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Preface to Drama: An Introduction to Dramatic Literature and Theater Art : Book by Charles W. Cooper; Ronald Press, 1955. 776 pgs.



Creation by the Playwright
Playwriting . . . is . . . also like chess, where a whole series of moves must be made to lead up to the one you want. Each of these moves will lead to other moves. And the ultimate aim of none of them should be apparent.
-- JOHN VAN DRUTEN, Playwright at Work
AMONG THE ARTS, DRAMA--combining theater art and dramatic literature--is peculiarly dynamic. In a very real sense a play is a process rather than a thing. It takes a lot of steps for a dramatic idea to travel from the imagination and mind of the playwright all the way to the mind and imagination of the playgoer or the playreader.

The creation of the playscript is one of these steps. Another step is the reading and study of the script by the actors, director, designer, etc. Then comes their interpretative creation of the play through rehearsals and production. The performance itself is another step. With it comes the re-creation of the play in the minds of the spectators. Printing and publishing of the playbook are usually steps beyond this. And finally your own reading of the book trails along at the far end of the long process.

It is the playscript, the playwright's creative work, that we shall devote ourselves to in this second essay.


We defined "stageplay" as a story presented directly by actors upon a stage before an audience. And we defined "playscript" as the written dialogue and stage directions used in creating a stageplay. With an eye to both of these definitions, we might say that a playscript is a story devised or adapted by a playwright for presentation upon a stage to an audience.

The writing and devising of a playscript is called "playwriting." But you will note that the man doing the devising and writing is called a "playwright." The "wright" comes from an older form of "work," of which an archaic past tense is still "wrought," as in the expressions "wrought up" and "wrought iron." A "wright" was a constructive worker--a wheelwright, cartwright, wainwright. So, too, a playwright is a maker of playscripts, with emphasis upon construction of plot, development of character, contriving of stage effects --as well as the writing of dialogue for the actors to speak. As a playwright, he is a craftsman, first of all, then a writer. Often he is a man of the theater before he becomes a man of letters, an author, or a poet--a dramatist.

A "dramatist" is a playwright whose scripts have become recognized as dramas, as literature. All the great dramatists--Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Shaw, O'Neill--have been great playwrights. Most of them learned their craft through long years of acting or directing or theater management, or through long years of close study of plays in the theater. Many distinguished men of letters--poets and novelists such as Browning, Shelley, Stevenson, Dickens--have tried without success to devise and write playscripts of distinction. Only a few modern novelists and writers of short stories--such as Maugham, Galsworthy, Chekhov--have really been successful playwrights. The novelist and poet, accustomed to writing for the reader's eye and ear, find it difficult to devise and write a playscript for production by actors in the theater.

A playscript requires an especially complex form of writing. It is somewhat like the architect's blueprints and specifications from which the master builder or building contractor constructs a house, using a great variety of materials and co-ordinating the work of many artisans. It is something like the composer's score from which the musical conductor directs and co-ordinates the rehearsals and performance of a symphony orchestra.

Just as one needs a certain know-how to read music and house plans, so too you will need some special knowledge of the theater in order to realize the full potential of a drama.


A stageplay is a story of one special sort: presented directly by actors, etc. A drama is a story of another special sort: suggested by printed dialogue and stage directions. A novel, a short story, a biography; an opera, a musical comedy, a dance drama; a radio drama, a TV play, a movie; a cartoon comedy, a puppet play, a pantomime--all of these are stories of one kind or another. Each of them communicates a story in its own particular way.

What, then, is meant by the word "story"?

Well, to start with, a story is about people; it puts you in mind of people as you have known them. There is really no such thing as an animal story. The Aesopic lion, the three little pigs, Black Beauty, Peter Rabbit, Lassie, and Mickey Mouse are essentially human creatures, though whimsically animal in form.

Furthermore, a story is not merely a description of people, character sketches; it is about people doing things. Usually there are a number of things that happen, a chain of events in sequence, with a beginning and an end.

Then, too, a story usually has some point. The things that the people do are made to seem important to us. Although we are all interested in people and their doings, our attention is caught and our interest really aroused when we see significance in what is happening. As we see the relationship of events to one another, causes and results, conflicts of personality and interests, anticipate things to come and speculate upon things past, ask ourselves what it all means --then we are not merely concerned with people and happenings, but with story.

A story, then, is a representation of human beings in a sequence of significant happenings. It is easy to illustrate this by reference to "A Good Lesson!" Obviously, as we read the book, human beings ( Albert, Victoria, etc.) come to mind in a succession of related incidents that are brought to a meaningful conclusion.

There are six elements in all stories. Various sorts of storytelling will place emphasis upon different ones of these elements, but all stories will at least suggest all of the elements. The following diagram may help you to fix them in mind.

character 	action 	dialogue
scene 	         plot 	theme
The characters are, of course, the people brought to mind by the story. The actions are the things that the characters are represented as doing. The dialogue is their conversations, what the characters say to each other in the course of what they do. (Speech, of course, is action of one special sort, and at times actions "speak" louder than words. But we shall consider action and dialogue as separate story elements.)

The scenes are the places where the actions take place, the settings for the events, the environment of the characters. The plot--there may be more than one--is the pattern of the successive actions and character relationships. The theme--again there may be more than one--is the over-all meaning, the significance of the plot.

As a story, "A Good Lesson!" includes Victoria and Albert as characters. Albert's writing room in Buckingham Palace in 1842 is the scene. The sending for Albert, Albert's morning return, Victoria's entrance, her accusation, etc., comprise the action. The tension between Queen and Consort that leads to the clash of wills, with Albert victorious because he is the stronger and the more understanding--this patterns the incidents and forms the plot. The continuous conversation of the characters constitutes the dialogue. The general idea or theme is that domestic differences may so be resolved with love and understanding that the wrongheaded partner is not hurt by defeat. Such, at any rate, is one reader's interpretation of the story elements of this play.

Of the six elements to be found in every story, it is curious that the only one that can be virtually eliminated is dialogue. Dance dramas, pantomimes, silent films, and grand operas tell their stories without spoken dialogue, though they all use dialogue of a sort through the language of gesture, printed subtitles, music and song-with words not necessarily understood!

A playscript, however, is largely dialogue, and it might seem at first thought that a playwright is essentially a writer of dialogue. But the dialogue that makes up a playscript is not merely a flow of parlor wit or profound discourse. It is conversation that suggests or accompanies action, that reveals character and scene, that patterns the plot, that expounds the theme. The playwright, as we said, is a craftsman who devises and constructs before he writes.

In some playscripts the emphasis is placed upon the characters, with very little action and hardly any plot. Other playscripts are strong on action with merely type characters, rather thin dialogue, and nothing but the most obvious of themes. Certain others, it is true, are brilliant conversation pieces, with characters mere mouthpieces for the playwright's own views, and almost no action or plot.

The playwright, then, while using all of the story elements, will have more interest in some than others. If his script is really weak in action or character or scene, the actors and other theater artists will at least try to make up the deficiency. However, good playscripts--those that become the great dramas--are usually rich in all six of the story elements.


A story is, first of all, a representation of human beings. The characters of a story are simply the human beings who inhabit it. They do not live elsewhere. Even when drawn from historical personages--like Victoria and Albert--they are fictions.

While in the process of devising a script, the playwright consciously creates or intuitively conceives these characters. They may come to him as mere suggestions or character ideas to he developed later. But finally each character exists in the playwright's mind as a bundle of human qualities, personality traits, drawn together from his experience of people. Family and friends, neighbors and chance acquaintances, historical persons and legendary folk, characters from fiction and drama--all may have supplied details; but the playwright draws in no small measure upon his knowledge of himself. Laurence Housman drew his characterizing data not alone from official biographies of Victoria and Albert, but from the queen's journals and letters. He also drew upon his wider knowledge of human nature and behavior.

It is the playwright's mind and imagination that will impose pattern and unity upon the assorted human tidbits used in characterization. These he synthesizes and gives a personal name as a character for his story.

There are a number of factors that, in addition to the playwright's observation of people, will determine the characters he creates.

One of these is dramatic necessity. If the playwright has already decided upon the main lines of his plot, for instance, or his theme, then this will call for the development of certain characters. If the playwright begins--as is sometimes the case--with a clear conception of his central characters and then proceeds to work out his action, there will still be much reshaping of these characters as the plot develops. So Housman chose to emphasize in "A Good Lesson!" those traits of character in both Victoria and Albert--her petulance and simplicity, for instance--suitable to the incident of domestic strife he had chosen to present in this little play. And the minor characters are always more or less determined by the requirements of scene, action, plot, dialogue, or theme.

Another factor that determines the playwright's characters is his dramaturgy, his theory and practice of playwriting. If he believes that all of the characters must be highly individualized, then he will labor to create character-fictions very different from one another and with personalities quite fully and roundly suggested. It may be the playwright's view, however, that even the main persons of his play should be type characters. Or the playwright may individualize the main characters, perhaps with lavish detail, and otherwise people his play with rather sketchy or typical characters.

Yet a third factor that will shape the playwright's characters is his view of life, his general notions about human nature and the causes of individual personality and behavior. The playwright may believe that human personality is controlled by the stars, or that each man is free in his will to shape his own life. Or he may hold that man is a battleground of vices and virtues--or that, born in sin, man is redeemed by vicarious atonement--or that man is the absolute child of his forebears, inheriting the personality and the sins of his fathers--or that man is the creature of environment, shaped by family and surroundings--or that man is pulled and hauled about by his id and superego, by mother fixations, sexual compulsions, inferiority complexes, frustrations, anxieties, psychoneuroses. The playwright's theory of personality will be an important factor in his shaping of dramatic character.

So, from his experience of people, the playwright draws his character material, which is shaped by his dramatic needs, by his theory of playwriting, and by his philosophy of life. Such fictions grow and shape themselves in his imagination as part of his creative activity in contriving a script. In this way Housman's characters were shaped. He needed Anson, the Queen's gentleman, and Richards to get the play started, to explain the situation, to dramatize the Queen's imperious displeasure, to show the anxiety among the Prince's personal attendants. These characters Housman barely outlines--not even a personal name for the gentleman and only a name for Richards. But he conceives his principals as highly individualized, not merely types. Housman thought of himself as a latter-day Victorian, and his views of life were uncomplex, with heredity and environment held nicely in balance by personal will and integrity and manifest destiny.

Now let us ask: How does the playwright "get" his imagined characters into his playscript? In what possible ways can he do this?

First, he can write a description of the character. He may include this in the stage direction upon the character's first appearance as a help to the actor in developing his impersonation. Earlier playwrights provided no such character sketches. In any case, the actor's appearance and outward bearing, his costume and make-up can be counted upon to suggest to the spectator some of the character's personality traits.

Second, the playwright can describe the characters as part of the opening dialogue, the so-called "exposition" of the play. He may plant a formal character sketch in the dialogue, a description of the hero by another character. Or he may draw such a portrait through conversation. Or he may divide it up further, introducing the character gradually, one trait at a time. Direct comment will be supplemented by the reactions of other characters, revealing their characterizing attitudes and opinions.

Third, the playwright can have his characters reveal themselves by their own words. What a character says in a given situation and how he says it will tell you a lot about his temperament, his past life, his present interests and desires. Dialogue can be personalized with individualizing speech patterns and diction, dialect, and odd turns of thought. This self-revelation can be seen in the give and take, question and answer, sally and rejoinder of conversation--and in those whispered thoughts called "asides." It is often richest in the long speeches or monologues. Sometimes, particularly in earlier drama, such revealing monologues are spoken by the character to himself alone. We listen to such "soliloquies" as though hearing the intimate thoughts of the character. The persons of the play will be characterized, then, by the dialogue and speech directions.

Fourth, the playwright can let his characters reveal themselves by what they do and how they do it. What people do to achieve their will and desires tells you something about them. So does how they go about it and how they react to what others do. The dramatist knows that at times actions do speak louder than words in revealing personality, past lives, present hopes and fears and tensions. Therefore he will use action and reaction--as specified in the stage directions or implicit in the dialogue--as a means of characterization.

