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Play Writing - Some Further Plot Fundamentals

( Originally Published 1915 )

It [the "action," or plot] embraces not only the deeds, the incidents, the situations, but also the mental processes, and the motives which underlie the outward events or which result from them. It is the compendious expression for all these forces working together toward a definite end.—S. H. BUTCHER, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art.

In the plot of any story, whether it be a mere thread of incidept, as in the stories of the Bible, or the slow complicated movement of some modern novels, the one necessity which underlies everything is that a throng of things which happened all together must be straightened out into single file in order to be put into words. . . . Your first act. . . . is to get your material into a natural and orderly sequence.—J. H. GARDINER, The Forms of Prose Literature.

Before the author ventures upon the start of a play, there are several important considerations to be taken into account.

How many acts are there to be? Modern dramaturgy prefers three or four; although there are noteworthy recent examples of the five—and even of the two-act drama. How many scenes to the act? Present-day custom, except in the case of spectacular melodrama, usually prescribes but one. "On Trial," "My Lady's Dress," and "The Phantom Rival" are noteworthy exceptions, illustrating the moving picture influence. It is always well to consider material economy.

Elaborate and numerous settings, as well as extensive casts, rarely appeal to the prospective producer; and, besides, they often serve to dissipate the attention of the audience. Spectators doubtless take a passing pleasure in seeing the curtain rise on new and interesting settings; but if the play itself be what it should, scenic monotony will be readily forgiven. Everyone knows that it is a common occurrence nowadays for a slender play to be quite lost in an elaborate mise en scène. Recent cases in point are "The Garden of Allah," "The Highway of Life," and perhaps to a considerable extent "The Battle Cry." Mr. Edward Sheldon's "The Garden of Paradise," founded on Hans Christian Andersen's lovely story of the little mermaid, was fairly swamped by the superb settings devised for it by Mr. Joseph Urban.

But it may be noted that it is not always the excess of scenery that is at fault. The negro lad in the familiar anecdote, who became ill, explained ruefully that it was a case not of too much watermelon, but of "too little niggah." In many instances it is not too much scenery—unless the time limit be overstepped—that brings failure, but rather too little play. The author should remember that only a big picture can take a massive frame.

All the foregoing bears directly and vitally on the question of plot handling, as regards not only the finished product but also the preliminary considerations.

Where to Begin the Play

In formulating his plot itself, obviously the first question that confronts the playwright is, Where to begin?

Some leisurely dramatists commence like the eighteenth century novelists, if not at or before the birth, at least early in the youth of hero or heroine. "The High Road," of Mr. Edward Sheldon, follows this course, long intervals elapsing between the acts. Mr. Thompson Buchanan's melodrama, "Life," gives us our first glimpse of the protagonist while he is still an undergraduate—that is, manifestly, before he has "commenced" life.

The opposite plan is to seize the story near the crisis, to let the causes be briefly suggested in the exposition, and to produce in the whole play, as critics have told us that Ibsen so often did, only a sort of elaborated fifth act. "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray" is a familiar example, though "Rosmersholm" is a more extreme instance.

On the whole, this second scheme is preferable. It makes for concentration and avoids the unessential. And, generally speaking, it gives a better opportunity for the more comprehensive character-drawing. The point where one begins, however, depends largely on the purpose in mind. A detective story, whether in print or on the stage, usually starts at what is, chronologically, almost the end of the tale, namely, the crime, and works back to the start, the motive of the criminal. In Mr. Elmer L. Reizenstein's "On Trial "—much heralded by the osteocephalous as a revolutionizer of all established usage—the narrative commences with the trial of the murderer and proceeds by stages into the past, in the detective-story manner, reverting occa- sionally to the courtroom, where, of course, the tale is being told as the trial progresses. In "Innocent" the hero shoots himself during the prologue, leaving a diary, the events of which are acted out in the regular time order. There is, obviously, nothing revolutionary about this method, not even in the frequent flitting from scene to scene, as in "On Trial," a procedure in itself certainly not younger than the Elizabethan drama.

Relative Prominence of the Characters

Another important preliminary consideration deals with the question of whether the play is to have a "star" part. Formerly few dramas lacked a central figure about whom, as the story unfolded, the other dramatis persona revolved. At present there is a growing tendency to emphasize a small group of significant characters, rather than merely one of them. However, the playwright of today who looks to the actor's interest, so far as gaining production for his play is concerned, will do well to provide for the emphasized opportunities demanded by the "star" system.

