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Play Writing - The Plot And Some Of Its Fundamentals

( Originally Published 1915 )

Novices in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.—ARISTOTLE, Poetics.

The common notion seems to be in favor of mere complexity; but a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass. This we say is the point of perfection,—a point never yet attained, but not on that account unattainable. Practically, we may consider a plot as of high excellence when no one of its component parts shall be susceptible of removal without detriment to the whole. Here, indeed, is a vast lowering of the demand, and with less than this no writer of refined taste should content himself. —EDGAR ALLAN POE, Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Willis, and the Drama.

The plot is the skeleton of the play. "The word means," explains Professor Bliss Perry, "as its etymology implies, a weaving together. Or, still more simply, we understand by plot that which happens to the characters,—the various ways in which the forces represented by the different personages of the story are made to harmonize or clash through external action."'

The plot of a play attracts the attention largely through the element of suspense, or the curiosity to know what is going to happen next. Primarily, however, plots are interesting because they deal with people, the most alluring subject humanity can contemplate. We could not possibly be so fascinated by the most artfully constructed chain of adventures participated in by mere inanimate objects, unless, indeed, they had been thoroughly personified.

The Relation of Character to Plot

It is obvious that in the consideration of human nature, upon the stage as elsewhere, the vital thing is what the people are; and this we can satisfactorily learn only through what they do. Strictly speaking, character is the fundamental in drama; but, since character reveals itself so exclusively through conduct, the action has come to stand first, in all discussions from Aristotle on.

The Plot Exhibits the Characters in Action

"Without action there cannot be a tragedy," declared the Stagyrite; "there may be without character." By "action," to repeat, Aristotle intended a story directed by the human will and having a beginning, a middle, and an end—what we now call a plotted story. But, on the stage, every such action (plot) must be worked out by means of the outward movements of the characters, accompanying their words. Thus the action of the play is illustrated by the actions of the players—that is, the characters.

We have seen how reflection upon a theme or an incident will suggest illustrative characters, who will in turn indicate illustrative action. It is by this united means that the drama progresses. Speech is but an auxiliary—not at all essential, entirely secondary. The playwright will do well to make sure early in his labors that he is telling his story concretely to the eye. This is what especially counts in our day. A little surreptitious, dishonest movement on the part of a protesting "saint" will convey volumes of information on the subject of his hypocrisy. All that he can possibly say, or that others can say about him, may not accomplish half so much. The keen-eyed dramatist looks about him in life for these character-revealing motions which are of the essence of drama.

What is Novelty in Plot?

Perhaps the foremost difficulty in the weaving of a plot concerns the question of novelty. As has often been pointed out, absolutely new incidents are practically impossible. The thirty-six fundamental situations counted by Gozzi and Schiller—or perhaps only the twenty-four pronounced by Gérard de Nerval to be fit for the theatre—have probably been utilized in every conceivable grouping.' Goethe—as he told Eckermann—a hundred years ago gave up the search for a new story. We must distinguish, how-ever, between the fresh and the trite use of old materials in plot building. As a matter of fact, the greatest dramatists —Sophocles, Shakespeare, Calderon, Molière—have been content to deal with familiar narratives, but they have all by their handling, more particularly through the infusion of their personalities, made the old material distinctly their own: the Athenian dramatists, like the Elizabethan, took twice-told tales and revitalized them with new meaning. Indeed, there are certain dramatic combinations that are legendary, and that one or another playwright is for-ever reverting to as the basis of a new play. So the Don Juan story is fish to the nets of dramatists so diverse as Molière and George Bernard Shaw. So the Faust legend affords ample opportunity to Marlowe and to Goethe. So Paolo and Francesca serve Boker and Maeterlinck and Stephen Phillips. So various authors can find various treatments for Antony and Cleopatra. So the love of a sophisticated woman and an unsophisticated man can furnish forth pieces like "Thaïs," "Captain Jinks," "Michael and his Lost Angel," "The Garden of Allah," and "Romance." So the winning back of a husband's or a wife's lost love is at the bottom of all manner of plays, such as "The Thief," "The Real Thing," "A Woman's Way," "The Marionettes," "Divorçons," "The Governor's Lady," "The Lady from Oklahoma," and "The Master of the House." Where one writer aims at sentiment, another attempts tragedy; and melodrama and farce spring with equal facility from almost the same material.'

Actual dramatic novelty, then, is perhaps possible only in characterization. Old expedients must be combined for use with fresh figures. But, when both figures and expedients are trite, the probability of failure is strong. Thus, for example, Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, in his medley, "We Can't Be as Bad as All That," employed characters and situations which not only many other writers but also he himself had already utilized in other plays. There was the woman with a past, endeavoring to forestall discovery, as in "Mrs. Dane's Defense," together with the one honest man contending against general insincerity, as in "The Liars." The very combination itself had formerly been made by the same writer in his "White-washing Julia."

On the other hand, the "Heimat" of Sudermann, which appeared in America under the title of " Magda," set a fashion for plays wherein advanced young women who have been betrayed deliberately refuse the so-called reparation of marriage. And many of these plays, including such recent ones as Mr. Stanley Houghton's "Hindle Wakes," Mr. John Galsworthy's "The Eldest Son," and Mr. St. John G. Ervine's "The Magnanimous Lover," are quite free from the accusation of conventionality. Each is original in its characterization, as well as in the treatment of the incidents and the revealed personality of the author.