Fifth, the playwright can reveal something of the personality of a character through environment. A boy's room--possessions, trophies, junk--tells you a lot about him. A man is known by the company he keeps. A woman is characterized by her control of, orby her being controlled by, her surroundings. The dramatist will often describe the scene in his opening stage direction so as to reveal certain traits of the characters. He may also include minor characters as an important part of the social environment.These, then, are devices used by the playwright as he tries to get the personality of his fictional characters out of his imagination and into the playscript. It seems hardly necessary to point out how Housman characterizes Prince Albert. There is no description of him either in the stage directions or the dialogue of this playlet. It is in what Albert himself says and how he says it that Housman reveals the man, and in what he does and how he does it--also in how others react toward him. Through the scene, too--the orderly writing room, his conscientious personal staff, the vast correspondence--the playwright suggests many traits of the Prince.Because even a long play is limited in scope to "the two hours' traffic of our stage," the playwright will have to select those personality traits that he feels are most characteristic, that are essential to understanding the action and the plot, that are helpful in communicating the theme. He will stress by repetition, using several devices to establish those traits that he considers most important. ¡́ 4. ACTION, PLOT, AND DRAMATIC CONSTRUCTION We turn now, easily enough, from the characters to what they do. Brander Matthews once wrote, in A Study of the Drama, that in a good play, "the characters make the plot, and the story is what it is merely because the characters are what they are." A brief discussion of action will be followed by more extended considerations of plot and dramatic construction.

I. The action of a play comprises the actions of the characters, what they are represented as doing, the substance of the story. In its most obvious sense an action is anything that a person does. Speech, then, is action of one kind. But there can also be psychological action, silent and motionless--making a decision, or wordless torment, or refusal to nod assent! However, the playwright will commonly imagine his characters as doing things in the more usual and active sense. He will describe these actions in stage directions or make them implicit in the dialogue, as Shakespeare does with such skill.

Something more will be said about action in the next essay--the actors' gestures and movements, the pantomime. Here we shall concern ourselves with the playwright's development of the action, the plotting of the play, the dramatic construction.

II. The plot of a play is the pattern of its action. It is not simply the sum and sequence of the things the characters do, the events depicted. That, in a simple sense, is the action of the story. The plot is the design of the happenings--the causal relationship of the events to each other, to the characters and their motives, to the mood and theme, to the framework of the play. The plot of a play is its structure.

In most plays there is usually a central character from the standpoint of plot. He (or she) is called the "protagonist"--a dramaturgic term from the Greek protos (the first or chief) and agonistes (actor; one who contests, strives desperately, struggles, suffers, agonizes). He is usually the character whom we as readers or spectators will learn to know best. He is usually, but not always, the character with whom we sympathize, with whom we identify ourselves, the hero. The will and desires of the protagonist usually cause him to act; and his actions--and the counteractions of those who oppose him--are the principal events of the story.

Most plays--but by no means all--have conflict plots. The will and desires of the protagonist are opposed. If there were no opposition, there would be no scheming and strategy, striving and struggle, successes and setbacks, suffering and suspense. There would, then, be no story in the usual sense. "The spectacle of a will striving towards a goal" was what Bruneti¨¨re called the law of the drama, in an essay by that name. It was this element of tension and conflict that, in the first essay, we noted in both life and the theater.

Because it is the genius of the theater to tell its story by acting it out, the forces of opposition that block or counter the efforts of the protagonist are likely to be people. The chief opposing force is usually one particular person called the "antagonist"--from anti(against) and agonistes. But the forces of opposition, as we said earlier, need not be a person or persons. They may be impersonal, natural, or supernatural forces--society or war, storm or flood, devil or fate. Or the protagonist's adversary may lie within his own personality--his own opposing will or desires.

In the design of a conflict drama, there is (in addition to the desire or will of the protagonist and the opposing force) a third factor, the deciding factor--the deciding agent, as Samuel Selden calls it in his Introduction to Playwriting. This may be a third person or natural force, but it is often found within either the protagonist or the antagonist. It is this third factor that finally decides the issue, allowing the protagonist to win or causing him to lose the conflict. It may be the protagonist's "tragic flaw" or Achilles' heel--or his courage or perseverance or superior intelligence--that will be the deciding factor. Or it may be that the antagonist, who personifies the opposing force, has within his character peculiar strength or weakness, brilliance or stupidity. Or the deciding factor may be the intervention of the law or justice, fate or nature, society or family.

How does this three-force pattern of the conflict plot work out?

Think once again of Julius Caesar. Brutus (let us say) is the protagonist who desires to maintain Rome as a republic and who joins Cassius and others in their conspiracy hoping to accomplish his desire. Caesar, you may agree, is the chief opposing force, the antagonist, and, though he is killed, Antony and Octavius and his own ghost carry on for him. The deciding factor, perhaps, is within Brutus himself, his generous nature, sparing Antony's life and allowing him to speak at Caesar's funeral. Or you may judge the deciding factor to be Cassius, who in one way and another misled the noble Brutus. In "A Good Lesson!" the conflict plot is even simpler: protagonist--Victoria, desiring to rule the man she loves; opposing force--Albert, determined to maintain his integrity; deciding factor --Albert's superior intelligence and forebearance.

Now let us see how the plot of the story--the pattern of the action--is built into the playscript.

III. Dramatic construction is a rather technical part of playwriting. It is here that the playwright is most of all a craftsman--or a crafty chess player, as John van Druten has pointed out. Even a limited view of his problems may increase your understanding and appreciation of the drama. Our discussion of this phase of dramaturgy will be developed under three heads: the components of the whole action, the structure of the enacted drama, and the larger units of construction.

A. What are the components of the whole action of a play?

To start with let us ask another question: What is the difference between the whole action and the enacted drama? When you retell the story of a play, you will sometimes have to start way back before the beginning of the enacted drama. You will then have to narrate important events that occurred prior to the rise of the curtain. The enacted drama consists of the events presented directly by the actors.

Its beginning--let us repeat--may come a long time after the start of the whole story. When this is so, the significant past events will have to be communicated to the audience in one way or another--by the dialogue or by flashbacks, of which more will be said shortly. At present we are concerned with the whole action, that is, the story from its very start, without regard to how much of it is enacted and how much narrated.

The components of the whole action, the units of which the story is made up, are incidents. An incident is simply a significant action or cluster of actions, an event, a happening, something someone does. It is useful to distinguish incidents from situations. A situation is a state of affairs, the status quo at any particular time, the relationship of characters to each other at a given moment, to their environment, to what has already happened or is to come. You can narrate an incident, or you can act it out. But you can only describe a situation, or pose it with live actors and then explain their relationships. An incident can be recorded by a movie camera; a still camera can only catch a situation. Incidents are the building blocks of the whole action of a story.

At the starting point of a story the characters are presumed to be in a certain relationship to each other--the initial situation. Then something happens--the inciting incident--and the status quo is upset, the situation is changed and different. But not for long. For something else then happens, a second incident, and the situation is again altered. One thing leads to another. One action causes a counteraction, and that in turn is the occasion for another. So it goes: (situation) incident (situation) incident (situation) incident (situation), etc. What one character does is the stimulus to which another character's action is a response, and this in turn is the stimulus for yet another response. The incidents of the whole action therefore form a linked cause-and-effect chain from the start, the inciting incident, to the final incident, which results in the final situation--a state of affairs, such as marriage or death, which for dramatic purposes is considered permanent.

Such, then, are the components of the whole action of a story. Let us now ask another question:

B. What is meant by the structure of the enacted drama?

The enacted drama may begin at or near the very starting point of the whole action of the play, and then proceed by presenting the principal incidents in the entire chain of events from first to last.

This is called "chronological structure." Shakespeare often used it, as in Julius Caesar. But many plays begin someplace in the middle of the whole action ("in medias res"), and then proceed from there, after filling in the antecedent events as needed. This is sometimes called "dramatic structure." In fact, the Greek tragedies and Ibsen's dramas often begin near the end of the long chain of events comprising the whole action of the story. This is sometimes called "fifth-act structure," because the play presents directly what would be only the last act of a five-act drama using chronological structure, and all the preceding events are narrated bit by bit. A few plays that begin in the middle or near the end of the whole action make use of the "flashback structure," acting out rather than relating the more important of the earlier incidents, as in Death of a Salesman.

It was Aristotle in his famous Poetics who spoke of a tragedy as a whole which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We can say as much either for the whole action or for the enacted drama. But it will be important to note that the two beginnings--that of the whole action and that of the enacted drama--are not usually one and the same thing.

Let us consider the beginning of the enacted drama.

Unless the structure is strictly chronological, the situation at rise-when the curtain first goes up at the beginning of the play--will not be the same as the initial situation in the whole action. For instance, in Housman's playlet, the curtain rises upon Anson at his desk on a certain morning. However, the story really began the evening before. The initial situation in the whole action was the state of affairs when Albert kissed Victoria good-by before going off to make that speech at the Royal Academy Dinner. It was then that Victoria told him to be back by half-past ten at the very latest! And it was during the night that so much of the whole action took place. But in our other example, Caesar's triumphant return to Rome, stirring up the mob, occurs almost within the framework of the enacted drama. In this case the situation at rise is but one incident removed from the initial situation.

The beginning part of the enacted drama is preparation. It includes what is called the exposition, the dialogue that explains the situation at rise--identifying the characters and establishing the time and place of the scene. The exposition is also likely to characterize the protagonist and his chief desires, and it may suggest the opposing forces, etc. As part of the beginning--whether directly enacted or related as part of the exposition--comes the inciting incident already referred to. By this time one or more questions emerge: Will the protagonist succeed in gaining his desire? And if so, how? We shall call these the dramatic questions. Suspense will be maintained as long as such questions are kept in view but remain unanswered. They will not be fully answered until the end of the play.

The middle of the enacted drama--obviously enough--follows the beginning and precedes the end.

The body of a play consists of the linked chain of incidents, the principal ones being incidents of conflict in which the protagonist strives toward his goal or in which the opposing forces move to block him. In these incidents of conflict we realize the dramatic elements such as we find them in life. Here indeed there will be scheming and strategy, strife and struggle, successes and setbacks, suffering and suspense. In the course of the story conflict there will be all manner of complications and successive crises. Each crisis will be a head-on clash of the opposing forces, an incident of dramatic conflict. The decisive one of these crises--the climactic incident--will be the climax of the play, the turning point in the fortunes of the protagonist. In the climactic incident, it is the deciding factor (whoever or whatever) that turns the tide. Thereafter we feel confident that the protagonist will gain his desire, though he is not yet extricated from his difficulties or he is still menaced. Or after the climax we may feel that the continuing struggle of the protagonist is in vain and that he is doomed to lose, though we do not yet know how.

The climax serves to answer the primary dramatic question: Will the protagonist succeed in gaining his desire? After the climax there is no more suspense from that question, but there may be from yet more important questions such as this: How will he succeed or ultimately fail? In certain plays--such as Shakespeare's great tragedies as sometimes analyzed--the climax is about midway in the course of the action. The assassination of Caesar, according to Freytag Technique of the Drama, is the climax of the play. It is preceded by the conspiracy, the rising action, and is followed by the falling action, which includes the counteraction of Antony in arms and the quarrel with Cassius. In Housman's little play the climax comes when Victoria as queen and wife demands an explanation of Albert's conduct, and Albert quietly tells her the truth, refuses to quarrel, and makes her sit down to listen to him. It is more usual, however, for the climax to come much later. It is then the last of the crises, perhaps even the last important incident in the body of the play. Following the climax, in this more usual dramatic construction, comes the ending of the play.

The end of the enacted drama follows the middle with its complications, crises, and climax.

The end as a structural part of the whole may be quite short. The essential conflict has already passed its climax. We expect the end and are prepared for it. In a tragedy the final incident--the catastrophe--will often be the death of the protagonist or absolute defeat or realization of crushing failure. In comedy the final incident will often serve as a d¨¦nouement--the untangling or unknotting of the plot lines, the clearing up of unanswered questions. There may be final surprises--a last glorious effort of the defeated protagonist or a final dirty blow from the defeated antagonist. There may be final reversals and discoveries. All the dramatic questions will not be answered in the mind of the spectator or reader until the final curtain, which either shows or promises the end of the story, the final situation.