Above all, in this connection, be sure to make your protagonist sympathetic. He may be a forger like Jim the Penman, or a burglar like Arséne Lupin; she may be a courtesan like Zaza or Marguerite Gautier; but the utmost skill must be exercised to make him or her appealing, lest there turn out to be no differentiation between "hero" or "heroine" and villain or adventuress. By way of illustration, the student of dramatic technique would find it enlightening to consider the causes for the stage inadequacy of Stevenson and Henley's "Macaire."

Unity and Symmetry of Plot

Unity of thought and feeling, as well as simplicity, is essential to the drama, as to all good art. Symmetry, too, is often a valuable asset, though it may be exaggerated into a defect. For example, in "The House Next Door," a comedy adapted from the German by Mr. J. Hartley Manners, there are, to begin with, two homes. At the head of each is a baronet, whose household consists of a wife, a son, a daughter, and at least one servant. This elaborate balance is maintained in the plot, the son of each family being in love with the daughter of the other. In Mr. Rudolf Besier's "Lady Patricia," to cite another often cited instance, the romantic heroine and her husband each carries on a supposed love affair with a susceptible youngster. Eventually the two couples are reassorted as they properly should be; and, meanwhile, the uniform succession of balanced scenes has made for a considerable monotony.

But excessive symmetry is a far less serious defect than a lack of unity, meaning, of course, the only "unity" that matters—that of "action," idea, tone. The old-fashioned "underplot" frequently caused this latter failing. Indeed, it was often difficult to distinguish the minor from the major action. In the finished plays of to-day at least, the comic relief is not separated from the central plot, as it is, for instance, in "Secret Service," or "Held by the Enemy." Rather, the amusing characters, like the juvenile lovers, are woven into the main story.

Generally speaking, a play should elaborate only one theme or action—and a "problem" play should attempt only one problem. Otherwise there may be a falling between stools. In Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's melodrama, "Lydia Gilmore," there is, first, a mother who perjures herself for the sake of her child, and, second, her lover, an attorney who connives at perjury to save her husband. Here are obviously two striking problems; but the play balks them both, as such plays almost invariably do.

As for unity of feeling, it is quite as essential to good dramatic composition as to any other kind. This does not mean that we must strictly adhere to the pseudo-classic differentiation of the genres. On the contrary, we may—in fact, nearly always must—mingle the comic with the tragic, the humorous and the pathetic, the lofty and the humble, since, as romanticists have so long pointed out, these elements are not separated in actual life. But there are distinct types of the drama, and they are not with impunity to be confused. Farce, for example, is pitched in a very different key from comedy, and melodrama from tragedy.' Moreover, satire and seriousness must be handled discreetly in conjunction with each other. Only the master hand can be trusted to blend them safely, as Pinero has done in "The Thunderbolt."

"The impression must be one," insisted Sarcey, in his "Aesthetics of the Theatre:" "every mixture of laughter and tears threatens to confuse it. It is better, then, to abstain, and there is nothing more legitimate than the absolute distinction of the comic and the tragic, of the grotesque and the sublime. However," the good "Uncle" added somewhat amusingly, "every rule is subject to numerous exceptions." This one is, certainly. Nevertheless—as the same shrewd critic pointed out—when "Le Crocodile" of Sardou begins as comedy of manners, turns into philosophical satire, changes then to drame noir, at length becomes idyllic, and ends in fantasy, one is at every moment disconcerted, thrown off the track.

Violations of Unity of Feeling

In vaudeville recently there was performed a playlet which had as its main content and its sole source of interest, the grotesque antics of an alcoholic, chiefly in the repeated negotiation of a spiral stairway. Into this vehicle of low comedy acrobatics, however, was introduced an absurd and serious version of that ancient melodramatic expedient—the girl who sells herself to save her father from debt. Eventually the clown inebriate, himself enamored of the heroine, learning the reason of her complaisance, paid the paternal bills and, after an unintentionally ridiculous moment of "agony," handed the girl over to her poor but honest lover.

