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Play Writing - The Elements

( Originally Published 1915 )

One other law is no less essential: it is that which indicates that an action in the theatre must be conducted by wills, if not always free, always at least self-conscious. . . . This law is nothing more than the expression . . . of that which in the very definition of the theatre is essential, peculiar, and, to repeat, absolutely specific. . . . That which peculiarly belongs only to the theatre, that which through all literatures, from the Greek to our own, forms the permanent and continued unity of the dramatic species, is the spectacle of a will which unfolds itself ;—and that is why action, and action thus defined, will always be the law of the theatre.—FERDINAND BRUNETIÉRE, Les Époques du Théâtre Français.

It is sometimes supposed that the drama consists of incident. It consists of passion, which gives the actor his opportunity; and that passion must progressively increase, or the actor, as the piece proceeded, would be unable to carry the audience from a lower to a higher pitch of interest and emotion. A good serious play must therefore be founded on one of the passionate cruces of life, where duty and inclination come nobly to the grapple. -ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, A Humble Remonstrance.

Roughly speaking, all plays are compounded primarily of plot, characters, and dialogue. Dialogue, it is true, is wholly absent in the case of pantomimes; but then it is in a sense supplied by gesture and facial expression, much as in opera it is supplied by song, and as in still other forms of drama it appears as poetry or rhetoric. These elements—fully treated later—must now be viewed broadly in a preliminary way.

Assuming that the dramatist has chosen his theme, he has next to devise a plot, or story-framework, and characters that will be adequate to its expression. The characters will reveal the story by means of dialogue, in addition to appearance, physical action, and pantomime. The story, being for the stage, will have to be emotionally exciting. Moreover, it must not trespass upon the truth of the characterization—too far, in the case of melodrama or farce; at all, in the case of comedy or tragedy. On the other hand, the characterization must not be developed at the expense, or at least to the exclusion of, the plot. And the dialogue, always including pantomime, must, to fulfill its function, both reveal character and advance the story from line to line.

Struggle an Essential Plot Element

The action of a drama—meaning the doings and the sayings of the characters in a unified fable, or plotted story—most readily takes on the emotional quality through the portrayal of conflict. It has generally been asserted that the essence of the drama is a struggle; and, while exceptions have been taken to this view, they are for the most part feeble and quibbling. There are dramas without struggle, we are told, but this is true only in a special sense of the word. A conflict is made up of effort and resistance, even though that resistance may be as passive as that of a mountain resisting the climber. With-out both of these elements, there can be little, if any, drama. How can there be a play of any important appeal, through which a protagonist simply wanders without purpose, meeting with no obstacle, human or otherwise? How can there be a play of any vital consequence in which the hero proceeds straight forward on his resolute course, with no let or hindrance, to the final curtain?

It has been suggested by Mr. William Archer that it is not conflict that is essential to drama, but rather crisis. As many reviewers have promptly seen, this is scarcely a satisfactory substitution. There is crisis in drama, certainly, but does it not invariably appear as the real or supposed turning-point in some sort of antagonism? Of plays said to contain no struggle, we are cited to "OEdipus Rex," "Othello " "As You Like It," " Ghosts," "Hamlet," "Lear," as examples. Conflict in the drama does not necessarily mean "a stand-up fight between will and will." It is not even essential that the fight should be a resolute knock-down affair: all men are not constituted to wage that kind of battle. OEdipus contends as best he may against the tremendous antagonism of the Fates. Hamlet hacks fitfully at the opposing circumstances that hem him in. Even the monotony-haunted clerks in Miss Elizabeth Baker's "Chains" make some effort to break their shackles. And it has been pointed out, also, that Richard Wilson's attempt to cut loose from the routine that is gradually subjugating his soul is typical of the underlying conflict of certain great forces that mark our modern civilization—the yearning for land ownership and the rebellion against being a mere cog in the machine. In "As You Like It" the element that most interests us, not to mention various conflicts with wicked relatives, is that war of the sexes and of wits that is the staple of high comedy today as ever. And as for "Ghosts," what more fearful, if impotent, struggle was ever waged than that of Mrs. Alving, backed up by conventional morality as personified in Pastor Manders? Her great antagonist is Natural Law, the modern prototype of the Fates, here masked as horrid and relentless Heredity. Moreover, the play as a whole exemplifies the terrific battle of the dead present with the living past. What underlies true tragedy, after all, but a helpless grapple with the overwhelming forces of destiny? Hamlet, Lear, Othello, OEdipus, Agamemnon, Brutus, Paula Tanqueray, all are involved in this strife, though it be not a hand-to-hand combat with destiny incarnate.