In Caesar the final incident is Brutus' death, and the final situation: Antony and Octavius in possession of the field but honoring dead Brutus as "the noblest Roman of them all." At the end of Housman's play, Victoria accepts Albert's integrity and independent action, makes him manager of Windsor; and happy domestic relations are restored.

There is still a third dramaturgic question to be asked:

C. What are the larger units of dramatic construction?

Earlier we said that incidents are the component units of the whole action of the play. They are the smaller units of dramatic construction. There are also the larger units of the enacted drama, three of which will be distinguished: the basic scene, the scene as usually defined, and the act. (The word "scene" has already been used in another sense as one of the six story elements, which will be further considered in the next essay.)

A basic scene is that part of a play during which no important characters come in or go out, the group of characters remaining the same. A basic scene, then, begins with the entrance or the exit of an important character or group of characters or of several characters in rapid succession. Basic scenes may be called "rehearsal scenes" because each is a convenient unit to rehearse with one group of actors; and they are sometimes called "French scenes" because in classical French dramas each of these units is marked off as a separately numbered scene.

The basic scene is important in dramatic construction because it is a unit in the playwright's composition. That is, he will contrive to have certain characters together in a situation in order to further the story by certain actions and dialogue, incidents and revelations. He will not usually interrupt the dialogue or action until he has accomplished his present dramatic purpose. Then he will, upon some pretext, dismiss characters he no longer wants on stage or bring on others whom he needs.

A scene--as in the usual phrase "Scene One" or "Scene Two"--is that part of a play which is continuous in time and place. We could call it an "English scene" as distinguished from the French, for plays in English usually have such units designated as scenes. Or we could call it a "time-and-place scene," because its action is confined to one place and proceeds continuously. It is marked off by a change in place or a lapse of time. Scenes, in this sense, end with the falling of a curtain or the dimming or black-out of the lights or (as in Shakespeare) the clearing of the stage when all the actors leave it. The rising of a curtain (whether or not it reveals a different setting), the heating up of the lights, or the entrance of characters again upon a bare stage will mark the beginning of a new scene.

The scenes of a play are often the most important of the play's units of construction. They are usually designated and numbered as "scenes" by the playwright, unless the whole act or entire play is in but one scene. But sometimes the playwright will simply indicate some manipulation of the lights or a curtain to mark a lapse of time or a change of place, thus starting a new scene as we have here defined it.

The word act is used to mean the main divisions of the usual full-length play. Five acts were the number established by Horace and followed by many Renaissance dramatists. But Shakespeare may not usually have bothered about act divisions in his playwriting --at least his plays as published during his own life time were not divided into acts. About a century ago, the four-act structure developed, giving way fifty years ago to the three-act form. Today many plays are written to be performed in two parts, with a single intermission. And a very few long plays have been written in one continuous scene--with no change of place or lapse of time--the curtain being dropped once or twice perhaps for resting the audience.

The phrase "one-act play," however, is used in a special sense to mean simply a short play, usually in one scene, about the length of one act of a long play--however long "long" may be!

With this let us conclude this extended section on action, plot, and dramatic construction. But not without a warning: Most plays as you read or see them will probably seem to you to have conflict plots --with protagonist, opposing forces, inciting incident, dramatic questions, complications, crises, deciding factor, climax, and catastrophe or d¨¦nouement. Your discovery that a particular play--perhaps among those to come in this book--has a design of a different sort will be an important first step in your determining what its particular pattern, for you, really is.


You can see now, from what has been said about plot and dramatic construction, why we insisted upon the proper spelling of "playwright." However, the dramatist is not only a conscious craftsman but also an intuitive artist. Because of his keen observation of life and theater he will, certainly, do much of his creative work without rationalization. He may carry on extended research, develop elaborate character sketches, formulate detailed scenarios, and then proceed systematically to draft, rewrite, revise, and polish his playscript. Or he may mull over his ideas, engage in apparently irrelevant work, and then suddenly dash off a script at white heat.

It is surprising how rapidly some plays have been written, the actual dramatic composition occupying but a few days or weeks. Shakespeare--who, friends proudly boasted, "never blotted a line"-wrote about two plays a year while engaged also in his profession of regular acting. Ibsen, however, usually labored about two years upon a single play.

When it comes to the actual dramatic composition--once the characterization and plotting are somewhat or fully worked out--the playwright is essentially a writer of dialogue.

Stage directions are a comparatively small and less important part of playwriting. The Greeks wrote none. Shakespeare added to his dialogue very little more than entrances and exits. The modern dramatist, however, usually describes the scene in some detail--not only the setting but the principal stage properties (furniture, etc.)-giving the time of day, the season and weather, sometimes giving specific suggestions as regards lighting and sound effects. He may also describe the characters briefly, as we noted, before starting to write dialogue. Here and there, as he proceeds, he will add phrases suggesting voice tones and gestures to the actors, and he will describe certain actions or business in detail, as well as indicating entrances and exits.

But the playwright, once he starts to write, is essentially a writer of dialogue; and of his writing only the dialogue ever reaches the ears of the audience. His most elaborate stage directions and side comments will go no further than the actors in the theater, who may find them suggestive or helpful but are more likely to disregard them in whole or in part. Unlike the novelist, the playwright cannot narrate his story and use dialogue only at the high points. He cannot comment upon the course of the action. He cannot even-as is the case two-thirds of the time in the average movie--suspend dialogue and substitute continuous pantomime with a background of sound and music. It is a convention of drama that someone is talking all the time. The pauses and the brief bits of silent business occupy only a very small fraction of the total time. The dialogue is virtually continuous.

Yet a good stageplay--or a good reading drama--does not seem "talky." Dialogue is conversation with dramatic purpose. In a well-written play, the speeches may serve two or three purposes at once--revealing character, serving the action, furthering the plot, suggesting the scene or mood, touching the theme, or providing incidental delight or enrichment to the spectator or reader.

Something has already been said about dialogue as it reveals character. Much the same can be said as regards the suggesting of scene and mood. Speeches also accompany and comment on the action. In addition, as earlier noted, speech may serve as one form of action --think of the verbal combats, the quarrels, the imperatives, the curses, the insults, the fighting words, the asking of forgiveness, the wooing, the consenting, etc. But speeches also can narrate past action or off-stage action, reveal motives, interpret and evaluate action. It is through dialogue principally that the plot of the play will emerge--forces of opposition (if such there are) in conflict, moving through complications and crises to climax and conclusion.

It is in the dialogue that the over-all meaning of the play will be specifically touched and the symbols pointed up. The theme, which presumably will be the most general abstraction of the significance of the play, may be given explicit statement in the dialogue.

But dialogue may serve yet another function--incidental to the main business of the play--sheer verbal delight. The language of drama may be poetry. It may be music to the ears of the auditor or reader, stir his fancy with free imagery, quicken his mind with perceptive metaphor, warm his heart and engage his interests. Whether the play is verse or prose, whether the style is rhetorical or colloquial, whether the mood is grave or gray--dramatic dialogue at its best will be more than merely utilitarian talk, it will be language serving its art function. It will be highly charged and evocative.

The question may be asked, in closing this essay, whether the playwright is himself conscious of the separable story elements, whether he is aware of his own processes in creating characters as individuals or as types, whether he does construct his plot with chess-playing shrewdness, whether he actually writes his dialogue and stage directions with an eye to their various functions and desired effects. A simple answer to this complex question would be a qualified "Yes." The successful playwrights have been conscientious craftsmen in the theater. But the great dramatists have also been intuitive artists whose creative processes have transcended the craft in which they were skilled artisans.


Production for Presentation

The art of drama is the presentation of life in the theater: the art of theater is the presentation of drama. -- ELIZABETH DREW, Discovering Drama

THE THEATER AND STAGE together comprise a wonderful workshop, a machine, and a showcase. In it and through it a whole company of artists join their several talents in the cooperative creation of a stageplay. This they purvey, as a perishable commodity, directly to their customers, who consume it on the spot.

In the preceding essay we centered our attention upon the playscript--its creation by the playwright. It is hoped that, with some little knowledge of dramaturgy and the art of playwriting, you will read dramas and see plays with greater understanding and appreciation, and that your complex drama experiences will be more clearly structured and more meaningful.

Now, approaching the drama from a different point of view, we shall focus our thoughts upon the stageplay and its creation by the artists of the theater. Even this brief survey of play production may increase your understanding and appreciation of the theater and enrich your enjoyment both as a playgoer and as a playreader.


Earlier we spoke of a playscript as a blueprint for the building of a stageplay. Just now we have said that the playscript is created by the playwright, and that the stageplay is created by various other theater artists. It is high time we distinguish two different sorts of creative art activity carried on by two general sorts of artists. We shall call the one sort "primary" and the other sort "interpretative."

The sculptor carves a statue, the painter designs and executes a picture, the poet writes a poem. We shall in each case call this primary creative activity because the artist gets his inspiration and ideas from within himself, from his imagination and his observation [-64-] of life. In these cases the person who responds to and experiences the work of art--statue, picture, poem--perceives directly the work created by the primary artist.

However, this is not so with all the arts. The architect's plans, the composer's score, and the playwright's script are also the result of primary creative activity, bred in the artist's imagination from all manner of life experiences and given outward expression in complex symbols: architectural drafting, musical notation, and theatrical language. No one of these artists expects his own work of art-sketches, score, or script--to reach the ultimate art consumer directly. Each of these particular primary artists hopes and intends that his architectural plans will be built, that his musical composition will be performed, that his playscript will be produced.

The processes of architectural building, musical performance, and play production are interpretative creative activities carried on by interpretative artists. The interpretative artist in each case does not create "out of his head" like the primary artist. The contractor constructs the building from the architect's plans; the instrumentalists play the music from the composer's written score; the actors perform the stageplay from the playwright's script. The interpretative artist is no less creative an artist than the primary artist. His activity is simply different in kind, requiring different skills, creating quite different works of art. The musical composer relies upon the performers; the performers depend upon the composer. So it is with the playwright and the interpretative artists of the theater; they are mutually interdependent.

The artists and artisans of the theater are various: the producer, stage director, art director, technical director (or some combination of these as the rigisseur or director)--the actors and actresses, sometimes also singers and dancers--the stage managers and prompter-the scene designer, stage carpenter, flyman, stagehands, scene painter --the master electrician, property master, sound technician--the musical director, for some productions, and musicians--the costume designer, seamstress, costumer, wardrobe mistress, dresser, make-up artist--and the man on the curtain! Even a rather simple stageplay with a small cast and no scene changes will call for a considerable team of artists and craftsmen during the period of rehearsal and construction, with a somewhat different team during opening performances and the run of the show.

The director, actors, designers--and only in less degree the master artisans and technicians--are all interpretative creative artists. Theyall work directly or indirectly from the playwright's script as they cooperate in the creation of the stageplay. As with all interpretative creative activity, there are three phases to this work in the theater: (1) the reading, study, and understanding of the primary work, the playscript; (2) the developing and constructing of an expressive recreation of the script; and (3) the communication or presentation of that re-creation to others, the audience. For the actors and director this means study, rehearsal, and performance.

Theater artists, then, are middlemen in the distribution of the playwright's stories to the spectators in the audience.


A stageplay, as we said, is a story presented directly by actors. Before the actors appear in front of an audience to give a performance of the playwright's story, they will already have engaged in a great deal of creative activity--extensive study and rehearsal. To understand what this involves, it may be well to think of the actor as three persons rolled into one.

The actor is, first of all, an impersonator, a personal mimic. That is, he takes upon himself the behavior and speech patterns, the costume and make-up, of the fictional character he represents. He is skilled in characterization--getting into and keeping in character-projecting the presence of a personality. The character, of course, is his part in the play, his role.

Second, the actor is also a pantomimic--a mime. That is, he directly acts out the principal incidents of the story. He enters and exits, sits and rises, crosses and stands still, approaches and retreats. He turns and twists, points and gestures, salutes and backslaps, strikes and wards blows. He nods and shakes his head, smiles and laughs, frowns and glances, and so on. The actor, like the dancer, is skilled in the expressive use of his body and its members, in the acting out of the business of the dramatic incidents, and in reacting to the actions of others.

Third, the actor is also a speaker, an elocutionist (to use a discredited word), an oral interpreter of dramatic dialogue. This speech art is quite different from the arts of oratory, declamation, public address, oral reading, and conversation. The actor will need superior vocal equipment, adequate tone and volume, expressive range and quality. He will use skills in utterance and phrasing, articulation and enunciation, characterizing diction and dialects.

