All About Theater

The Technique of Play Writing

The dramatists of the time of Elizabeth brought the poetry and wit of the drama to a high state of perfection -- their characters were boldly drawn and well preserved-- their incidents, though at times extravagant, were striking -- their language forcible and characteristic -- their plots constructed with skill. Yet few of their place, with the exception of Shakespeare himself, can be represented as they were written on the modern stage.

This is not alone because of the occasional coarseness or unfamiliarity with the language and expressions of the time, but rather that plays now require more action than earlier times.  Plays now must have situations of interest, and though elegant language is not altogether an objection to a modern audience, it will not submit to a word over the number absolutely required. Hence the young dramatist who desires success need not hope to find the key to it by a study of the older dramatists.

It has been said that the acting play was the novel in action. It is the representation of a story, in which the deeds of the characters are given to the eye by the characters themselves, and hence the golden rule of successful playwriting now is never to describe anything that can be done as well by the characters before the eyes of the audience.

In planning a drama, whether comic or tragic, the first thing after the plot has been determined is to devise a series of positions that, while they aid in developing the plot, shall not point to the inevitable conclusion.

The next thing is to invent novelty of character. New characters are rarely introduced. Most plays by novices include typical characters -- the customary lover, the cruel parent or guardian, the malignant rival, the heavy villain, the funny man or the pert chambermaid. But, at the least, the woes that trouble the lovers should be novel, the parents ought to be perverse after a different fashion from his prototype, the mode of the villain's wickedness may be such as that never before heard of, and the pert maid havea a turn and pertness peculiar to themselves. The great search, however, of all playwrights, is for a strange situation and novel incident. Some of the results of their labor, as witnessed in modern plays, are singular enough.

Three Act Plays

Plays in three acts are quite popular since the end of the 19th century. Of the three acts, the second act is generally the longest, and the third act is the shortest as a general rule.  In the first act the story is opened by a series of incidents, which leaves the hero and/or heroine in a doubtful position, but not in absolute peril. The second act brings them to the point of distress, from which apparently nothing short of a miracle can save them. In the third act, by quick and rapid action they are rescued from their difficulty, the parents are mollified, the villain brought to grief, and the curtain falls upon a tableau of general happiness.

Five Act Plays

Five acts were the utmost at any time. Nat Lee wrote a play in twenty-seven acts, but he was in Bedlam at the time, which accounts for it.

One Act Plays

The one-act play is to the play of three, four, or five acts much as the short-story is to the novel. And, as there are novelists who fail at short-story writing, and vice versa, so there are dramatists qualified to deal in full-evenings' entertainments who are helpless in the realm of the playlet, and the reverse.  Within the limits of a half-hour or less—and oftener less—the author can produce by means of a single incident only a single effect, and to that purpose all else must be subordinated. Therefore if it is dangerous to mingle the genres in ordinary drama, it is next to fatal to do so in the one-act piece.

Whether a stereotyped plan for acts is followed or not, there are certain tricks of arrangement that are essential. The curtain must never fall upon a tame scene, but an exciting tableau. If in the first act the villain has been caught and imprisoned, the curtain must fall on his escape.

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