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Plays - Method And Structure

( Originally Published 1914 )

SO far we have considered the material of the dramatist, his theme and subject matter, and his attitude toward it. But his method in conceiving this material and of handling it is of great importance and we may now examine this a little in detail, to realize the peculiar problem that confronts him.

At the beginning let it be understood that the dramatist must see his subject dramatically. Every stage story should be seen or conceived in a central moment which is the explanation of the whole play, its reason for being. Without that moment, the drama could not exist; if the story were told, the plot unfolded without presenting that scene, the play would fall flat, nay, there would, strictly speaking, be no play there. That is why the French (leaders in nomenclature, as in all else dramatic) call it the scène à faire, the scene that one must do; or, to adopt the English equivalent offered by Mr. Archer in his interesting and able manual of stagecraft entitled Playmaking, the obligatory scene: that is, the scene one is obliged to show. This moment in the story is a climax, because it is the crowning result of all the preceding growth of the drama up to a point where the steadily increasing interest has reached its height and an electric effect of suspense and excitement results. This suspensive excitement depends upon the clash of human wills against each other or against circumstances ; events are so tangled that they can be no further involved and something must happen in the way of cutting the knot; the fates of the persons are so implicated that their lives must be either saved or destroyed, in order to break the deadlock. Thus along with the clash goes a crisis presented in a breathless climactic effect which is the central and imperative scene of the piece, the backbone of every good play.

If this obligatory scene be absent, you may at once suspect the dramatist ; whatever his other virtues (fine dialogue, excellent characterization, or still other merits), it is probable he is not one genuinely called to tell a story in the manner of drama within stage limitations.

It is sometimes said that a play is written backward. The remark has in mind this fundamental fact of the climax; all that goes before leads up to it, is preparation for it, and might conceivably be written after the obligatory scene has been conceived and shaped; all that comes after it is an attempt to retire gracefully from the great moment, rounding it out, showing its results, and conducting the spectator back to the common light of day in such a way as not to be dull, or conventional or anti-climactic. What follows this inevitable scene is (however disguised) at bottom a sort of bridge conveying the auditor from the supreme pleasure of the theater back to the rather humdrum experience of actual life; it is an experiment in gradation. And the prepared play-goer will deny the coveted award of well done to any play, albeit from famous hands and by no means wanting in good qualities, which nevertheless fails in this prime requisite of good drama : the central, dynamic scene illuminating all that goes before and follows after, without which the play, after all, has no right to existence.

With the coming of the modern psychologie school of which Galsworthy, Barker and Ben-nett are exemplars, there is a distinct tendency to minimize or even to eliminate this obligatory scene; an effort which should be carefully watched and remonstrated against; since it is the laying of an axe at the roots of dramatic writing. It may be confessed that in some in-stances the results of this violation of a cardinal principle are so charming as to blind the onlooker perhaps to the danger ; as in the case of Milestones by Messrs. Bennett and Knoblauch, or The Pigeon by Galsworthy, or Louis Parker's Georgian picture, Pomander Walk. But this only confuses the issue. Such drama may prove delightful for other reasons; the thing to bear in mind is that they are such in spite of the giving up of the peculiar, quintessential merit of drama in its full sense. Their virtues are non-dramatic virtues, and they succeed, in so far as success awaits them, in spite of the violation of a principle, not because of it. They can be, and should be, heartily enjoyed, so long as this is plainly understood and the two accomplishments are perceived as separate. For it may be readily granted that a pleasant and profitable evening at the theater may be spent, without the very 'particular appeal which is dramatic coming into the experience at all. There are more things in the modern theater than drama; which is well, if we but make the discrimination.

But for the purposes of intelligent comprehension of what is drama, just that and naught else, the theater-goer will find it not amiss to hold fast to the idea that a play without its central scene hereinbefore described is not a play in the exact definition of that form of art, albeit ever so enjoyable entertainment. The history of drama in its failures and successes bears out the statement. And of all nations, France can be studied most profitably with this in mind, since the French have always been past masters in the feeling for the essentially dramatic, and centuries ago developed the skill to produce it. The fact that we get such a term as the scène à faire from them points to this truth.

Accepting the fact, then, that a play sound in conception and construction has and must have a central scene which acts as a centripetal force upon the whole drama, unifying and solidifying it, the next matter to consider is the subdivision of the play into acts and scenes. Since the whole story is shown before the foot-lights, scenes and acts are such divisions as shall best mark off and properly accentuate the stages of the story, as it is unfolded. Convention has had something to do with this arrangement and number, as we learn from a glance at the development of the stage story. The earlier English drama accepted the five-act division under classic influence, though the greatest dramatist of the past, Shakespeare, did so only half-heartedly, as may be realized by looking at the first complete edition of his plays, the First Folio of 1621. Hamlet, for instance, as there printed, gives the first two acts, and thereafter is innocent of any act division; and Romeo and Juliet has no such division at all. But with later editors, the classic tradition became more and more a convention and the student with the modernized text in hand has no reason to suspect the original facts. An old-fashioned work like Freitag's Technique of the Drama assumes this form as final and endeavors to study dramatic construction on that assumption.

The scenes, too, were many in the Elizabethan period, for the reason that there was no scene shifting in the modern sense; as many scenes might therefore be imagined as were desirable during the continuous performance. It has remained for modern technic to discover that there was nothing irrevocable about this fivefold division of acts; and that, in the at-tempt at a general simplification of play structure, we can do better by a reduction of them to three or four. Hence, five acts have shrunk to four or three; so that today the form preferred by the best dramatic artists, looking to Ibsen for leadership, is the three-act play, though the nature of the story often makes four desirable. A careful examination of the best plays within a decade will serve to show that this is definitely the tendency.

The three-act play, with its recognition that every art structure should have a beginning, middle and end—Aristotle's simple but profound observation on the tragedy of his day—might seem to be that which marks the ultimate technic of drama; yet it would be pedantic and foolish to deny that the simplification may proceed further still and two acts succeed three, or, further still, one act embrace the complete drama, thus returning to the "scene individable" of the Greeks and Shakespeare. Certainly, the whole evolution of form points that way.

But, whatever the final simplification, the play as a whole will present certain constructive problems; problems which confront the aim ever to secure, most economically and effectively, the desired dramatic result. The first of these is the problem of the opening act, which we may now examine in particular.

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