He will develop the power to communicate ideas and project emotions, the ability to engage in the ensemble of dialogue and the extended monologue, the techniques of pointing, building, and topping. He will learn his lines and cues swiftly and accurately, retain them, and recall them without prompting. And he will have to listen appropriately to the speeches of the other actors.

The actor, then, will be an impersonator, a pantomimic, and a speaker at one and the same time. Therefore, when he is engaged in the study of his role, he will be alert to three different sorts of data: character traits, action hints, and oral clues.

The actor's work will begin with a thoughtful study of the whole script, whether through individual reading or rehearsals. He will need to know what this story is that he and others will act out together upon the stage. He will also need to know what the director understands its plot and characters and theme to be. Then he will proceed to the close and careful study of his own lines. What, he will ask of each speech, is the sense, tone, feeling, and intention? What is the relation of this line to the situation and to the incidents past and present? What does it tell about the personality of the character? about his traits, his motivation, his actions and reactions? This study is the first phase of the actor's preparatory work.

The second phase of this creative activity will be carried on largely in rehearsal, but also in private oral practice. The actor will try out various readings of the lines. He will develop his gestures and business. He will rehearse the ensemble with others in the cast. Together with the director they will develop their expressive re-creation, making a stageplay from the playwright's script.



Moving forward in our consideration of the stageplay, we shall again recur to our basic definition: A stageplay is a story presented directly upon a stage.

First of all, the stage itself is the physical environment of the actors' performance. It is the place where they act out the story. To serve this primary function, a stage must provide sufficient room for the actors to perform their essential business. There must be adequate access to it for their entrances and exits. And the stage mustbe visible to the assembled audience. That is, there must be enough light to see the players, and all the spectators should be within eyeshot.

In the second place, the stage is the physical environment of the characters portrayed and the incidents enacted. Scene, you will recall, is one of the six elements of story. It is the place of the action, the setting in which the events occur. The stageplay as a story has its scene suggested to the imagination of the audience by the stage setting, the properties, the lights, the sound and music. However, the scene will also be suggested to the imagination of the audience by the dialogue and even the pantomime. Some modern plays have used the most realistic of scenery. Others have used evocative language and movement to suggest the scene. The setting for Shakespeare's plays was the relatively unchanging and unpictorial stage of the Globe Theater, with its curtained inner and upper stages and but few properties. Shakespeare therefore relied largely upon poetry and pageantry to paint the scenes of his dramatic stories--the courtroom, castle tower, romantic woods, moonlit garden, or battlefield. The scene designer emerged as an artist in the Renaissance, though not in England for Shakespeare's theater. The history of this branch of theater art is an interesting one, from Inigo Jones to Donald Oenslager and the other distinguished art directors of our own times. Sometimes, indeed, the scenes, spectacle, and special effects have dominated the productions that they should have served. Occasionally an audience even today will applaud a highly realistic or spectacular stage picture, gorgeous costumes, brilliant sunset, or unbelievable waterfall. At times a play written for production with a simple stage setting is quite overpowered by the elaborate efforts of a scenic designer. More often in our day, however, the stage is unobtrusively pleasing and appropriate for the dramatic purpose.

The art director--the scene and costume designer, whether two persons or one--is an interpretative artist. His creative art activity is based upon the primary work of the playwright. The first thing that he will do is to study the script. Like the actor, he will need to understand the story--the characters, the action, the plot, the theme, the special qualities of the dialogue, and the scene. The art director will also need to know how the stage director interprets the story and its elements if the final production is to possess aesthetic unity as a work of art.

In planning such stage settings as are needed for the production, the scene designer will consider the time and place for each scene, the dramatic action that occurs in it, the relation of the setting to the characters and the social situation, to the plot and the theme, to the historic period and style determined upon for the production.

In addition to this there are three factors of special importance in his designing of each stage setting: First, the floor plan--a scaled drawing of the stage floor showing the positions of scenic units and stage properties--must be such as to accommodate the actors and serve their needs in acting out the story. The stage director will insist that this be so. All the requisite scenic elements--the doors, windows, fireplace, closet, stairs, tables, chairs, etc., that are actually to be used by the actors--must find a place in the floor plan. Furthermore, their arrangement must allow the actors to move freely and to occupy strong visual positions during their big scenes. The designer must bear in mind the horizontal plane of the stage.

A second factor that will have to be considered by the scenic designer at the same time is the stage picture. In our usual modern theater this means the view of the stage in the vertical plane--what the spectator will see within the proscenium arch as framed by the tormentors and teaser (masking curtains to the sides and above the opening). This elevation drawing will include not only the stage setting but also the principal properties, perhaps also groups of costumed actors. The stage picture will be created by the scene designer with all of his skill in handling of line, mass, and color in composition, using his knowledge of the so-called formal art principles--unity, balance, contrast, rhythm. He will try to realize the expressive values of the play and of the particular scene--its mood and meaning, its plot and period, its setting and style. In doing this the artist will be at his most imaginative as a designer.

The third factor important to the scene designer is practicability. The stage setting as planned must be possible of execution. It must be so designed that it can be built, taking account of the dimensions of the stage and of any stock pieces of scenery or equipment to be used. Usually the scene designer develops a three-dimensional cardboard model, complete with major properties, in miniature. From this the scenic studio, technical director, or stage carpenter can work most effectively in assembling or constructing the flats and doorframes, step units and platforms. From this the scenic artist can direct the painting of the set and backdrops. For those plays requiring two or more stage settings, the scenic designer will have to consider the technical problems of scene shifting, the time that can be allowed to make the changes, the space available for storing scenery, the special mechanisms that may be available for handling multiple sets--full flies, turntables, wagon stages, elevators. He may design one small setting to be placed within a larger one--or sections of one set to be reversed to form parts of the second--or an arrangement of simple architectural units to be rearranged from scene to scene, with much of the visual design dependent upon light.

The creative art activity of the scene designer is bounded by the requirements of the actors and director, by the requirements of the stage carpenter and electrician, and by the requirements of the playscript itself and the stage director's understanding of it.



The art director of a production, who is principally responsible for the visual aspects of a stageplay, may not only plan the stage settings but also the costumes. Sometimes, however, a separate artist designs the costumes and supervises their creation. Even in producing those modern dress plays for which the actors provide their own wardrobe, there will necessarily be a careful planning of styles, colors, and fabrics in relation to other costumes, the season, the color of the stage setting and lights.

The costume designer will create the designs for each character separately, taking into account his personality traits, his dramatic importance and plot function, the setting and dramatic action of the scene, the historic period of the story and general style of the production. And, of course, he will consider the actor's own physical proportions, for the costume will serve as one of the actor's tools. It will aid him in his impersonation of character and in his execution of the business of the play.



In drawing this essay to a close, something further should be said about the director.

It is the director who designs the general interpretation of the play. It is his understanding of the story--its characters and scene, action and plot, dialogue and theme--that will dominate and unify the production. But his principal job is the directing of rehearsals. There are, of course, different schools of thought about how the director should do his job. Certain directors, after study and analysis of the script, work out their interpretations in greatest detail, the reading of lines, the gestures and stage movement. Then they impose this upon the actors. Other directors feel their way along during numerous reading rehearsals, stimulating and guiding the actors in their individual interpretations, coordinating their efforts, coaching them unobtrusively, shaping the ensemble acting through suggestion rather than dictation. Perhaps most stage directors fall somewhere in between these extremes.

The director is actually a comparative newcomer in theatrical production as a separate person. In ancient times the dramatic poet seems to have directed his own plays. Shakespeare may have had a hand in coaching his fellow players. Molière tripled as playwright, leading actor, and director for his troupe. It became a function of the stage manager in the next two centuries to give the actors their entrances and positions, but without fully blocking out the action of the scenes and without in any sense directing the interpretation of the roles. It is largely within the last hundred years that stage directing has developed as a distinctive art of the theater.

The general director of a production, however, assumes a broader responsibility than the stage direction--though he may also undertake this, planning and conducting the rehearsals. From modern European theater practice, especially the development in the Moscow Art Theater under Stanislavsky, comes the term rigisseur for what we are more likely to call the producer or director in this comprehensive sense. Such a person serves as a single creative intelligence in the production of a stageplay. He will work with and coordinate all aspects of the production--the interpretation or even the reshaping of the playwright's script--the stage direction of the actors, the characterization, pantomime, speech patterns, rhythms, timing, emphases --the art direction, the scene and properties design, the lighting plan, the costume designs and make-up--the technical direction, the scene and property construction and painting, the execution of the costumes, the sound effects--the musical direction.

It is this general director who will weld the cast, craftsmen, and crew into a unified team--who will bring the scene, characters, action, dialogue, and sundry effects into aesthetic unity--who will project to the audience a patterned story and communicate its larger theme and higher values.


[ ]

IV: The Play

Re-creation by Spectator or Reader

True enjoyment of the theatre . . . comes to playgoers who are active, not passive; whose eyes and ears are open, not shut; who are curious not only about the thing done but also about the manner of its doing; who can be susceptible to subject matter at the same time they are alert to treatment . . . who, even while they are surrendering to the illusion of the stage, do not forget the theatre is make-believe raised to the point of art. . . .

-- JOHN MASON BROWN, The Art of Playgoing

THE PLAY THAT REALLY COUNTS is neither the playbook nor the stageplay but the play in the mind of the spectator or reader. This is the play in its ultimate synthesis.

We have used the term "a play" in the preceding three essays as a loose synonym for a playscript, playbook, stageplay, or drama, and it is widely so used. The word is as ambiguous as "drama" itself. There are books on writing plays, on designing plays, on directing plays, on producing plays--there are also anthologies of plays.

Let us now, however, specialize our use of the term "a play" in this fourth essay to mean the story (sixfold in its scene, characters, action, plot, dialogue, and theme) as it is realized in the mind. The play, then, in this special sense exists first in the mind of the playwright. A slightly different play comes to life in the minds of the director, each actor, and others as they interpret the playscript. And ultimately, in the mind of each playgoer and each playreader, the play is evoked as a unique synthesis in response to seeing the stageplay or reading the playbook.


The dramatist creates the play as he writes the playscript. The actors and others in the theater re-create the play on the stage. The spectators and readers re-create the play in their minds for their recreation, whether from the stageplay or from the playbook itself.

In the preceding essay we spoke of the actors as interpretative creative artists. They study the playscript, trying to realize the play in their imaginations as the playwright conceived it. Then they give creative expression to the play as they understand it, trying through their activity to communicate it to the spectators. We called the original playwriting primary creative activity--it comes first in the sequence of events that comprise the theater process. The production and performance by the director, actors, and others is then secondary or interpretative creative activity--it comes second in the sequence of events in the theater process. We might now think of the spectator's experiencing of the play as tertiary creative activity--it comes third and last in the theater process.

But in one sense all three--playwright, actors, playgoer or reader-are interpretative. The original playwright experiences and interprets life and then gives creative expression to his understanding of it in his script. The actors experience and interpret that script, and then give creative expression to their understanding of it in the stageplay. The spectator experiences and interprets the stageplay-and then gives creative expression to his understanding of it in his own life. So, too, does the reader of a drama, though you may never have thought of playreading and playgoing as experiences that are creative of your personality. Yet it is true that your various attitudes will be shaped and reshaped, established and amplified, adjusted and altered by the experiences you have, whether actual or vicarious. And dramatic, emotionally-charged experiences will be unusually creative in this way, whether they come to you through life itself or through reading or radio or TV--or the theater.

It is not just an accident of word history, then, that gives us the two forms re-creation and recreation. The arts in various of their forms are recreational, refreshing man in body after his toil, renewing his spirit, diverting his mind, creating him anew. So, Sunday painting or photography, whittling or soap carving, improvising at the piano or singing in a choir, writing verse or letters, folk dancing or taking part in a show--these are all recreational as well as creative and re-creative, with due respect to the Latin creare, to create.