Moreover, there is in all drama, not only central, but also ancillary conflict in many phases. "We start from a state of calm which contains in it the elements of a dramatic conflict; we see these elements rush together and effervesce; and we watch the effervescence die back again into calm, whether it be that of triumph or disaster, of serenity or despair."

It appears that there are some critical playgoers who are as insistent on stand-up-and-knock-down battle as was Polonius for his jig or his tale of bawdry. Without a sheer physical fight, like him they sleep. It is neither a necessary nor a probable course, however, for the playwright in every instance to set about the illustration of his theme by deliberately choosing two antagonists and, Cadmus-like, putting them at odds with each other. But it is well to remember that conflict is nearly if not quite the first state of drama, and that it is most naturally adapted to the excitation of emotion.

Setting the Struggle in Array

Mr. Augustus Thomas is quoted in a newspaper article as thus describing the process by which a play takes form :

"There must be, to begin with, a proponent for the idea, a character who believes in it, who preaches it, who guides his life by it. Next, there must be an opponent. He is to oppose the idea, to bring about the conflict upon which drama lives. There must then be a third person, a person in dispute, as it were. Not so much a person for whom the first two are struggling such as the heroine of melodrama, for instance—more a character whose life and fortunes are to be shaped, heightened, or despoiled according as the idea of the play conquers or falls. Lastly, there must be a detached character, whom we might call the Attorney for the People. He is an outsider, a doubter. He represents the audience. He sees the struggles of the proponent and the opponent. Like us in the audience, he must be affected one way or the other, for or against. Often this attorney is the familiar `family friend,' a fine comedy part, because so human, so real—just like the audience that he represents."

This is, indeed, a specific formula. One will probably not agree to follow it so closely as has Mr. Thomas in certain of his later plays. One may object, for example, to the raisonneur out of Dumas fils—the Judge Prentice, the Lew Ellinger, or the Doctor Seelig. Nevertheless, roughly speaking, the procedure indicated is in part at least the one usually adopted. Reflection upon the theme or whatever else may serve as a starting-point- presently suggest the kind of men and women by means of whom in action the theme may be visualized. Gradually they will take shape and be delimited. As they are mentally revolved and molded, the conduct possible to them in the realm of the logical will appear. Then will come the effect of this conduct upon their fellows, individually and in the mass. Action and reaction will result in inevitable crisis and climax. From all this must be chosen what seems best adapted to the original purpose and what does no violence to truth by producing inconsistency. After selection, proportion. To each incident and each individual the appropriate allotment of time and space. This means, of course, relative importance, which is, in turn, a matter of emphasis. Thus the drama slowly looms forth, chaotic at first, then vaguely outlined, and at length clear-cut and solid, if still unpolished.

Marshalling the Characters for the Struggle

An illustration may be of service. Suppose that the theme chosen is that vital thesis that Wordsworth em-bodied when he wrote,

"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

What figures and what fable might we devise to give this truth dramatic expression? The opportunities are large. We will start with a worldling, perhaps recalling an individual of our own acquaintance, at least compound one from our own observations. We shall want to portray him in his attachment to the mundane and to show the consequences of his infatuation. Is our protagonist to be man or woman? Say, a man. Is he young or old? Perhaps old, because it takes time for chickens to come home to roost. How will he suffer? We look about us for examples, and observe that it is often in their children that men find their retribution. Here, then, is the father of, say, two children, a son and a daughter. Through them he will chiefly pay the penalty of having early sold himself to the devil of commercialism. Three figures already. What will the son be like? What the daughter? Is their mother yet living? If so, how has she fared? Let us think her out of nothingness into being. Perhaps for our purposes we decide to let her die, or rather to let her never have existed. What then? We shall need other characters. Our protagonist suggests, by the highly effective dramatic principle of. contrast, his counterpart: another man, not a worldling. Has he a family? Shall we carry the balanced structure so far? There is some danger in it. But somehow we think out this man and his connections.

So the process goes. The children of the protagonist suggest their husbands or wives, their lovers or sweet-hearts. A lover perhaps suggests a rival. Very soon we find we must stop to consider whether the as yet ghostly figures that have been evoked are all likely to prove adapted, or which of them may prove best adapted, to the original aim.

