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Plays - Development

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE story being properly started, it becomes the dramatist's business, as we saw, so to advance it that it will develop naturally and with such increase of interest as to tighten the hold upon the audience as the plot reaches its crucial point, the obligatory scene. This can only be done by the sternest selection of those elements of story which can be fitly shown on the stage, or without a loss of interest be inferred clearly from off-stage occurrences. Since action is of the essence of drama, all narrative must be shunned that deals with matters which, being vital to the play and naturally dramatic material, can be presented directly to the eye and ear. And character must be economically handled, so that as it is revealed the revelation at the same time furthers the story, pushing it forward instead of holding it static while the character is being unfolded. Dialogue should always do one of these two things and the best dialogue will do both : develop plot in the very moment that it exhibits the unfolding psychology of the dramatis personae. The fact that in the best modern work plot is for the sake of character rather than the reverse does not violate this principle ; it simply redistributes emphasis. Character without plot may possibly be attractive in the hands of a Galsworthy or Barker; but the result is extremely likely to be tame and inconclusive. And, contrariwise, plot without character, that is, with character that lacks individuality and meaning and merely offers a peg upon which to hang a series of happenings, results in primitive drama that, being destitute of psychology, falls short of the finest and most serious possibilities of the stage.

This portion of the play, then, intermediate between introduction and climax, is very important and tries the dramatist's soul, in a way, quite as truly as do beginning and end.

In a three-act play—which we may assume as normal, without forgetting that four are often necessary to the best telling of the story, and that five acts are still found convenient under certain circumstances, as in Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and Shaw's Pygmalion—the work of development falls on the second act, in the main. The climax of action is likely to be at the end of the act, although plays can be mentioned, and good ones, where the playwright has seen fit to place his crucial scene well on into act three. In this matter he is between two dangers and must steer his course wisely to avoid the rocks of his Scylla and Charybdis. If his climax come too soon, an effect of anti-climax is likely to be made, in an act too long when the main stress is over. If, on the other hand, he put his strongest effect at the end of the piece or close to it, while the result is admirable in sustaining interest and saving the best for the last, the close is apt to be too abrupt and unfinished for the purposes of art; sending the audience out into the street, dazed after the shock of the obligatory scene.

Therefore, the skillful playwright inclines to leave sufficient of the play after the climax to make an agreeable rounding out of the fable, tie up loose ends and secure an artistic effect of completing the whole structure without tedium or anti-climax. He thus preserves unity, yet escapes an impression of loose texture in the concluding part of his play. It may be seen that this makes the final act a very special problem in itself, a fact we shall consider in the later treatment.

And now, with the second-act portion of the play in mind, standing for growth, increased tension, and an ever-greater interest, a peculiarity of the play which differentiates it from the fiction-story can be mentioned. It refers to the nature of the interest and the attitude of the auditor toward the story.

In fiction, interest depends largely upon sus-pense due to the uncertainty of the happenings; the reader, unaware of the outcome of events, has a pleasing sense of curiosity and a stimulating desire to know the end. He reads on, under the prick of this desire. The novelist keeps him more or less in the dark, and in so doing fans the flame of interest. What will be the fate of the hero? Will the heroine es-cape from the impending doom? Will the two be mated before the Finis is written? Such are the natural questions in a good novel, in spite of all our modern overlaying of fiction with subtler psychologie suggestions.

But the stage story is different. The audience from the start is taken into the dramatist's confidence; it is allowed to know some-thing that is not known to the dramatis persome themselves ; or, at least, not known to certain very important persons of the story, let us say, the hero and heroine, to give them the simple old-fashioned description. And the audience, taken in this flattering way into the playwright's secret, finds its particular pleasure in seeing how the blind puppets up on the stage act in an ignorance which if shared by the spectators would qualify, if not destroy, the special kind of excitement they are enjoying.

Just why this difference between play and novel exists is a nice question not so easily answered; that it does exist, nobody who has thought upon the subject can doubt. Occasionally, it is true, successful plays are written in apparent violation of this principle. That eminently skillful and effective piece of theater work, Bernstein's The Thief, is an example; a large part of the whole first act, if not all of it, takes place without the spectator suspecting that the young wife, who is the real thief, is implicated in the crime. Nevertheless, such dramas are the exception. Broadly speaking, sound dramaturgy makes use of the principle of knowing cooperation of the audience in the plot, and always will; if for no other reason, because the direct stage method of showing a story makes it impracticable to hoodwink those in the auditorium and also perhaps because the necessary compression of events in a play would make the suddenness of the discovery on the part of the audience that they had been fooled unpleasant: an unpleasantness, it may be surmised, intensified by the additional fact that the fooling has been done in the presence of others—their fellow theater-goers. The quickness of the effects possible to the stage and inability of the playwright to use repetition no doubt also enter in the result. The novelist can return, explain, dwell upon the causes of the reader's readjustment to changed characters or surprising turns of circumstance ; the dramatist must go forthright on and make his strokes tell for once and for all.