Even a brief glance at the word "play" in your dictionary will call your attention to its numerous senses. There are fifty-five in the American College Dictionary on my desk. Most of them are directly related to the arts of drama and music, to the combative and mimetic elements in life, to sport and recreation. You see a play or read a play; the actors play their parts, they play in Boston; you play the piano or play an étude; you play volley ball or cards, you play against opponents; you play dumb or play the fool, you played house as a child or played policeman, you play fair or play the game; you play around, you make a play for, or play with. There is a wide range in human expressions of the play instinct, and many of them are related to recreation, sports, and the arts.

To say that playgoing and playreading are recreational is not to belittle them. Reading a drama or seeing a stageplay will provide its special form of pleasure even when the play itself is unpleasant or bitter or tragic. Except when the compulsion is a class assignment, the motivation for theater-going or drama-reading will be the desire for recreation--but recreation of a special and enriching sort. It was Horace, the Roman poet and critic, who said that the successful dramatic poet is the one "who joins the instructive with the agreeable . . . by delighting and at the same time admonishing the reader." The reader or playgoer will not usually be content simply to escape for a few hours, to kill an evening--though such diversion may be necessary and desirable; he will expect profit as well as delight.


A stageplay--so we defined it--is a story presented by actors upon a stage before an audience. In the first essay we spoke briefly of the amazing interaction of the performers and the spectators. In the last essay we considered at some length the theatrical synthesis: the development and integration of the interpretative creative activities of the actors, designers, technicians. Now we must think about the play in the spectator's mind, "the ultimate synthesis," as we called it in the opening sentences of this present essay.

The ultimate synthesis is the play as the spectator experiences it. It is what you progressively realize in your mind in the course of your two hours' response to a stageplay. It is the story that you take home with you at the end of the performance--not scene, characters, action, plot, dialogue, and theme separately, but synthesized and integrated, a unified whole. In addition to the story you, as a playgoer, may also take home and report a variety of miscellaneous observations--who sat two seats ahead of you, the crowded lobby during intermission, the information about the actors in the printed program, the inept acting of a particular role, the interesting speed of the scene changes, the sequined costume of the leading lady. But these discrete items are irrelevant to the play as synthesized in your mind. And, of course, the play as thus realized will be unique for you and significantly different for each playgoer, depending upon his past experience, his personal temperament, his keeness of observation, his skill in interpretation.

What are the separable aspects of a person's total response to the performance of a stageplay?

The first part of your total response is sensory perception--the actual seeing and hearing of the stageplay. Of all the arts, theater art is most fully and equally audio-visual. A musical performance is also perceived by eye as well as ear, but you do not hesitate to close your eyes or to say that you "listen" to music. A dance performance also comes through both eye and ear, but you are essentially a spectator. However, when you go to the theater, both eyes and ears will be alert and active. You will be both observer and auditor, a spectator in the audience.

The richness of your theater experience results from this double stream of sensory data. One or another of the actors on the stage is talking virtually all the time--a continuous flow of auditory stimuli demanding close attention. A stageplay usually has three times as much dialogue per hour as a motion picture, whose sound track is largely naturalistic sound effects and music.

Your ears take in this complex stream of sound waves and transmit patterns of neural energy by way of the auditory nerve to your brain, where the actual hearing takes place. It requires close attention on your part as a listener to take in this flow of dramatic dialogue, to perceive the significant word sounds and phrase patterns, to catch the emotional voice tones and speech tunes, to get the verbal and vocal clues to complex interpersonal relations.

These auditory stimuli are not received separately, of course, but together with the visual stimuli.

Your eyes--always jumping, never remaining fixed for more than a second--are constantly taking in light reflected from the actors, costumes, and stage setting. Your eyes then transmit patterns of neural energy by way of the optic nerve to the visual center of the brain, where conscious seeing takes place.

The way the eye is formed and functions allows you to see only a small area clearly enough to make out details. Your attention and gaze are usually upon the actor who is speaking. Then the light reflected from his face is brought into focus upon the hypersensitive center of your eye, the fovea of the retina, and you can see his facial expression. Now, out of the corner of your eye--the periphery is sensitive to motion--a blur catches your attention as another actor raises his hand or turns, and your eyes move to focus for a clearer view of these new details. All the while, of course, you are conscious of a vague view of the entire scene, which becomes richer in perception as the darting eyes gather in more and more details.

Important visual factors are the perception of depth and of form and color. Binocular vision provides depth cues that make for normal three-dimensional perception in the theater. Definition of form and discrimination of color are provided by the two sorts of retinal nerve endings, the rods and the cones.

What you see and hear, however, is not simply the direct result of neural impulses sent up to the brain from your eyes and ears. Perceptions involve the integration of this sense data with contextual data, past experiences. We see and hear, at least in part, what our past experiences lead us to expect to see and hear. But individual differences in perception are not only due to differences in our life experiences, but also to differences in sensory acuity and attention.

Let us assume that you are attending a performance of The Long Voyage Home. Your waterfront experience may be limited, so you fail to "see" that Driscoll has a drunken walk and Olson has sober sea legs. You may be so fascinated by Freda's tempting business at the table that your eyes do not jump over to Fat Joe, and you simply do not "see" the drugging of Olson's drink. Your being color-blind may have been the reason you have not "seen" Nick's red shirt as he moves over to whisper to Fat Joe. The same sorts of differences individualize what you hear.

Visual and auditory perceptions take place, not separately, but as an audio-visual unity. The eyes and ears cooperate as a TV antenna to bring in the patterned light and sound waves and to project the stageplay--full fidelity, sound, color, three-dimension, and no commercials--upon the 24-inch screen of your own brain. This sensory perception of the play is the most immediate aspect of your experience as a playgoer.

What happens next?


There are two sorts of response to this stageplay-as-perceived. One we shall call naïve--free imagery, empathy, emotion, and so on. The other we shall call critical--interpretation, analysis and synthesis, evaluation. These are like two currents in a single stream of response, warm feelings and cool thoughts flowing concurrently. We shall, however, deal with them separately.

Let us first consider your naïve responses to the stageplay-as-perceived--your various spontaneous, uncritical, natural, and affective responses to what you see and hear during the performance.

Although the setting and actors before you require most of your visual attention, you will also "see" in your mind's eye free imagery of other scenes that are described or suggested by the actors' words. Nick's description of the Amindra early in the play and Olson's few words later may serve to flash a mental picture before you of that "bloody windjammer--skys'l yarder--full rigged--painted white." And you may also catch a glimpse of Olson's family farm near Stockholm, his brother working the land, and his aged mother writing to him. But all such free images evoked by the dialogue are not visual. There may be auditory free images, too--perhaps the shouted commands of the Amindra's driving captain in your mind's ear--and other sorts of imagery, thermal and kinesthetic. Freda's "fair freezin' to death wiv the fog" may give you a momentary image of chill. The sounds of accordion and whooping and stamping may bring to your mind, not only a picture of the rowdy dancing couples in the next room, but also the rhythmic and muscular feel of the dancing itself.

This muscle imagery leads us directly to the next sort of naïve response--empathy. This is not merely kinesthetic imagery; it is the actual feeling out in your own muscular structure of the posture and actions that you observe. Psychologically you assume the posture and perform the act, and you may evidence muscular tensions as you empathize your response. Thus, empathizing Driscoll's fury as he recognizes this dive as "the same damn rat's-hole" where he was rolled five or six years back, you may feel yourself shaking your own fist under Fat Joe's nose. Or, empathizing Olson's dizzy response to the knockout drops, you may feel yourself grow weak, stagger to your feet, collapse and fall. It is in this way, psychologically, that the spectator will at times live the play.

From empathy as a kind of naïve response it is but another step to emotion. It is still convenient to define emotion in terms of "the feeling of bodily states" at times when a basic drive is blocked or frustrated. Emotions--joy, anger, hate, grief, pity, fear, hunger, love--are dynamic. Psychologists in studying them have been concerned with facial and vocal expressions of emotion--the bodily postures and actions--the respiratory, circulatory, visceral, and glandular conditions and changes. But the feeling of joy or fear will be, in no small measure, "the feeling of the bodily states"--the postures, tensions, muscle strains, actions--of the emotion.

The skilled actor gives outward bodily expression to the emotion of his character in the dramatic situation--the facial cast, the posture, the manner, the movements actually or conventionally associated with the emotion. Take Driscoll's anger, for instance. To the extent that with lively muscular imagery you empathize his sudden fury, shouting, and fist shaking (as the actor pantomimes them), you will experience "the feeling of the bodily states" of his emotion-the throat tensions and aggressive gestures of that anger. And other expressions of that anger may also, then, be experienced psychologically: the flushed face, disturbed breathing, pounding heart. In this way, emotion is quite directly communicated by the actors to the audience.

There are yet other sorts of naïve response in addition to free imagery, empathy, and emotion. Of these others only laughter and tears, hisses and applause--outward audience reactions--will be considered here.

Laughter will range from the smile and faint chuckle to the belly laugh and guffaw. In the full expression of laughter, you are in convulsions, your breath comes in short pants, you may grimace and gasp, with shoulders atwitch and body racked, slapping and nudging, even stamping. Laughter is infectious. It may ripple across an audience or break wide open at a single crack. Even those in an audience who do not "see the point" will empathize the laughter response of others and find themselves merrily laughing too, they know not why.

It is unnecessary to say so much about tears as an outward naïve response. In our theater today we do not give way but rather inhibit --though not always successfully--the snuffles and sobs that we might give way to in our extreme private grief. It has not been so in some other periods of the drama, when audiences were induced to weep copiously.

In our theater, also, audiences do not hiss the villain--except in sport at burlesqued melodrama. Nor do they hiss disapproval at the end of the play or at the playwright's distasteful views or political sentiments during the scenes. For that matter, audiences do not applaud, as they once did, the grand speeches of noble sentiment--though audiences may still applaud a star actress upon her entrance and any really outstanding performer upon his exit. Applause is usually expected of an audience, however, at the ends of scenes or acts and, most particularly, at the final curtain. Such applause may be purely conventional and perfunctory, a fingertip courtesy. Or the clapping may raise the roof, a thunderous expression of approval--with shouting and stamping--continuing (with calculated encouragement of curtain calls) until the audience is thoroughly exhausted. Such applause serves a useful purpose for the individual spectator--it releases energies still dammed up and tensions not fully relaxed by empathized participation in the play.

So much, then, for the various naïve responses that the spectator makes to the stageplay. Now let us consider the other current in the double stream of his responses to the stageplay-as-perceived.

The critical responses have already been referred to as interpretation, analysis and synthesis, evaluation.

When you watch and listen to a stageplay--as you perceive the play on the TV screen in your head--the mind will be filled with thoughts, your interpretation of the dialogue that you hear and the facial expressions, bodily postures, and actions that you see. It is as though your stream of consciousness were a constant colloquy of quick questions and answers: Why does Cocky use that tone as he orders "a glarse o' ginger beer" for Olson? Why will Olson be "a good boy dis night, for one time"? What does "crimp" mean? Such unasked questions you half answer fleetingly as you see and hear the play. They are your running thoughts about the plain sense of the statements; your thoughts about the tone, feeling, and intention of the character speaking; your understanding of the dramatic situations; your reflections upon past incidents and anticipation of things to come. This is the darting, splashing, eddying stream of thoughts that comprises your interpretation of the dialogue and pantomime as an ongoing complex of signs and symbols.

While this interpretative activity continues, you will be making critical responses of another kind. The miscellaneous data of interpretation are subjected to analysis and synthesis; they are sorted and patterned. You gradually realize or figure out the story and its component elements. From the actors' dialogue and pantomime within the stage setting, you gradually realize each of the characters as a personality. Their actions become meaningful, the plot is patterned, the theme emerges. This understanding will not come at once, but gradually as the running data of interpretation are classified and then integrated by your critical intelligence. You will not finally remember the details of what you have seen and heard--or all of your naïve responses and the moments you empathically and vicariously lived through--or all of your interpretative thoughts. You may, however, remember the larger patterns--characters, situations, plot, theme--that develop in the process of your experience.

Other sorts of thoughts may also occur to you while you are experiencing a play. You may have fleeting evaluative thoughts about the form of the play, its relation to the playwright and his other work, its relation to historical or contemporary works and events, its relation to the established dramatic types, styles, themes, values. However, much or most of this sort of critical and reflective thinking will come after the final curtain and in the days to come. Something will be said in the next essay about certain of these considerations.