It all constituted an extreme instance of that violated unity of impression, that totally unsuccessful effort to blend the humorous and the pathetic, against which so many authorities have repeatedly warned us. While the crudity of it was no great matter in vaudeville, obviously it would have gone far toward ruining the chances of any full-length effort at play writing.

Certainly the "confusion of the genres," in almost any circumstances, must prove a dangerous pastime. Desirable and even necessary as it is to provide the relief of humor in serious plays, to sweep an audience along through an act of obvious melodrama, and then to switch suddenly into settled high comedy or perhaps even tragedy, is to bewilder and render us impatient. The failure of "The Big Idea" of Messrs. A. E. Thomas and Clayton Hamilton was probably due as much to the fact that it skipped continually from melodrama to farcical burlesque and back again as to any of the other contributory causes. The gist of the matter is that, in such circumstances, the spectator loses all confidence in what he is observing, because the fundamental illusion upon which—as Sarcey and numerous of his faithful followers have repeatedly pointed out—the success of the theatre depends, is shattered again and again.

In the case of "My Lady's Dress," the conditions are quite different, Mr. Edward Knoblauch's entertainment being little more than a string of distinct and separate playlets. Although taken together the work comprises farce, melodrama, comedy, and tragedy, each of these elements keeps pretty strictly to its own galley. Of course, the thing as a whole lacks the full appeal of actually unified drama.

The Relations of the Genres

Almost everybody who writes about the theatre nowadays takes frequent occasion to remind us that farce is to comedy as melodrama is to tragedy; that in farce and melodrama the plot is emphasized at the expense of the characterization; and that in comedy and tragedy the characterization takes precedence of the plot. It is evident that, of the four forms, farce and melodrama, comedy and tragedy, are respectively the nearest akin. Melodramatic farce,' or farcical melodrama, like tragicomedy, is not impossible. In fact, the markedly successful "Officer 666," of Mr. Augustin MacHugh, is a case in point, as in a lesser degree is Mr. James Montgomery's "Ready Money." "Seven Keys to Baldpate," "The Ghost Breaker," "Hawthorne of the U. S. A." and "Under Cover" are examples of similar combination.

Occasionally we meet with a successful farce that depends on a distinctly comedy treatment, as in the case of Messrs. Wilfred T. Coleby and Edward Knoblauch's amusing skit, "The Headmaster," which draws its effectiveness from the display of an elaborately sketched character confronting a preposterous combination of circumstances. On the other hand, Sir Arthur Pinero's "Pre-serving Mr. Panmure" failed largely because of the incompatibility of its comedy subject-matter with its farcical form; and such hybrids as a rule have not proved hardy. As for a piece that wavers between farce and tragedy, or between high comedy and melodrama, it will certainly find existence a struggle.

Just what moods may be safely mixed, it is the business of the playwright to determine-if he can. I recall at least one case in which the friendly criticism of an unproduced play that mingled comedy with a type of neurotic tragedy resulted in both the emasculation of the piece and delay until another equally mixed embodiment of the same novel subject had been successfully acted. In all such matters we are constantly thrown back upon the significant fact that whatever persistent a audiences unquestioningly accept will do, even though it be a scene like the first act climax of a popular version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," wherein simultaneously the serious villain is shot and the comic villain is spanked!

The "happy ending" is notoriously responsible for countless abrupt changes of dramatic key. Many a playwright, as will be elsewhere emphasized, starts out with potential tragedy and winds up in sudden comedy or farce, presumably in response to a relentless popular demand. All too obviously, this is the sheerest prostitution of the art. Of course, there is slight excuse for arbitrarily killing off characters in a play that might with reason end pleasantly; but to portray clear-cut characters in an action and an environment that make for tragedy, and at the last moment belie them for the sake of a trite marriage or an incredible reconciliation, is indeed to sell one's birthright for a mess of pottage.

Perhaps the most serious violation of the unity of feeling or tone in plays is produced by the injection of melodrama into what should be comedy or tragedy. There are several latter-day writers who are chronically troubled by this tendency. Mr. Eugene Walter allowed it to militate against his success in "Paid in Full," much as Mr. James Forbes did in "The Chorus Lady," or Mr. Henry Arthur Jones in "Michael and his Lost Angel."

