Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I on the present occasion choose? "-EDGAR ALLAN POE, The Philosophy of Composition.

The one-act play is to the play of three, four, or five acts much as the short-story is to the novel. And, as there are novelists who fail at short-story writing, and vice versa, so there are dramatists qualified to deal in full-evenings' entertainments who are helpless in the realm of the playlet, and the reverse.

Singleness of Effect and Economy

It will be remembered that Edgar Allan Poe's theory of the short-story is summed up in the word "effect." The fiction writer labors from the very first sentence of his story to the very last with an eye single to the working out of "a certain unique or single effect." "If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

As much may be said for the one-act play. Within the limits of a half-hour or less—and oftener less—the author can produce by means of a single incident only a single effect, and to that purpose all else must be subordinated. Therefore if it is dangerous to mingle the genres in ordinary drama, it is next to fatal to do so in the one-act piece.

After unity or singleness of purpose, economy is the most vital principle. Every moment between curtains is precious. There is little enough room for being leisurely in the long play, and certainly none at all in the playlet. For the same reason, there is no possibility of character development. All must be swiftly drawn—connoted-suggested. There is little time for exposition. A one-act play cannot succeed if much preliminary information is requisite to a comprehension of the plot. The initial situation must be set forth in the first few moments by means of broad and telling strokes. Here more than ever is there need of that perfect dialogue which both reveals character and tells the story. The mere detachable jest that ventures to impede either process must be extraordinary not to be excessive. In general, selection of details operates most effectively in the short play.

A Desirable Vehicle for the Playwright

Obviously the one-act piece offers the amateur author the easiest opportunity for testing his skill. The time and labor involved in its composition is perhaps less than a fourth or a fifth of that demanded for the four- or five-act drama. Beginners will do well to practice the various forms of composition in the brief sketch, before venturing upon the full-fledged play. There are numerous important collections of playlets available for study, including Sudermann's Morituri and the noteworthy work of the Irish dramatists. For one-act tragedy what can surpass Synge's superb "Riders to the Sea"? And the other genres are well exemplified in the work of Lady Gregory, of Mr. William Butler Yeats, and of their distinguished colleagues.

On the other hand, the opportunities for securing the production of one-act pieces is, particularly in America, exceedingly limited. Our better vaudeville houses use a considerable number of sketches, a few of which are worth mentioning as drama—such, for instance, as Sir James M. Barrie's "The Twelve Pound Look," Mr. Austin Strong's "The Drums of Oude," or Mr. George Ade's "Mrs. Peckham's Carouse"-but most of which are either mere slapstick buffoonery or penny dreadfuls. Occasionally an American theatre follows the English custom and precedes a longer piece with a one-act play, or "curtain-raiser." Still more rarely there are pro-grammes of one-act dramas, and the example of the Grand Guignol at Paris has been followed in one or two instances.

Range, and General Qualities

The horrible can be successfully utilized in the short play as in the short-story, whereas it is not adapted to the longer drama or the novel. "If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."

In fact, the range of subject-matter open to the one-act play is almost unlimited. A taste of anything is often acceptable where a mouthful would be repellent. Certainly whatever is presented should be given with the utmost emphasis. The conclusion, in particular, requires forcefulness; and nothing is more effective than a novel or unexpected climax, followed, as it should be, by a next-toinstantaneous dénouement. The ironical termination of Mr. Booth Tarkington's "Beauty and the Jacobin" is a specimen of excellence in this respect.

In "The Drums of Oude" the hero and the heroine are waiting in an Indian palace for the sound of a bugle which will tell them that the Sepoys are commencing a massacre. There is powder stored under the floor of the room, with a fuse attached. When the bugle call comes, the hero lights the fuse and holds the girl in his arms. Then they hear the pibrochs of a Scotch regiment to the rescue, and the fuse is extinguished at almost the last possible instant. Obviously, this little melodrama concentrates suspense and concludes with telling effect.

In "The Man in Front," which is said to be the work of Mr. Alfred Sutro, a husband is informed by his wife that his friend is her lover. The husband is on the point of strangling the friend, but at the crucial moment the wife explains that her story was merely intended to make the husband himself disprove his own theory that, in such an instance in real life, the lover would be in no special danger. In reality, her motive has been anger over her lover's announcement that he is affianced. In the end she offers him the whispered choice between remaining a live bachelor and suffering the consequences of her husband's rage. The lover promptly chooses the former alternative.

In a playlet of similar basis, "The Woman Intervenes," by Mr. J. Hartley Manners, the lover is saved from the husband's wrath through the heroic offices of an old flame, who announces her engagement to the lover and so makes apparent his innocence. The means of suspense in both pieces is the same—that, indeed, which is at the bottom of the "eternal triangle" situation. In "The Man in Front," however, there is novelty in the expedient adopted by the woman to save her lover's life, with a consequent surprise which greatly heightens the effectiveness of the little play. Especially in vaudeville is this sort of final knock-out blow a sine qua non.

Certainly there is even less excuse or hope for the conventional in the short drama than in the long. This naturally follows from the fact that in the playlet there is no opportunity to redeem triteness of plot with excellence of characterization. Mr. Richard Harding Davis is the author of a sketch entitled "Miss Civilization," which is a case in point. In this piece we encounter such ancient friends as the young woman in a dressing-gown, alone in a country house, entertaining three serio-comic burglars until rescuers arrive—whereupon, in accord with the feminine tradition, she faints. One sees readily that she would have to be an extraordinarily accomplished and facile young person to entertain, not only her burglars, but also the audience during the considerable interval while she is waiting for help. Here characters and situation alike are too antiquated to win sustained interest.

The Ironical Playlet

The one-act play has often been successfully employed in satire. In fact, brevity is the soul of irony. Prolonged ridicule soon loses its effectiveness: it is a seasoning which, unless used sparingly, dulls the palate. In any case, the successful dramatic satire is that which utilizes the distinctive means of the drama, making its points concretely in illustrative action rather than in mere talk. One can find amusement in a trifle like Mr. William C. DeMille's "Food," which is scarcely more than a dialogue of clever exaggeration, but one's pleasure becomes indefinitely

, heightened at sight of the travesty figures, in Sir James M. Barrie's "A Slice of Life," really acting out his exposure of what is most absurd in our modern realistic problem drama.

In Mr. Bernard Shaw's "How He Lied to Her Hus-band," the student will find much delightful and telling paradox in both the talk and the behavior of the "Candida" triangle in miniature, but little in the way of distinct characterization.

That the one-act piece affords a large opportunity for dramatic portraiture, however, has been frequently proved. A recent example is Mr. Willard Mack's "Vindication," so excellently acted in vaudeville by Mr. Frank Keenan and his company. Except for some brief expository talk intended to reveal the impulsive warm-heartedness of the governor, the play is largely a sort of interrupted monologue, in the course of which the old Confederate soldier, waging a valiant and almost hopeless fight for his boy's good name, sets himself before us in all his weakness and strength, pitiful, laughable, lovable—as wholly "sympathetic" a figure as one could well imagine. Throughout, the little drama grips us with its spectacle of a brave, frank, shrewd struggle against big odds, as well as with its representation of a human soul.


1. Outline, analyze, and criticise any one-act play you have seen.

2. Solely for practice, and not with a view to production, map out a playlet from a well-known short-story.

3. Invent two or three themes or situations for one-act plays.

4. In the manner outlined on page 193 (Exercise 7, Chapter XVI) set about writing a One-act play.


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