To summarize, then: Through the sensory activity of your eyes and ears the stageplay is perceived as an audio-visual complex. To this, "the play in your mind," you respond naïvely with a flow of free imagery, with empathy as you "live" the play, with emotion, with laughter and applause. At the same time you respond critically to "the play in the mind" with a flow of interpretative thoughts of the meanings of the actors' words and actions, with patterning thoughts about the characters, plot, theme, and so on. "The play in your mind" and your naïve and critical responses to it comprise the play-as-experienced, what we have called "the ultimate synthesis."

However, in the theater the playgoer responds, not merely as an individual, but as one of an audience, a crowd. He becomes anonymous and feels a certain loss of personal responsibility. He follows credulously, with "the willing suspension of disbelief." He enjoys the release of certain inhibitions and the unrestrained participation. The playgoer's individual experience is both personal, then, and also social.


Playreading, some persons will say, is a sorry substitute for playgoing. Who would sit down alone to read a playbook rather than join a carefree crowd--perhaps with an amiable companion--and experience a colorful and animated stageplay? On the other hand, some persons will frankly prefer to read a drama. Who would spend $6.60 for seats, waste two hours in transportation, endure a bouncing crowd, stay up half the night to see a spectacle with mimicry? Why not simply stay home and enjoy a first-rate reading of the play!

The truth is, of course, that literature and theater are two different arts, as we said earlier. A drama is not a mere substitute for a stageplay. Experiencing a drama through reading yields a different sort of pleasure from the experiencing of a stageplay in the theater.

What are some of the differences? What are the reader's advantages?

Playreading brings you into the most direct possible contact with the mind of the playwright--the language symbols he chose and ordered as the expression of his dramatic conception in dialogue and stage directions. No interpretative artists stand in the way. No actors serve as intermediaries to add their flourishes and inflections based upon their own personal understanding or perhaps misunderstanding of the script. When you read it yourself, you get the drama direct from the playwright.

Another difference is that in playreading you control the tempo. You can read swiftly or slowly at your pleasure. You can speed up or even skip along if the going is smooth or unrewarding. You can retard and even linger over speeches that deserve or evoke reflective thought. You can also repeat the reading of a speech or scene, or glance back to reaffirm an earlier impression.

Then, too, you are free to choose both what you will read and when you will read it. All of dramatic literature awaits you upon the library shelves; you are not bound to what may be playing in the available theaters.

Such, then, are some of the differences and, in their own way, advantages in playreading. Now, what is a playreading experience? What does it consist of?

The only play that ever really counts, whether to the playreader or the playgoer, is the play that develops in his mind, the play as he realizes and responds to it. It must be reaffirmed that this will be different for each playreader or playgoer. Perhaps only slightly different, perhaps vastly different, depending upon the individual's past experience, his sensory perception, his predispositions and capacities in naïve and critical responses. The play in the reader's mind develops and always remains a private and personal thing-though we can, in a sort of fumbling way, discuss and share such private possessions.

The sensory aspect of playreading is radically different from that of playgoing. It is solely visual--not audio-visual--and it is visual in a special and restricted sense. Your eyes perform a rhythmical gymnastics in reading, which might be represented verbally as: fixation (saccadic jump) fixation (jump) fix (jump) fiX--BACK SWEEP-fixation (jump) fix (jump) fix, etc. The only actual "seeing," in your brain, is the vague image of the page with clear vision of successive groups of black marks--the words. The immediate response to this fleeting succession of phrase perceptions is verbal interpretation, reading, your running thoughts of the meaning of the words and phrases.

The dramatic form of a playbook makes special demands upon you as a reader. At once you note the small caps, the square brackets and italic type, the systematic indentation of speech headings and stage directions. These, and the theatrical terminology, are all special signs, the by-no-means-uniform conventions of dramatic form.

The sensory and semantic process of mere reading is accompanied by the two concurrent streams of response, naïve and critical, like those of the playgoer, but with notable differences.

Among your naïve responses, imagery has two additional functions, both of which are of tremendous importance.

First, there is the auditory tied-imagery of the dialogue itself. When you read silently, you will "hear" in your mind's ear the voices of the different characters--their voice tones and speech qualities, their inflectional patterns, pauses, emphases. This auditory imagery is directly tied to your aural experience of language. It will be a misfortune for you if all the speeches "sound" alike, if Olson's rich and sober tones are the same as Ivan's slubber and Freda's raspvoiced advances. Your enjoyment may actually be proportional to the lively dramatic dialogue that you "hear" as you read Driscoll's enraged recognition of Fat Joe and his blarney.

A second function of the imagination in playreading is the visual free imagery of the dramatic scene, characters, action--the "seeing" of the play in the mind's eye as you read. The general view of the scene will be established by the initial stage direction. As you read the description of the scene in The Long Voyage Home, your running interpretation of the sense of the words will evoke a sequence of fleeting free images of the bar over on the left and the door to a side room, the tables and chairs on the right, and the street door in the rear. For readers who are visual minded, this will build up in a general image of the scene. This setting, in the dreamlike way of imagery, will fade and change as you go on. Against it or within it will be evoked visual images of the characters--Mag, Joe, Nick--as they are described or as their characteristics emerge from the dialogue and stage directions.

The visual stuff of which these images are compounded comes, of course, from your visual past experience. It may be that into your mind's eye will pop scenery from the warehouse of your memory and stock players already costumed from the casting office of your past acquaintance. You may have difficulty in modifying and adjusting these images to your understanding of the play as you interpret it. It's hard, sometimes, to get a brunette actress out of blonde Freda's role. However, some readers will have but little visual imagery, or only vague pictures will come to mind, or vivid scenes and people but quite without respect for the playwright's expressed intent.

Within wide limits of individual temperament and experience, then, you, the reader, will "see" and "hear" the play upon the stage of your mind in the theater of your imagination.

You will also "see" the antecedent events that are suggested in the exposition, and you will enjoy the other sorts of free imagery, too, such as the kinesthetic and thermal imagery mentioned earlier. So, when you read a drama, you may identify yourself with one of the characters--perhaps it will be Olson--see the scene through his eyes, hear the speech of the other characters, feel his speeches upon your own mind's tongue, and empathize the grimaces, gestures, bodily tensions, and actions suggested by the stage directions and the dialogue. This "living of the part"--or of each part in turn--will evoke your emotions as a playreader very much as emotion is evoked in the playgoer, though without the freedom induced by being part of a crowd. Neither loud laughter nor tears--and of course neither hissing nor applause--will ordinarily result as a part of your reading response to a drama.

Let us turn now from the reader's various naïve responses to that other current in his response--the critical.

We have already spoken of the reader's immediate semantic response to the successive phrases that he perceives in the process of reading. This is comparable to the playgoer's immediate semantic response as he listens to the actors' speeches.

Reading, of course, is an amazingly complex procedure. You have stored up memory traces of millions of language-and-life experiences --words and word forms and word relations used in reference to particular things, actions, qualities, ideas. You have, by the subconscious process of abstraction, generalized these many millions so that you have in mind perhaps a hundred thousand word and phrase senses for ten or twenty thousand words in various forms and structures.

When you read a drama, the playwright's words and phrases call up generalized senses from your storehouse of language-and-life experience, references to things, actions, qualities, ideas. As you read a drama, then, you are simply reorganizing your own past experience of scenes and people, human desires, relations, tensions, interactions, deeds, conflicts, emotions, satisfactions, failures, sentiments, and expressions. Tidbits of your own life and observation are called up in this way and synthesized as a new experience, patterned by the playwright's language.

For the most part you will find each stage direction a simple and straight-forward statement, "saying what it means." There's no question when Driscollglares truculently at JOE, who immediately downs his beer, when NICKenters, etc. The dialogue, however, will often be language at its most complex and compressed, charged with implication, "meaning much more than it says." As you interpret each speech, you will not only be alert to the sense of it, but to other phases of meaning--the intent of the character (and also of the dramatist), the tone of voice as suggesting his attitude, the feeling that he may be expressing or suppressing. "Play fair wid us," says Driscoll, "or ye deal wid me!" and you catch not only his statement but suggestions too--and something of O'Neill's ironic comment on the weakness of these strong men. The playwright may supply brief speech directions, phrases suggesting tone of voice or feeling or intention--glowering; hastily; with a smirking wink. But for the most part it will be the literary and dramatic context--the surrounding words or situation--that will provide you with clues to these separable but interrelated aspects of the full meaning as you read along.

Besides the sense, tone, feeling, and intention, there is another possible phase to the complex meaning of dramatic dialogue, and that is pantomime. Implicit in many speeches you will find various gestures, facial expressions, body movements. Actors, of course, will be most sensitive to the actions that are implied by the dialogue, but you as a playreader may consciously alert yourself to this pantomime quality in the flow of dramatic language.

It is not necessary to repeat here what was said about the larger structuring in the playgoer's critical interpretation of the play. As a playreader also, you realize gradually the interrelated elements of the story--building up the characters as individual personalities or types, patterning the action and the plot structure, generalizing the theme.

It is the spectator who imposes design upon the phenomena he sees and hears while in the theater. Likewise the reader imposes design upon the miscellaneous data resulting from his running interpretation of the dialogue and stage directions. And again it must be said that some readers are more skillful than others in this process of abstraction and synthesis. Some simply will not make the connections and perceive the relations, therefore will not "see" the characters, will not "find" the plot, will not "get" the general meaning. But even equally competent readers--because of their unique temperaments and life experiences--will impose somewhat different patterns upon the drama as they read it. From the same playbook you and others, then, will read individualized plays.

This will be especially true in the interpretation of the theme of the play. Sometimes the playwright is most anxious to communicate his general meaning unambiguously. He may give his script a thematic title, such as The Long Voyage Home--he may plant his primary idea firmly in the dialogue--he may construct his plot about "a spire of meaning"--he may create a system of dramatic symbols to objectify his theme. You will be alert to all such clues as you read. Sometimes a one-word theme--jealousy or ambition or loyalties--will emerge. Often an old adage or familiar quotation will seem to express the theme: "He who laughs last . . . ,""The sins of the fathers . . . ,""The best laid plans of mice and men . . . ," etc. But it is important to remember that some of the greatest dramas do not readily yield up their deeper significance. They remain enigmatic.

The ultimate synthesis of the play in the mind of the reader will be abstracted from the flow of sensory perceptions, naïve responses, and critical interpretations. From the dialogue imagined as heard, from the scene and actions imagined as seen, from the living "participation" in situations of tension and incidents of conflict, from the emotions and various reactions experienced, from the critical thoughts structuralizing the characters, the plot, and the theme-from all of these emerges the story as a unity in the reader's experience. This ultimate synthesis, for you, is the play


This essay will be concluded with a series of suggestions on pleasureful and profitable playreading. You can, if you wish, increase your skill in reading dramas. You can make your playreading experiences more creative and enjoyable and, at the same time, more critical and meaningful.

Read drama slowly--orally--uninterruptedly--attentively. (a) Although rapid reading is a useful skill for certain sorts of study, keeping up with the news, and much recreational reading, comparatively slower reading may be necessary for drama, the language of which is highly charged with meaning. Allow yourself almost as much time to read a play as it would take to see it. (b) Furthermore, as dramatic dialogue is written for oral delivery and aural perception, you will get more from it if you encourage vivid auditory and articulatory tied-imagery by reading much of it aloud, alone or with one or two others, or by vocalizing or silently whispering the speeches. Reread part of each drama out loud, at least the climatic and final scenes. (c) While reading a drama you will do well to avoid the interference of radio or TV--unless you have phenomenal gifts of concentration--for your sensory perceptions will be disturbed and distorted, your dramatic scenes interrupted, your illusion destroyed. Go off by yourself or wait until your surroundings are relatively quiet. (d)The dramatic form of a playbook demands attentive reading and a special pattern of eye movements, or you will slide over phrases or speech or stage directions that may be significant. Use a pencil as pointer at first to guide the way and to slow you down if need be.