A Logical Plan Necessary

The plot of a drama, then, requires consistency, continuity, unity, in addition—or rather as contributing elements—to interest. It would seem manifest that these qualities cannot be attained unless the play is constructed upon a definite, preconceived plan. It has been asserted that the stage itself supplies the element of imagination by means of its interpreters, its scenery, and its accessories, and that in a sense invention really does not exist for the modern realistic dramatist, who merely reproduces actuality for the theatre. The supreme element remaining is logic. Dumas fils, the master logician of the stage, advises the playwright never to commence his work until he is sure of the scene, the movement, the very language of the final act'. In fact, the end of the play should be the goal toward which the author proceeds from the beginning. At the moment of departure he should have his eyes fixed upon his destination.

"With what fulness, with what firmness of logic," Sarcey exclaims, "has Dumas exposed and sustained his thesis! The whole play bears its weight on this conclusion, on this final point, after which one might write, as do the geometricians: Q. E. D.: quod erat demonstrandum. The thesis-comedies of Dumas are, indeed, living and passionate theorems."

Manifestly, however, only the most spiritless of mortals would allow himself to be indissolubly bound by any preliminaries of his own devising. Few persons build so much as a humble dwelling-house in exact accordance with the original specifications. We discover from Ibsen's carefully preserved notes and sketches that he often learned to know his characters only after he had begun to reduce his scenario to dialogue, and that, in consequence, he frequently rewrote his play entire. This is, of course, the rational procedure. The dramatist lays out his ground-plan and follows it only so far as it is capable of leading him. Once he finds himself beginning to transcend it, he alters it to whatever extent is indicated, even to that of complete re-invention. It was thus with "The Wild Duck," the elaboration of which resulted in an entire readjustment of the original outlines.

It is safe to say, then, that some preliminary sketch—usually written down, though perhaps occasionally merely mental—is invariably the forerunner of a successful drama. Such a document generally contains a plan of the plot as divided into acts, together with a notion of the characters, and certain hints as to the dialogue. Frequently, as the resultant play takes shape, new developments arise, and there is an increase of illumination. Only the' formalist, let it be emphasized, would under such conditions allow himself to be circumscribed by his own preconceived limitations; certainly not the ebullient, creative dramatist dealing enthusiastically with the infinite complexity of human life and character.

Before beginning work upon any play, accordingly, the dramatist should determine the scheme of division, the locale, and the importance and appeal of his leading character. Singleness of theme or purpose and, perhaps, symmetry of structure should be utilized to insure unity of idea, of impression, and of tone. Finally, there should be a reasonably definite preconceived plan; but its terms should in no case be allowed to dictate a character-belying compromise for any purposes of plot, including the "happy ending," nor in any way to hamper the full and free development of the personages and of the impeccable logic of their conduct.



1. From your own observation, how many acts and scenes are used in five specified plays?

2. What changes in this respect would, in your opinion, have added to popular interest and the effectiveness of the production? Consider the questions of cost and practicability in making your answer.

3. Have you ever seen a play that degenerated into a mere blur of many successive scenes? If so, criticise it constructively—that is, so as to suggest improvements.

4. Show where, in the plot, five modern plays made their beginnings. Criticise any two of these favorably or adversely from the standpoint of effectiveness, or attention-winning value.

5.What modern plays divide prominence among several, or even all the characters?

6. Personally, do you like this system? Do your friends? Find out, and give reasons.

7. What were the "Three Unities" (see any encyclo-

pedia) and how do our modern standards differ from them?

8. What modern Unities are especially important?

9. Illustrating from modern plays, show how some of them are (a) effectively used, or (b) neglected.

10.Does the saying "Nothing succeeds like success" have any bearing on such dramatic "laws" as the modern Unities?

11. Show how Balance, or Symmetry, may be over-emphasized.

12. Does Poe's dictum regarding the short-story, that it should leave a completely unified impression, apply to the play? If so, can you give several instances in point?

13. Does the use of a clear-cut theme have any bearing on the unity of a play?

14. What forces in the audience tempt a playwright to disregard unity?

15. In your opinion, what technical defects in "Macaire" seem calculated to make the play ineffective for stage purposes?

16. Show why a carefully elaborated outline ought to help the playwright to produce a unified, consistent, climacteric, and logical play.

17. Using one of your own themes, construct such an outline for a play.


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