Be this as it may, the theater story, as a rule, by a tradition which in all probability roots in an instinct and a necessity, invites the listener to be a sort of eavesdropper, to come into a secret and from this vantage point watch the perturbations of a group of less-knowing creatures shown behind the footlights : he not only sees, but oversees. As an outcome of this trait, results follow which also set the play in contrast with the other ways of story telling. The playwright should not deceive his audience either in the manipulation of characters or occurrences. Pleasurable as this may be in fiction, in the theater it is disastrous. The audience, disturbed in its superior sense of knowledge, sitting as it were like the gods apart and asked suddenly, peremptorily, to reconstruct its suppositions, is baffled and then irritated. This is one of several reasons why, in the de-lineation of character on the stage, it is of very dubious desirability to spring a surprise; making the seeming hero turn out a villain or the presumptive villain blossom into a paragon of all the virtues: as Dickens does in Our Mutual Friend; in that case, to the added zest of the reader. The risk in subtilizing stage character lies just here. Persons shown so fleetingly in a few selected moments of their whole lives, after the stage fashion, must be seen in high relief, if they are to be clearly grasped by the onlookers. Conceding that in actual life folk in general are an indeterminate gray rather than stark black and white, it is none the less necessary to use primary colors, for the most part, in painting them, in order that they may be realized. Here again we encounter the limitations of art in depicting life, and its difference therefrom. In a certain sense, therefore, stage characters must be more primitive, more elemental, as well as elementary, than the characters in novels, a thought we shall have occasion to come back to, from another angle, later on.

Equally is it true that good technic forbids the false lead: any hint or suggestion which has the appearance of conducting on to some-thing to come later in the play, which shall verify and fortify the previous allusion or implication. Every word spoken is thus, besides its immediate significance, a preparation for something ahead. It is a continual temptation to a dramatist with a feeling for character (a gift most admirable in itself) to do brushwork on some person of his play, which, while it may illuminate the character as such, may involve episodic treatment that will entirely mislead an audience into supposing that the author has far more meaning in the action shown than he intended. These false leads are of course always the enemies of unity and to be all the more carefully guarded against in proportion to their attraction. So attractive, indeed, is this lure into by-paths away from the main path of progress that it is fairly astonishing to see how often even veteran playwrights fall in love with some character, disproportionately handle it, and invent unnecessary tangential incidents in order to exhibit it. And, rather discouragingly, an audience forgives episodic treatment and over-emphasis in the enjoyment of the character, as such; willing to let the drama suffer for the sake of a welcome detail.

In developing his story in this intermediate part of it, a more insidious, all-pervasive lure is to be seen in the change in the very type of drama intended at first, or clearly promised in act one. The play may start out to be a comedy of character and then be deflected into one where character is lost sight of in the interest of plot; or a play farcical in the conditions given may turn serious on the dramatist's hands. Or, worse yet, that which is a comedy in feeling and drift, may in the course of the development become tragic in conclusion. Or, once more, what begins for tragedy, with its implied seriousness of interest in character and philosophy of life, may resolve itself, under the fascination of plot and of histrionic effectivism, into melodrama, with its undue emphasis upon external sensation and its correlative loss in depth and artistry.

All these and still other permutations a play suffers in the sin committed whenever the real type or genre of a drama, implied at the start, is violated in the later handling. The history of the stage offers many illustrations. In a play not far, everything considered, from being the greatest in the tongue, Shakespeare's Hamlet, it may be questioned if there be not a departure in the final act from the emphasis placed upon psychology in the acts that lead up to it. The character of the melancholy prince is the main thing, the pivot of interest, up to that point; but in the fifth act the external method of completing the story, which involves the elimination of so many of the persons of the play, has somewhat the effect of a change of kind, an abrupt and incongruous cutting of the Gordian knot. Doubtless, the facts as to the composite nature of this play viewed in its total history may have much to do with such an effect, if it be set down here aright. In any case, it is certain that every week during the dramatic season in New York new plays are to be seen which, by this mingling of genres, fall short of the symmetry of true art.