Read drama with a mind alert in your running interpretation to the theatrical clues--the dramatic relations--the semantic potential--the pantomime implicit. (a) It requires alert reading to catch and interpret the theatrical clues in a drama--to keep in mind the floor plan of the scene with important doors, windows, furniture, and to remember what characters are present in each of the scenes and where they are. It may be helpful to draw a quick diagram of the floor plan on a scrap of piper. (b) It takes an alert mind to keep the characters affixed to their names, particularly in a populous play, to remember their personality traits and personal relations, to "hear" the successive speeches "in character." A penciled list of characters, with a few catchwords and groupings on that scrap of paper can be helpfully carried from page to page as you read. (c) It calls for alert interpretation of the dialogue itself as well as the speech directions to realize the full potential of each speech--not merely the plain sense but the tone of irony or wheedling, the character's feeling of remorse or insecurity, the motive and intention. You may find it helpful to read with a pencil and underline words and phrases of special significance. (d) Then, too, it calls for a special alertness to catch the pantomime implicit in the lines as well as explicit in the stage directions, the meaningful gestures and bits of stage business as well as the larger actions. Here, too, underlining of key words in the directions and penciling an occasional mark or word in the margins may help.

Read drama with mind and heart open for uninhibited enjoyment--for vivid free imagery--for strong empathy and participation--for appropriate emotion. (a) Approach a drama with the mind and heart free and willing, relaxed yet ready to respond. If you settle down too comfortably, you may not be in this attitude of anticipation. (b) It is possible to encourage your free imagery in visualizing the scene, characters, and action by conscious effort. Keep the diagram mentioned above before you as an aid to picturing the scene, and "cast" the play with familiar acquaintances and/or actors from the stage and screen. (c) It is possible to induce greater empathy by consciously imagining yourself playing one of the parts. To free your expressive body, stand up and move about at times as you read, as even slight gestures and action on your part will encourage greater empathy. (d) You can also enjoy more adequate emotional responses while reading drama, with the aid of empathy and free imagery and that attitude of readiness. By imagining or assuming the outward expressions and inward tensions of the emotion, the postures and gestures, you will indeed induce the feeling of the bodily states of the emotion appropriate to the character in the scene.

Consider the drama analytically: the characters--the plot--the theme--the total effect. (a) Not until you have experienced the whole drama creatively, intuitively synthesizing the characters, should you begin to analyze their personalities; then through the process of close reflection you will come to a clearer understanding of them as fictional human beings. Such a character worksheet as that suggested in the Appendix may be helpful. (b) Similarly, after a creative reading of the whole drama, you should give conscious thought to the plot structure and dramatic construction. You may well divide off the basic scenes as you read; then you can go back to them with the plot worksheet (see Appendix) in mind and consider the design of the action of the play. (c) Then turn your thought consciously to the consideration of the general meaning of the story. Try two or three phrasings, writing down the theme or themes as you abstract them. (d) Finally, back off yet further for a view of the total effect of your experience. Again, phrase it in words.

Consider the drama critically: its place in dramatic history--its relation to dramatic type--its relation to dramatic style--its relation to dramatic criticism. It is with this that the next essay will deal.

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History, Types, Styles, Criticism

The arts are fragments of the time and place which produced them and cannot be comprehended either conceptually or imaginatively, outwardly or inwardly, without a knowledge and imaginative understanding of their context.
-- ERIC BENTLEY, The Playwright as Thinker

A FTER A DRAMA HAS BEEN INTERPRETED and experienced fully, with a rich structuring of its dramatic story, then-as we said at the end of the last essay--it is time to ask the critical questions: What is the relation of this play to theatrical and dramatic history? to the major dramatic types? to the dramatic styles? to dramatic and theatrical criticism?

This fifth and last essay will provide a basis, necessarily limited, for answering these questions, which apply not alone to dramas but quite as much to stageplays.


Let us glance back in brief summary of what we have so far considered: First, the "Preliminary: Orientation to Drama"--the dramatic and theatric and semantic elements in life that combine in the theater; the Drama, explored in its three dimensions; the interrelation of theater art and dramatic literature; the key terms "stageplay" and "drama" defined. Second, "The Playscript: Creation by the Playwright"--with particular emphasis upon the story elements of character, plot, and dialogue. Third, "The Stageplay: Production for Presentation"--considering the creative activity of the actors and other interpretative artists of the theater. Fourth, "The Play: Recreation by Spectator and Reader"--exploring in some detail the complex psychological responses of the playgoer to a stageplay and of the playreader to a drama.

All of this has involved us in generalizations and discussions of the drama--with illustrative remarks, it is true, about the particular plays so far read. We have generalized about the playwright, the actor, the playgoer, and the playreader. We have discussed the playscript, the stageplay, and the play as experienced in the mind of spectator and reader.

But we have not yet talked about the historian of the theater and drama, about the scholar, about the critic. We have only incidentally suggested the 2500-year history of Western drama and the theatrical history of the particular plays here included as illustrations. We have hardly referred to the major dramatic types and styles. We have only casually referred to works of dramatic criticism and theory. This willful omission has not been neglect but postponement on principle.

You cannot intelligently talk about a play as a work of art until after you have adequately experienced it. You cannot talk about the characters or plot or theme until you have seen or heard or read the entire stageplay or drama--interpreting the dialogue and action, gathering and classifying the various sorts of data, building up the characters, structuralizing the plot, generalizing the meaning. Similarly you cannot talk about the play in relation to dramatic history, types, styles, and criticism until you have adequately experienced it. Therefore we have postponed consideration of dramatic history and criticism.

But there is another principle that has argued against this postponement:

You cannot adequately experience a play as a work of art without interpreting it in its historical context. You cannot consider the characters, plot, and theme without integrating the extrinsic data from theatrical, dramatic, social, and intellectual history with the intrinsic data from the dialogue and action. You cannot help doing this within the limits of your current knowledge. What you know about the theater and drama, about the playwright and his times, will be contextual data whether you wish it or not! The conscious enrichment of such background data will make your experiencing of a play more meaningful. Therefore each of the plays has been preceded by an Introductory Note.

Yet another pair of principles are relevant:

You cannot discuss theatrical and dramatic history or generalize the major dramatic types and styles without reference to plays already experienced. You cannot yourself discuss meaningfully Greek drama unless you have yourself experienced the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes. You cannot talk intelligently about tragedy unless you have read and thought about particular dramas of this type. Yet: You cannot adequately experience a play of a particular historic period, type, or style without some previous generalization and discussion of it. Therefore this general introduction to dramatic history and criticism will precede the dramas of the farther past, but further generalization and discussion of the particular problems in dramatic history and criticism will accompany and follow the dramas as they are presented for your reading and enjoyment.

In violation of the first principle above--that you cannot talk about a play until after you have read or seen it--the following section will refer by name to dozens of plays most of which you quite certainly have not read. However, it will refer to these plays out of respect to the second and fourth principles--that you cannot adequately experience plays except in their historical and critical contexts. It is hoped, however, that you may know something about some of the dramas named, and that they will thus add some substance to the generalizations.

You cannot lift yourself by your own bootstraps, it may be true, but the only way you can climb stairs is alternate feet on alternate steps.


In this particular brief history of Western theater and drama, seven periods will be distinguished.

The ancient Greek and then Roman drama extends from about 500 B.C. until about 100 A.D., but it lingered on much longer. Greek drama grew out of various religious rites and festivals--as we earlier observed--dance and recitation by a chorus and its leader in outdoor celebration of Dionysus and legendary heroes. Thespis (so it is said) added an actor (the "hypocrite") to the leader of the chorus and thus made possible dramatic dialogue. The Greek theater was a vast hillside amphitheater--as large as the semicircular end section of a modern athletic stadium--with a circular area (the "orchestra") for the chorus and perhaps a slightly elevated stage, behind which was the "skene," a background building with columns and doors not unlike the façade of a palace, used as dressing room. The two or three male actors (who doubled to play all the parts) wore large masks, built-up shoes, and high-waisted costumes to increase their apparent height. In March at the great Dionysian festival, the vast audience assembled at dawn on successive days to see a series of three tragedies plus a satyr play on each day in a state-sponsored competition. Comedies, also, were presented, particularly during the January festival when fewer strangers were present in Athens.

Plays of five Greek dramatists survive. Three of them wrote tragedies: Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound, and others; Sophocles, Œdipus the King and Antigone; Euripides, Medea and Electra. Their works were all written in the fifth century B.C. (about 490 to 406 B.C.). There were two writers of Greek comedy some of whose works have come down to us: Aristophanes wrote "old comedy" about 400 B.C., a sort of musical comedy, topical, satirical, and personal--Lysistrata, The Frogs, and The Clouds; Menander wrote "new comedy" about 300 B.C., the forerunner of modern social comedy, with domestic plots and type characters--long fragments, but no complete plays, surviving. Aristotle Poetics (about 350 B.C.), which analyzes Greek tragedy, is the fountainhead of dramatic criticism.

The Romans took over both the theater and drama of the Greeks. To their outdoor amphitheaters--built in all parts of the Roman Empire--they added a well-raised stage and more elaborate scenic façade. Their playwrights adapted the new comedies of Menander and others: Plautus wrote The Menaechmi Twins, The Pot of Gold, and others, about 200 B.C.; and Terence, a freed slave from Carthage, wrote The Lady of Andros, The Eunuch, and other comedies of more refined style, about 150 B.C. The only tragedies to survive from Roman times were written (with one exception) by Seneca-Spanish-born tutor of Nero--about 50 A.D. His Oedipus, Medea, and Phaedra were sensationalized adaptations of Greek originals, and perhaps were not intended for the stage.

For centuries the Roman comedians continued to play, and spectacular shows were given in the theaters. Even after the Christianization of the Empire, strolling players, performing in castle and market town, kept alive the dramatic and theatrical traditions. And the manuscripts of the Roman and Greek dramatists survived at Alexandria, Constantinople, and elsewhere. Some Latin comedies written by the nun Hroswitha about 1000 A.D., in decorous imitation of Terence, suggest a transition from the long-lingering classical tradition to the medieval drama.

The second of our seven periods is the Middle Ages, extending roughly from 1000 A.D. until about 1500 A.D. This marked a new and fresh beginning of the drama in western Europe and the British Isles, again from religious roots, this time Christian and more dimly pagan. From the church liturgy developed the dramatization of brief Biblical scenes, which were moved from the altar to the church porch. Then, undertaken by the medieval trade guilds, cycles of mystery or miracle plays were performed annually in certain of the cities, using "pageants," or wagon stages, moving from place to place in the cathedral or market town like floats in a modern parade. There were as many as forty-two playlets in a series (such as the Coventry cycle), depicting the Christian drama of the fall and redemption, from the creation through doomsday, including Noah's Flood, Abraham's Sacrifice, and the Nativity scenes. There were other religious dramas--the saints' plays and morality plays, dramatic allegories like Everyman (ca. 1490). In addition to this stream of Christian and Church drama, there was also in the Middle Ages a stream of native folk dance and drama, partly pagan in its origins-May Day games, Robin Hood plays, and the Christmas mummery of St. George and the Dragon that continued until the end of this last century. And then, of course, there were medieval strollers who performed farces in market place and innyard--Master Pierre Patelin (ca. 1450) being a lively French survival. Such, then, was medieval drama--no theater buildings or amphitheaters, no names of individual playwrights, new beginnings of the drama, wide variety of church and folk dramatic types, no dramatic criticism.

The third period, that of Renaissance drama, let us fix rather arbitrarily within the dates 1500-1650 A.D. This period is marked by a flourishing of the theater and drama in western Europe--Italy, France, Spain, and especially England. The theater itself, both in England and in Spain, was developed from medieval origins. The Elizabethan theaters, such as Shakespeare's Globe, were essentially innyards (specially built without inns) with surrounding galleries and a permanent platform stage. They were excellent of their kind. The Spanish corral was essentially a similar development from an outdoor backyard court. It was in Italy that, inspired by the new interest in Roman antiquities, the modern theater was born--a small roofed amphitheater with a platform stage and proscenium. The medieval types of drama pretty well died out by 1550 (though Shakespeare as a boy might have seen the last of the Coventry miracle plays), but the native farce and the morality play both left their mark on English comedy and tragedy.