The Need for Consistency in the Plot

But if the plot of any play can scarcely pretend to absolute freshness, it can at least achieve consistency. This latter is also a quality bound up with, and dependent on, the characterization. Because it is easiest to devise a complicated fable in frequently disregarding the logical actions of the people portrayed in it, dramatists of lesser rank often sacrifice consistency. The best dramaturgy, however, let us repeat, fuses plot and people in a skilful blending that sacrifices neither element to the other.

The playgoer's sense of logic is more and more easily offended these days with stage personages who act out of accord with probability. That is one reason why coincidence—more concerning which subject will be said later—is considered an amateurish expedient in plot building. For example, we are likely to resent being asked to believe that the fortuitous Colonel Smith, who turns up, in Mr. A. E. W. Mason's Green Stockings," on the very day the spinster heroine has had his death notice published, should be able to guess, on the strength of the meagre data in his possession, all the details of the fabrication she has foisted on her relatives. Our resentment in such cases, of course, varies in proportion to the seriousness of the attempt to portray life, for much is accepted in farce that would prove unconvincing in serious drama.

The Use of Art in Gaining Continuity of Plot

Next after consistency, the plot of a play stands most in need of continuity. Its parts must be clearly related in an unbroken and cumulative narrative. We all know that the naturalistic school long since endeavored to suppress plot, to do away, in fact, with art itself, and to substitute mere fragments of reality. Arno Holz and his followers labored valiantly in this collecting of graphophonic conversations. With such men as Gerhart Hauptmann, however, a coherence was sought which should at the same time be as nearly plotless as possible and without suspicion of heightening or of culminating effect.

Monsieur Augustin Filon has almost satirized this extreme of tendency in his volume, De Dumas à .Rostand:

"Place . . . these personages in an initial situation which will give free play to their dominant vices, their master passions. Then let them go it alone; meddle not in their affairs; you will spoil everything. No complications, no climax, nothing but the development of the characters. Above all, no intervention of Providence.

With M. Becque, the gods never arrive, and men disentangle themselves as best they can. How does one know when the play ends? By the fact that the curtain falls. And when does the curtain fall? When the author has extracted from his characters all that is contained in them in a given situation."

It is true that there is very little plot in real life. Nevertheless, the drama, to satisfy, must, like any other art, be finished and not fragmentary. The Torso Belvedere is all very well in its way, but even though we can appreciate a "Walking Man" by Rodin, no one would think of amputating the limbs and head of the Apollo as a means of improvement. And equally of course, if there were no value in selection, composition, and the personal equation, mere color photography would entirely substitute for landscape painting. The soundest critics have had frequent need to reiterate that a play, like a picture, must begin, not simply start, and end, not merely break off. It may be that "the constant and bitter conflict in the world does not arise from pointed and opposed notions of honor and duty held at some rare climacteric moment, but from the far more tragic grinding of a hostile environment upon man or of the imprisonment of alien souls in the cage of some social bondage." But even such forms of conflict may be more effectively portrayed by artistic selection and arrangement of typical scenes than with the undiscriminating camera. Indeed, the first of the realists himself declared that "the dramatic author who shall know man as did Balzac and the theatre as did Scribe will be the greatest that ever lived." We are undoubtedly made so that we understand

"First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out."

And prominent among the tried and proved expedients of the dramatic art are beginning, complication, climax, end, plot, in short.

Says Monsieur Filon, again in De Dumas à Rostand, referring to Augier and Dumas, "They saw clearly one thing that escapes our young authors to-day: that is that the intrigue is necessary, not only for the amusement of the spectator, but also for the psychological development itself. Characters are not studied like insects under the microscope. They do not even know themselves, and it might be said that they do not exist, except potentially, until the moment when they come into contact and conflict with events or with other characters."

The plot of a drama, then, is the indispensable story formed of interwoven strands of action, wherein the characters unconsciously reveal themselves. If there are —under the sun—no new stories, there are at least endless possibilities for the novel treatment of freshly drawn figures studied from life and placed in unhackneyed relationships and environments. And—the problem of emotional interest aside—this sequence of motive and incident in which the personages involve themselves should have a definite beginning, a logical continuity, and a convincing and satisfying end.


1. From any available works on the technique of the drama or of fiction select the definition of plot that to you seems best.'

2. Try to formulate a definition of your own. Remember that a definition must include neither too little nor too much.

3. Distinguish between the action of a play and the actions of the characters.

4. Why is the play as a type more given to, external action than is the novel?

5. Does the relation of conduct to character hold on the stage as it does in real life?

6. In which realm would the relation be more marked?

7. Give one example of a modern play in which fresh handling has saved a trite plot.

8. Give examples of your own discovery of at least two playwrights' use of the same fundamental plot idea.

9. Discuss briefly the fitness of the following comparison: The plot brings the leading character in the play to a cross-roads in his career and shows dramatically the force - or forces that determine his course, and then swiftly suggests the end of the road.

10.From some present-day play show how the following statement applies: The plot in drama shows by means of action a soul in its hour of crisis, what brought about the crisis, what constitutes the problem, and how it is solved.

11.Criticise some modern play from the standpoint of its handling of struggle as a plot element.

12. Does crisis—a "mix-up" brought to a breathless query of "What will be the outcome? "—apply to lighter forms of drama as well as to the more serious? Illustrate from actual plays.

13. What do you understand by "consistency" of plot? Illustrate.

14. What do you mean by "continuity?" Illustrate.

15. What is Realism? Naturalism?

16. Take a simple though vivid happening as found in the newspapers and show how by artistic arrangement—selection, elimination, addition, shaping, shifting of the order of events—you could make a dramatic plot. Do not forget to make the struggle central, and indicate not only the outcome but the means by which it is brought about.


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