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Play Writing - The Exposition

( Originally Published 1915 )

He [Alfieri] adds that he has made it an invariable rule to introduce the action by lively and passionate dialogue, so far as is consistent with the opening of the piece, and between personages who have a direct interest in the plot.—J. C. L. de SISMONDI, The Literature of the South of Europe.

It is Scribe's habit, in the plays which are to extend through five acts, to employ the whole of the first one in patiently and ingeniously laying out the strands of the intrigue to follow. For the time being he does not concern himself with amusing the public; he contents himself with putting it in touch with the situation. It is necessary that such and such events be known—he relates them; to a first account of them succeeds another. It is necessary that-you make the acquaintance of the personages who are to conduct the action—he presents them to you one by one: this is Mr. So-and-so; he has such and such a character; he is capable, things falling out thus, of behaving himself in this or that manner.—FRANCISQUE SARCEY, Quarante Ans de Théâtre.

I remember reading somewhere that "the comedy of Richelieu," which has held the stage for seventy years, contains action, story, character, situation, suspense, contrast, and picture, and it blends humor and pathos; while the central character is unique, sympathetic, essentially human, and continuously interesting." That description would at first glance seem to epitomize all that is most desirable in drama; though, on reflection, one might reasonably add such elements as surprise, climax, harmony, logic, and truth to life.

Undoubtedly the fundamental qualities are action and feeling. As the rhymester puts it:

"If you desire to write a play,
Then here's the vital notion:
Each act and scene should well display
Both motion and emotion."

And again:

"In plays, you see, Demosthenes' old law
Once more will fit the case without a flaw.
Upon the rostrum and the stage, we find,
Tis action, action, action chains the mind."

The playwright, having selected his starting-point and his main characters, and having in fancy and in plan allowed these latter in their juxtaposition naturally to work out a certain progressive action, which will include a complication of motives and conflicting lines of conduct, reactions and clashes—having come thus far, he must set to work to reduce this movement to a definite plot, and then to body forth the plot in the most effective and stirring manner.

The Route of the Play

As Mr. Augustus Thomas puts it, there is the route of the play to be considered, and this route is "much like a trajectory. It springs upward and outward in a fine, easy, even curve, mounts higher and higher to a final sharp crest, and then, very close to the end, drops suddenly off." It is the path of the sky-rocket.

"This route," continues Mr. Thomas, "this line, is made up of short scenes that partake pretty much of the nature of the whole. Each must have its similar rise and stroke. At first, when the story is unfolding, when the audience is not yet thoroughly keyed up, and there are at the same time so many new things to grasp, these scenes will be relatively long and thin curves. As they reach the summit of the route, they will thicken and shorten. Their importance, their weight, the blow that they give, will be steadily greater."

Let us suppose that the playwright has reached that stage of his work when, having mapped out his drama, time-scheme and act-division, and being certain that he has sufficient material for an evening's diversion, he finds that he must make a beginning in the actual writing of his play. His first problem is that of setting forth his characters and conveying to the audience such preliminary information concerning their past history as is necessary to a speedy comprehension of what is to follow. This is what is commonly called the exposition.

An American novelist is quoted as asserting that "there are two types of modern play: one in which the hero and heroine marry, and all their troubles are over; and the other in which they marry, and all their troubles begin." At any rate, hero and heroine, or at least leading male and female characters, the dramatist must deal with; and they and the conditions in which they exist, to begin with, must quickly be made clear.

"The playwright has no time to lose after the curtain has once risen," Professor Bliss Perry tells us,' asserting that "every moment of opening action counts heavily for or against his chances of interesting the audience in the personages of the play." Conversely, other writers on the subject assure us that it is futile to say any-thing of importance during the first five or ten. minutes of the play, since that period will be one of disturbance caused by late-comers and by the various processes of self-adjustment on the part of the spectators. However, the whole matter depends pretty largely on the play itself. Latecomers not only will fail to disturb the audience greatly but will, indeed, be inconsiderable in number, if the drama is from its earliest moment sufficiently absorbing. It is said that, during the first season of "On Trial," spectators often ran down the aisles in order to reach their seats before the curtain rose. The play was so constructed as to grip the audience from the opening instant. Five or ten minutes of preliminary sweet nothings, on the contrary, will inevitably be accompanied by seat-slamming, programme-rustling, and the buzz of whispered conversation.

In connection with a recent vaudeville playlet, there was printed in the programme the following note: "The audience is requested to follow very closely the dialogue from the very beginning of the play, as it all has bearing on situations following later in the act." Such an admonition would seem to confess an inadequacy in the exposition. The opening speeches in this particular sketch, by the way, were no more indispensable to a comprehension of the plot than is usual in one-act plays. The note was merely a bit of over-cautiousness. In good dramaturgy the only way for the author to obtain the general attention is by his skill to command it.

Methods of Exposition

An old-fashioned method of presenting the exposition utilized a conversation between two characters, perhaps a pair of courtiers or of menials, who told each other facts which they and the audience well knew were familiar to both speakers. Such a device, in fact, is employed in so recent a play as Thompson Buchanan's melodrama, "Life." And in even so carefully constructed a piece of dramaturgy as Mr. Edward Knoblauch's "Marie-Odile," we find the novice and the Mother Superior re-informing each other—for our benefit—of the circumstances of the young girl's upbringing in the convent.

