How plays are made
How Plays Are Made
A guide to the technique of play
construction and the basic principles
How plays are made
This book is published primarily as an electornic document, to be down-loaded
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Copyright © Stuart Griffiths 1982.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in
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The right of Stuart Griffiths to be identified as the author of this work has
been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs, and Patents
First published 1982. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Reprinted five times.
Published 2000. Pontcanna Press UK.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Previous ISBN with Heinemann Educational Books: 0-435-18380-X
Action is drama's most mysterious element. Formidable thinkers on the subject throughout history concur that it is also the most important. Indeed, drama is action. The word itself is derived from the ancient Greek word 'to do'. Lessing rightly said that all practitioners of the art and all critics must return to the plumb-line of Aristotle's writings on the drama. Those utterances are oracular, and appropriately cryptic at times. Aristotle defined tragedy as 'an imitation of the Action', and left it to posterity to work out exactly what he meant.
One interpretation could be that the process of a drama, the whole curve of its action, should parallel some fundamental rhythm or movement of nature. The action of a good play has often been compared to a wave making towards the sea shore: small at first, swelling higher and higher, with a steady rising and falling movement, at its highest peak breaking and crashing on the shore, then the sudden final falling away. Breathing; a beating heart; the cycle of the seasons; of a human life; the course of a single day; the act of coitus: they are all valid comparisons. In another art form, the process can be realized in a great symphony.
The action of a good play may be sensed by its author before he has even begun to think in terms of plot detail, characters or dialogue. He may have a vague yet insistent general idea of what he wants the play to be, and its action grows from that.
The rising action, the climactic action, combined possibly with a reversal, where the action veers round to its opposite, then the falling action and resolution, will be mapped out before a word of a play is written. In fact, the actual writing is a minor part of the work for many dramatists. It is done very rapidly. The play may have been gestating for months or even years beforehand. In different ways Ibsen, Noël Coward, Arthur Miller, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn have all testified to this creative phenomenon.
Similar experiences are to be found in other artistic areas. Chesterton wrote of Dickens's first masterpiece: 'A man knows the style of the book he wants to write when he knows nothing else about it. The idea of light existed when there was not a single solitary star. Pickwick is the mere mass of light before the creation of the sun or moon.'
When one talks of a play's 'action', it is not physical action. That is only part of the process. Action must never be confused with mere activity or bustle. A drama can have a great action which carries an audience with it from beginning to end with hardly one burst of physical violence. It is emotional and mental action that counts.
The long temptation scene in Othello (Act III, Scene 3) consists mainly of two men talking together. The physical action is minimal. Yet the mental stress and emotional violence of the scene are tremendous. Before our eyes we see a terrible change taking place. As we watch, Othello gradually changes, through Iago's poison, from a state of calm noble stability into one of mad, uncontrollable fury and jealousy. The Moor changes, as it were, from black to green to red.
If that scene had been left out, and Desdemona simply reported to Emilia that her husband had undergone an awful transformation, the audience would have felt cheated. They actually want to see the transformation taking place.
Equally important for dramatic action is the opposition of evenly-matched forces. If one force has its way too easily from start to finish the audience will lose interest. If it is met by an opposition worthy of it, the contending forces strain against each other, sway this way or that according to whichever has the advantage; there is stress, tension, struggle, a seesaw of fortunes, until the issue is resolved. It may be a conflict of individual wills, of ideas, of moral choices, of a man's purpose with some obstruction or flaw in his own nature. Eric Bentley, the American theatre scholar, has compared a dramatist to a perverse traffic policeman. Instead of keeping the traffic from hitting each other, he beckons and guides them into collision.
Goals and obstacles
The need for 'conflict' in drama can be misunderstood. It is generally better for the dramatist to concentrate on the idea of a man striving to achieve a goal, and meeting resistance from an obstacle or succession of obstacles. The goal may change of course. (Coriolanus first intends to rule Rome, then destroy it.) But it is hard to think of any great play where the principle does not apply. The obstructed will is the closest one can get to a universal dramatic theme.
14 How plays are made
The obstruction need not be external, e.g. a villain. Hamlet, Coriolanus and Macbeth are examples of a protagonist whose purpose is frustrated and finally doomed by obstacles within his own nature.
Furthermore, the Shakespearean action is often marked by a striking reversal after the half-way point, e.g. in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Coriolanus, where the rising movement, carrying the fortunes of the protagonist, is met by a counter-movement, which has nonetheless been built into the ground plan of the action from the start, and which ultimately prevails. This reversal, or revolution, provides the dynamic for the second half of the play.