Meanwhile, the plot element is not standing still. In-deed, we can make little headway with our selection of characters without taking the plot into account and watching it evolve. Our protagonist, for example, to show himself for what he is—what he has become as a result of his worldliness—must do something. He must exhibit an attitude, say toward his children, oppose their wishes, force upon them his own plans, and so involve himself and them in the natural consequences. Each will react from a given stimulus in harmony with the principles of his character. Of course, human nature is unfathomably complex. That is why Zola's scientific, laboratory method for its study is impracticable. But, after all, on the stage as in all fiction, simplicity must be cultivated in the treatment of character. We should avoid the old exploded "ruling passion" or "humour" plan—except perhaps in farce and melodrama—and aim to show figures that are more than mere personifications of single principles. Our people should be sufficiently rounded to appear human. Yet, if they be developed with anything like the completeness of a George Eliot treatment, no time will be left for the fable. Therefore the need of economy. Character must be shown in swift and telling strokes. Plot must be unfolded in striking and vital incident. And the two processes must be interwoven. The playwright cannot be always alternating between characterizing speeches and plot-advancing speeches. He must seek, as far as possible, to use double-purpose lines.


So, then, the characters having been developed in a completed story, there is still to be considered the dialogue, including pantomime. And this, again, of course, is really no separate element but part and parcel of the character revelation and the story-telling. In fact, they two have produced the dialogue as they have evolved.

Dialogue is subject to the same principles that apply to all correlated language: unity, selection, proportion, coherence, emphasis, and elegance are all to be considered.

Moreover, the dramatic line has its own special requirements. Chief of these is absolute economy. Then comes connotation, for dramatic speech constantly suggests more than it says in words.

Furthermore, the relation of speech to action must be specially considered. In fact, when a play has been finally passed upon as correct in plot and characterization, there yet remains no mean task in the mere cutting and fitting and polishing of the dialogue to harmonize with the business of pantomime and with the tone of the play.

Starting with an Incident

Manifestly, all these processes we have been considering are quite the same, whether one starts out to develop a definite theme or finds the first suggestion in a newspaper paragraph, and makes the aim merely that of telling an interesting story on the stage. Suppose the playwright comes across the account of a man who, after having been for many years considered dead, turns up to declare his kinship with a family that has grown rich and powerful. In real life, the claimant is regarded as an impostor. He has experienced a variegated career, including a blow on the head which temporarily destroyed his memory, and a term in the penitentiary. In the printed accounts of the trial of his suit for recognition there is some suggestion as to the characteristics of the various persons he claims as his relatives. There are glimpses of his alleged boyhood acquaintances who testify for or against him. The reporters describe especially his own appearance and manner.

One sees that here is a considerable mass of available material. In a general way the leading figures are already sketched out, together with the leading incidents. There is, probably, only the germ of a plot, but it is exceedingly fertile. Of course, the story is not entirely new. But there are no new plots. The best we can hope for, in the way of novelty, is the fresh treatment and combination of old situations.

In the present instance, from the characters suggested in the newspaper cuttings, those that seem vital to the story will be chosen. Others will be added, from any source. Perhaps some will be combined. It all depends on the plot, which will be similarly built up. We shall have first to decide whether our hero is really an impostor or not, and then whether we wish to reveal his true identity in the start, or later on. Imagination will reconstruct the boyhood of the man who has so long been missing, and we shall choose such points as may bear upon our fable. The incidents of the memory-destroying blow and the penitentiary sentence will require consideration, first as to whether they shall be employed or discarded, and then as to how they shall be used. Has our hero actually been in the penitentiary? And, if so, did he commit a crime, or was he unjustly punished? We will reflect that it is often hard to gain real sympathy for a criminal. This is a story play, and first of all the story must be a success. How-ever, it must not be allowed to do violence to the characters.

And so we proceed along exactly the same lines as in the case of the play which had its inception in a poet's wording of a profound truth. Plot, characterization, dialogue, and pantomime: these are our principal ingredients. They must not be merely mixed, but compounded with the most delicate chemical accuracy. Not an atom too much or too little. Perfect balance and proportion. Complete fusion and blending.

In chapters to follow we shall give each of these prime elements a separate consideration.


1. Do you know any one important play that does not feature a struggle?

2. Briefly state the nature of the conflict in five modern plays.

3. Do the same for five of Shakespeare's dramas.

4. Invent five themes involving struggles; state each in one short sentence.

5. Discuss two diverse modern plays, contrasting a spiritual struggle with that of a business or social nature.

6. Take one of the original themes asked for in question four and roughly select the characters in the manner indicated on page 30.

7. Define proponent, protagonist.

8. Restate, in your own language, with any changes you prefer, Mr. Thomas's formula, pages 28 and 29.

9. Make a list of at least twenty-five obstacles contributory to struggle, whether found in short-stories, novels, or plays. State the source specifically in each instance.

10. Make an original list of five such obstacles.


11. Find five such obstacles in newspaper accounts, and, if necessary, modify them for dramatic plot purposes.

12. Are some struggles essentially tragic, others essentially social comedy, and others essentially comic? Illustrate.


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