Formerly, French drama provided a confidant for the hero, a confidante for the heroine, largely for expository purposes. Various critics, including Mr. William Archer, have remarked how, in "His House in Order," Sir Arthur Pinero hits upon the scheme of having a reporter interview the private secretary of a leading character—a device similar to that employed by Mr. William Dean Howells in "The Rise of Silas Lapham." Since the journalist lacks the information to begin with, we can listen while he acquires it and not feel that probability has been strained. The scene, however, is none the less non-dramatic; though the arrangement is more admirable than that of the traditional footman and the parlor-maid, who have opened such hosts of plays by gossiping about master and mistress. Many a first act, too, has been wearisomely delayed while two characters have sat on a bench or a log, and one has told the other "the story of his life." No matter that they rose and "crossed" from time to time, nor even that the orchestra at certain emotional moments in the narrative discoursed "creepy" music; the story-telling was only narrative and not drama.

In recent years the telephone has supplied so facile a substitute for the confidant that its use in a new play now is likely to arouse ridicule, especially since the device was satirized, along with many others equally overworked, by Sir James M. Barrie in "A Slice of Life."

Mr. Brander Matthews'. truly says that the exposition "is one of the tests by which we can guage the dexterity of a dramatist, and by which we can measure his command over the resources of his craft. Some playwrights have to perfection a knack of taking the playgoer right into the middle of things in the opening scenes of the first act, with a simplicity apparently so straightforward that he has never a suspicion of the artfulness whereby he has been supplied with all sorts of information." These attainments are certainly the ones most worth striving for in expository writing: to get in medias res with the least possible delay, and to convey the information "sugar-coated."

Time and Manner of Exposition

The exposition belongs, of course, as early as possible in the first act. In the beginning the audience is naturally patient and willing, if need be, to wait a while for the action to get under way. Later, when the story has been fairly started, anything that obviously holds it up will be resented. Of course, the amount of exposition required varies with the play; but it stands to reason that the sooner the dramatic struggle can be broached and the emotional interest of the audience aroused, the better will be the chances for success.

It is true that a number of successful dramatists still employ something of the more leisurely method of Scribe, which gives over much of the first act to the process of simply laying the foundation; witness "The Hawk," "The Phantom Rival," and "Outcast" More and more, however, it is becoming the fashion to combine the exposition with the action, or at least to start with a scene of real dramatic movement and then to convey the needed information, disguised as action. Commentators rarely fail to point out that Shakespeare begins "Romeo and Juliet" with a quarrel between the servitors of the Montagues and the Capulets, which concretely illustrates the feud of the two houses. Thereafter the characterizing dialogue of Montague, Lady Montague, Benvolio, and Romeo proceeds apace with a conversational exposition.

First of all, then, the exposition should be clear; second, it should be brief; and, third, it should, if possible, be emotionalized by combination with the action. Failing this last, there is the device of the general conversation between shifting characters, like that which Mr. George M. Cohan employs in "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford." The fragmentary and frequently interrupted dialogue at least gives the impression of movement and of actuality. An excellent example of this sort of exposition is afforded by Mr. Augustus Thomas's play, "As a Man Thinks." The problem before the writer is, first, to introduce Dr. and Mrs. Seelig, their daughter Vedah, and her betrothed, Benjamin De Lota, all Jews; and Vedah's other lover, Julian Burrill, and Frank Clayton and Mrs. Clayton, Gentiles. Second, to make it known that Clayton, who has already been forgiven by his wife for one infidelity, has since been involved in an affair with a Parisian model. Third, to convey the further information that De Lota, not only was formerly a suitor of Mrs. Clayton's, but also has served a term in a French prison after conviction on a criminal charge. The author, to the expressed delight of many critics, deftly manages the revelation of this information bit by bit, through a series of fragmentary conversations, allowing the significant facts to reach the audience at the same time that they impinge upon the consciousness of certain characters in whom they must necessarily produce a strong emotional reaction. It is, accordingly, of interest not only to know that De Lota was once a prisoner, but also to observe the effect of the revelation upon his fiancée; not only to learn of Clayton's second lapse from marital fidelity, but also to note the manner in which his wife receives the information. Furthermore, the exposition is skilfully unified through connection with Burrill's figurine of the dancing girl, for which Mimi, the French model, posed. As the statuette is new, all comers are instigated to discuss it and so to refer to its original, who is further identified by means of a photograph brought by Burrill.

Disregarding for the moment the question of the coincidence involved—which will be considered in a later chapter—we cannot but realize that Mr. Thomas's method of exposition in this play is masterly in its effectiveness. An even more striking instance is to be found in Mr. Elmer L. Reizenstein's "On Trial." In fact, it would be hard to cite a parallel for the gripping tenseness of the opening instant of this melodrama—the scene in the courtroom, the trial in full progress, the prisoner on the verge of conviction. While admitting that in a sense "On Trial" is a "freak" play—" a story told backward and therefore abnormal, we should feel nevertheless that its example is worth imitating in respect at least of this initial interest and clarity.

There is, indeed, no valid reason why almost any play nowadays, whether of story or of characters, should not set off its indispensable sky-rocket plot within a very few moments after the curtain first rises. We have passed the period of lazy devices in this process, and of leisurely and patent procedure. Exposition not only should be clear; it should be brief and dramatic.


1. Draw as carefully as you can a diagram of your conception of Mr. Thomas's "trajectory," pages 76 and 77.

2. In your own words define the exposition.

3. What methods of exposition, other than those noted in the text, have you observed?

4. Criticise one of them.

5. Try to suggest a fresh device for presenting the exposition.

6. Invent a fundamental opening situation for a plot; then give the exposition in outline, saying how you would present it to the audience.

7. Could your plan profitably be altered so as to work in the expository information along with the action?

8. Make a rapid but well considered draft of so much of the first act as would be required to include all the exposition.


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