The play's driver
In many plays the central character striving for his objective is the one who guns the action forward. But this is not always the case, and someone must be there to do it. There is a toy called Action Man, and in a sense every good play has its action man. At each stage, a play needs a driver, a galvanizer, an activator, a doer, a powerful will, someone who makes things happen. This may be the hero or villain, male or female (Henry V, Richard III, Lady Macbeth), a supremely competent operator (Mr Voysey in Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance), or a perpetrator of comic disasters (Norman in Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests or, in films, M.Hulot or Harpo Marx).
The King is the initial driver of Hamlet and he starts the play long before curtain rise by killing his brother and marrying Gertrude. Goneril and Edmund are the drivers of King Lear as well as the King himself. Voysey Senior drives the first part of The Voysey Inheritance, then his son Edward takes over (see p. 16). These are not passive characters: they thrust the play onwards. They have objectives, and combat resistance. If the play is in danger of running out of steam a new driver can always be introduced. Powerful and colourful characters can be saved for the last act; Shaw does this with General Burgoyne in The Devil's Disciple, and Bohun QC in You Never Can Tell.
Walter Kerr, the writer and Broadway theatre critic, has summed up the process of a dramatic action: ' There is a beginning stage in any change: a stage at which motivating pressures are beginning to clamour for a response. There is a middle stage: a stage at which the response is given and the inevitable conflict joined. There is an end stage: a stage at which the contest between pressure and response has resulted in a different relationship between these two things, a new state of affairs, a changed state of affairs. . . . All that is asked of the dramatist is that he show the beginnings of some one particular change, that he trace it through its natural turmoil, and that he bring the contending forces into a different though not necessarily a perfect balance. Things were one way; now they are another; we have seen them move.'
'A great part of the secret of dramatic architecture', wrote William Archer, 'lies in the one word "Tension". To engender, maintain, suspend, heighten and resolve a state of tension is the main object of the dramatist's craft.'
What do we mean by tension? It is a condition of mental stress or excitement. The mind is actually stretched. The pulse probably beats faster. It is, of course, an essential element of suspense, which has been called the nerve centre or the mainspring of drama. The two are not strictly synonymous, for there are instances of dramatic tension where the suspense factor does not commonly apply.
For immediate practical purposes, however, George Pierce Baker's definition of suspense is valuable:
The Wild Duck
Suspense implies an imminent reversal of fortune. The Sword of Damocles hangs over the head of the protagonist. Or, if you like, a time bomb is ticking. In Ibsen's The Wild Duck, Gregers Werle enters Hjalmar Ekdal's home as a lodger. We know he will wreck the happiness of everyone in it. Hjalmar is blissfully unaware that his wife was once the mistress of Gregers' father, Haakon Werle, and that his young daughter Hedvig is not his own. Gregers' perverted idealism is bound to construe it as his duty to tell Hjalmar the truth. But it is a long time before he makes his first move. Ibsen well knows that the audience will be on the edge of their seats by then.
In Ingmar Bergman's production of the play, Max von Sydow as Gregers started his long chat with Hedvig at a good distance from her across the stage. As the talk charmingly proceeded, he moved closer and closer to her: a chilling image of danger.
24 How plays are made
Milking situations: Dogberry in Much Ado
The 'milking' of situations involves suspense, particularly in comedy, e.g. making a character, previously established as given to verbosity, take a long time to deliver or fail to deliver a vital piece of news: Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing (Act III, Scene 5). The clown has already unwittingly stumbled on the plot to wreck Hero's wedding, and he goes with Verges to see Hero's father Leonato, the Governor of the city. But he never gets to the point because he is so swollen with self-importance, verbose, and totally lacking in any sense of priorities. Verges tries to break through his monumental circumlocutions and tell Leonato, but Dogberry shuts him up he wants to do the talking ('A good old man, sir, he will be talking; as they say, "when the age is in, the wit is out" '. . . etc.) Finally Leonato leaves impatiently for the church where tragedy awaits that could so easily have been prevented.
It is a common fault with beginners to drill away at material which has small dramatic potential. But it is equally wrong to skip over material which could yield far more dramatic mileage. A writer should strive to discover all the possibilities for suspense in a scene, exploit the full temperamental range of his characters, and examine how each might affect all the others.
Suspense requires sympathy with the characters. If we do not care for them, it does not much matter if they do suffer a severe reversal. We will not be kept in alternating states of hope and fear about them.
Most of all, suspense makes the audience ask questions. The movement of a play is from question to answer, from problem to solution. Will Hamlet kill the King before the King kills him? Will Lady Teazle be discovered behind the screen? If so, what will be her reaction and that of the others on stage? We sense the imminent doom of Oedipus, but just how, and when, and by whom will this be brought about?