One other requirement in the handling of the play in the section between introduction and climax : the playwright must not linger too long over it, nor yet shorten it in his eagerness to reach the scene which is the crown and culmination of all his labors. Probably the experienced craftsman is likely to make the second mistake rather than the first, though both are often to be noted. He fails sometimes to realize the increase in what I may call reverberatory power which is gained by a slower approach to the great moment through a series of deft suggestions of what is to come; appetizing hints and withdrawals, reconnaitres before the actual engagement, all of it preparatory to the real struggle that is pending. It is a law of the theater, applying to dialogue, character and scene, that twice-told is always an advantage. One distinguished playwright rather cynically declared that you must tell an audience you are going to do it, are doing it, and have done it. Examples in every aspect of theater work abound. The catch phrase put in the mouth of the comic character is only mildly amusing at first; it gains steadily with repetition until, introduced at just the right moment, the house rocks with laughter. Often the difference between a detached witticism, like one of Oscar Wilde's mots, and a bit of genuine dramatic humor rests in the fact that the fun lies in the setting: it is a mot de situation, to borrow the French expression, not a mere mot d'esprit. By appearing to be near a crisis, and then introducing a barrier from which it is necessary to draw back and approach once more over the same ground, tension is increased and tenfold the effect secured when at last the match is laid to the fire.

Plenty of plays fail of their full effect be-cause the climax is come at before every ounce of value has been wrung out of preceding events. If the screen scene in The School for Scandal be studied with this principle in mind, the student will have as good an object lesson as English drama can show of skilled leading up to a climax by so many little steps of care-fully calculated effect that the final fall of the screen remains one of the great moments in the theater, despite the mundane nature of the theme and the limited appeal to the deeper qualities of human nature. Within its limitations (and theater art, as any other, is to be judged by success under accepted conditions) Sheridan's work in this place and play is a permanent master-stroke of brilliant technic, as well as one explanation of the persistence of that delightful eighteenth century comedy.

But the dramatist, as I have said, may also err in delaying so long in his preparation and growth, that the audience, being ready for the climax before it arrives, will be cold when it comes, and so the effect will hang fire. It is safe to say that in a three-act play, where the first act has consumed thirty-five to forty minutes, and the climax is to occur at the fall of the second curtain, it is well if the intermediate act do not last much above the same length of time. Of course, the nature of the story and the demands it makes will modify the statement; but it applies broadly to the observed phenomena. The first act, for reasons already explained, is apt to be the longest of the three, as the last act is the shortest, other things being equal. If the first act, therefore, run fifty minutes, forty to forty-five, or even thirty-five, would be shapely for act two; which, with twenty to twenty-five minutes given to the final act, would allot to the entire play about two hours and ten minutes, which is close to an ideal playing time for a drama under modern conditions. This time allowance, with the added fraction of minutes given to the entr'acts thrown in, would, for a play which began at 8:15, drop the final curtain at about 10:30.

In case the climax, as has been assumed of a three-act play, be placed at the end of the second act, the third act will obviously be shorter. Should, however, the growth be projected into the third act, and the climax be sprung at a point within this act—beyond the middle, let us say—then the final act is lengthened and act two shortened in proportion. The principle is that, with the main interest over, it is hard to hold the auditor's attention ; whereas if the best card is still up the sleeve we may assume willingness to prolong the game.

With the shift of climax from an earlier to a later place in the piece, the technic of the handling is changed only according to these commonsense demands. A knowledge of the psychology of human beings brought together for the purpose of entertainment will go far toward settling the question. And whether the playwright place his culminating effect in act two or three, or whether for good and sufficient reasons of story complication the three acts become four or even five, the principles set forth in the above pages apply with only such modifications as are made necessary by the change.

The theater-goer, seeking to pass an intelligent opinion upon a drama as a whole, will during this period of growth ask of the playwright that he keep the auditor's interest and increase it symmetrically; that he show the plot unfolding in action, instead of talking about it ; that he do not reach the eagerly expected conflagration too soon, nor delay it too long; and that he make more and more apparent the meaning of the characters in their relations to each other and to the plot. If the spectator be confused, baffled, irritated or bored, or any or all of these, he has a legitimate complaint against the dramatist. And be it noted that while the majority of a theater audience may not with self-conscious analysis know why they are dissatisfied, under these conditions, the dissatisfaction is there, just the same, and thus do they become critics, though they know it not, even as M. Jourdain talked prose all his days without being aware of it.



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