The rediscovery of the classic drama, particularly Seneca and Plautus, inspired Italian and French tragedy and comedy--and to some degree English, though not Spanish, drama. This was the time of Shakespeare, whose comedies (among them The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, and The Tempest), tragedies ( Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth), and histories ( Richard III, Henry IV, Part I, and Henry V) were all written within the twenty years 1590-1610. He was not alone great among the dramatists during the reigns of Elizabeth I (d. 1603) and her Scotch kinsman-successor, James I. Christopher Marlowe is famous for his Doctor Faustus and Edward II, Ben Jonson for Volpone and The Alchemist, Beaumont and Fletcher for Philaster, The Maid's Tragedy, and others. During this same time Lope de Vega and later Calderon were among the prolific dramatists whose plays of many types made this the "Golden Age" of Spanish drama. In Italy and in France, imitation of classical tragedy and dramatic theory were already establishing the "unities" of neoclassical drama. In French drama, however, Corneille is best remembered for his Le Cid ( 1637), a controversial romantic drama on a Spanish theme.

The fourth of these seven periods, the period of neoclassical drama, 1600-1800, overlaps the Renaissance of which it was a direct development. In England--where Ben Jonson in The Silent Woman and Sejanus showed himself an early neoclassicist--the Puritan Parliament closed the theaters in 1642. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, new indoor theaters were soon built along somewhat more modern lines, using scenery and actresses for the first time. In France it was the time of the highest flowering of neoclassic drama, continuing from Corneille Medea, and The Liar, into the next generation, with Molièr Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, and The Would-Be Gentleman, the most famous neoclassic comedies and farces, and Racine Phèdre and Athalie, neoclassic tragedies on ancient and biblical themes. In England it was the poet Dryden who wrote in the characteristic forms of social comedy ( Marriage-àla-mode), heroic play ( The Conquest of Granada), and neoclassic tragedy (All for Love). But the most brilliant comedies of manners --showing the influence of Molière-- Love for Love and The Way of the World, were written by Congreve about 1700. These were followed in the 1770's by Goldsmith She Stoops to Conquer and by Sheridan The Rivals and The School for Scandal. The influence of Molière in comedy was strongly felt throughout the eighteenth century, not only in England and in France (by Beaumarchais, in The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), but also in Denmark by Holberg, in Italy by Goldoni, and in Germany by Lessing. This neoclassical period was a time of famous actors, such as Betterton and Nell Gwyn and later Garrick and Mrs. Siddons in England, and of notable dramatic criticism, such as Dryden's famous Essay, Boileau Art of Poetry, and Lessing Hamburg Dramaturgy. The fifth period, that of romantic drama, 1750-1900, again overlaps the neoclassic period. The physical theater and stage developed, but without radical change. It continued to be the time of great actors, such as Edwin Booth and Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt. The plays of this time were characterized by sentiment, sonorous speeches, and spectacle, rather than by wit, repartee, and social satire. Shakespeare was the dominant influence rather than Molière. It was a time of a few great dramas in Germany: Schiller William Tell, Goethe Faust, and Hebbel Mary Magdalena; and also in France: Victor Hugo Hernani and the younger Dumas' Camille. But no English dramas are memorable until at the end of the period when--with W. S. Gilbert librettos for H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, and Oscar Wilde Lady Winderme's Fan and Salomé--the "New Drama" was already coming into being. To this nineteenth century belong the American melodramas, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Drunkard, and the later English farces, such as Charley's Aunt and Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest. During this romantic period most of the great English poets ( Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats; Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne) tried their hands at playwriting, but with almost uniform lack of success. However, it was a flourishing time in dramatic criticism--with such works as Freytag Technique of the Drama and the numerous romantic essayists and critics of Shakespeare and the theater, such as Coleridge, Lamb, and Hazlitt--and marked the beginnings of dramatic and theatrical history and scholarship by Malone, Furness, Mantzius.

The sixth period, that of modern drama, 1879-1942, overlaps the nineteenth century and may be considered as ending with World War II. The physical theater changed only gradually. Electricity made possible modern stage lighting. Within this period the rigisseur, stage director, and art director developed, with Max Reinhardt, Stanislavsky, and Gordon Craig among the leaders. The noncommercial theater--the art, "free," little, community, university, and college theaters--came into being, making major contributions to theater art. Among them were the Moscow Art Theater, the Abbey Theater, the Theater Guild, the Pasadena Playhouse, and drama at Harvard and Yale Universities, then North Carolina and Iowa. This was the time, too, of the birth and growth of the cinema, from silent film to sound and color, a world-wide entertainment syndicate. And then, too, radio drama. In its style of scenic design and production and playwriting, modern drama was dominantly realistic --but with antirealistic styles of great variety characteristic of many of its outstanding plays and productions. So we find expressionism, naturalism, constructivism, surrealism, romanticism--and individualism--warring with realism, the norm for this time.

Modern drama divides itself conveniently into three twenty-oneyear generations. The first ( 1879-1900) is marked by the flowering of modern European dramatists: Ibsen of Norway, "the father of Modern Drama" ( A Doll's House [ 1879], Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler), Hauptmann of Germany ( The Weavers, The Sunken Bell), Chekhov of Russia ( The Cherry Orchard), Rostand of France ( Cyrano de Bergerac), Schnitzler of Austria ( Anatol), and other significant playwrights from these countries and from Sweden, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and Belgium. The second part ( 1900- 1921) is marked by the dominance of the modern British dramatists: G. B. Shaw, the Irish-born critic who turned playwright ( Candida, Caesar and Cleopatra, Pygmalion, Man and Superman, including "Don Juan in Hell"), J. M. Barrie, the whimsical Scot ( Peter Pan, What Every Woman Knows, Dear Brutus), Galsworthy, the proper Englishman ( Strife, Justice, Loyalties), and many other playwrights of more or less distinction, from Pinero and Jones through Milne and Maugham, Synge and O'Casey, and Housman and Priestley, to Emlyn Williams and Coward. The third part of the period ( 1921-42) is marked by the rather sudden rise of modern American dramatists to world importance for the first time: Eugene O'Neill ( The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape, Stange Interlude), Maxwell Anderson ( What Price Glory [with Laurence Stallings ], Elizabeth the Queen, Winterset), Sidney Howard ( They Knew What They Wanted), Marc Connelly ( The Green Pastures), Kaufman and Hart ( You Can't Take It With You), Philip Barry ( The Philadelphia Story), Robert Sherwood ( Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Lillian Hellman ( The Little Foxes), and a good many others.

Modern drama, which we described as dominantly realistic, has been distinguished by its interest in both normal and abnormal psychology, individual and social, and in heredity and environment as determining human personality. It reflects the strong influence of the new behavioral sciences and of their various schools, particularly Freud, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry. It depicted not only urban and industrial society, but also the farm and more primitive folk. It concerned itself not only with individual but social problems-the thesis and problem plays--and at times was doctrinaire and proletarian. It saw an experiment in state-supported Federal Theater in America and the state domination of theater in Russia. It was a time of unparalleled scholarship in dramatic history ( Chambers, Nicoll, Odell, Mantle, Clark, Freedley, and Gassner) and in dramatic theory and criticism ( Brunetière, Shaw, Archer, Matthews, Baker, and Nathan). With the destruction of so much of modern Europe and the disruption of Western culture by World War II, what was called "Modern Drama" seems to have come to an end.

The seventh period, of contemporary or postwar drama, may be thought of as beginning in 1942. It has not as yet fully revealed itself, of course, nor do we quite know what direction it will finally take. The chief "modern" dramatists had, for the most part, died or completed their best work before World War II. All the leading European dramatists, the British Shaw, Barrie, Galsworthy, the American O'Neill, Howard, Barry, Connelly, Kaufman and a number of others were either dead, or their work was apparently finished. Only a handful of prewar British and American playwrights such as Coward and Anderson were still active. Realism and certain of the revolts against it seemed to have run their course. But new directions in the theater and drama in America were anticipated even before the war by Saroyan ( The Time of Your Life) and Thornton Wilder ( Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth). After the war came Tennessee Williams ( The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire) and Arthur Miller ( All My Sons, Death of a Salesman). A similar stirring of contemporary drama is seen in France by Jean Anouilh ( Antigone), Giraudoux ( The Madwoman of Chaillot), Jean Paul Sartre ( The Flies, The Red Gloves), and in England by T. S. Eliot ( The Cocktail Party) and Christopher Fry ( The Lady's Not for Burning). Special characteristics of contemporary drama have been the element of fantasy, as in Mary Chase Harvey, and the new development of musical comedy, such as Hammerstein's librettos for Oklahoma! and South Pacific. Among the interesting experiments have been central staging of plays in arena theaters, individual stylization using narrators, flashbacks, modern costume, absence of scenery, and mere suggestion of multiple sets as dramaturgic devices. This new period is also marked by the addition of a third dimension to cinema and the advent of television, which brings cinema and its own form of drama into the home.

In the 2500 years of Western drama, the names of the greatest dramatists stand out: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Shaw, and O'Neill. There is no great name from the medieval drama or from the romantic drama of the nineteenth century or (as yet) in contemporary drama.


We turn from this brief history of the theater and drama to some consideration of the two major types and a brief survey of the many minor types of drama already mentioned in sketching that history. The two major types of drama, of course, are tragedy and comedy. We shall begin with the former.

Tragedy was the first type to develop. It came into being at the very dawn of Greek drama and has been a major type in every period except the medieval. It was first defined in the Poetics of Aristotle--who generalized upon his analysis of the great Greek tragedies written half a century before his time. In the medieval period the word "tragedy" was used to name, not drama, but a minor type of poetry recounting the misfortunes of the great and famous, the overturning of people of high place, the falls of princes. The word carried something of this tradition into Shakespeare's time. However, the Renaissance, particularly in France, gave new attention to Aristotle. The rules of neoclassical tragedy, including "the three unities" of time, place, and action, were based upon Aristotle Poetics as then understood. All later writers on tragedy--down to Maxwell Anderson in our time--have been influenced by Aristotle.

The genius of Aristotle's theory is that it defines tragedy in terms of its effect upon the audience. Thus, a tragedy is a dramatic spectacle that arouses the tragic emotions of pity and fear and then purges the spectator of these same emotions. This is "the tragic catharsis," as Aristotle called it. Therefore, a drama is not generally considered tragic merely because it evokes sympathy, pathos, pity, sorrow--tears. It also evokes terror in the audience--"There but for the grace of God stand I!"--the fear that life may yet deal me such devastating blows or entangle me in a web of my own spinning or tempt me at the point of my own weakness! But the final effect-reported by many theatergoers and playreaders alike--is not just pity for the unfortunate hero and fear for oneself, but pity purged and replaced (perhaps by admiration) and fear purged and replaced (perhaps by understanding or faith or courage).

It is only certain sorts of drama that will affect the spectator or reader in this way. Various theories of tragedy are largely attempts to define the sorts of drama that achieve the tragic effect. They try to answer the question: What kind of character, plot, theme, and style are found in such plays?

As to plot, tragic dramas are most obviously characterized by the death-ending or comparable misfortune to the tragic hero. This final defeat or destruction does not come by chance or sudden accident, but follows a losing struggle. Usually there is a personal antagonist. But the opposing force or the deciding factor may be fate or nature or society--or something within the tragic hero himself, "the tragic flaw," some fault or weakness of character. As we identify ourselves with the character of the tragic hero and with his will and desires, we realize the personal and impersonal forces opposing him and engage our own interests in the scheming and strategy, strife and struggle, successes and setbacks, suffering and suspense, through crises and climax to the catastrophic end. With this identification and empathy--as we saw in the fourth essay--comes the evocation of emotion comparable to that of the protagonist. In this way, self-pity and pity for the hero merge, and fear for the hero and personal fear are actually one.

The tragic heroes of Greek tragedy were kings, queens, princes, warriors of high birth and stature, better and stronger than average men. So, too, the tragic heroes of the Renaissance, neoclassic, and romantic periods--with certain exceptions. But the tragic hero, though noble and strong, is not perfect. In his imperfection lies his humanity. Thus the spectator or reader is pleased to imagine himself better than he is, while gratified to realize that his betters are as frail and faulty as himself. There were a few tragedies from the Renaissance on--domestic tragedy and tragédie bourgeoise--that dramatize the misfortunes of middle-class heroes and heroines. But it was not until modern drama that many of the protagonists of tragedy were city and country folk, middle class or proletarian.

The style of tragedy--from ancient times up through the romantic period--was characteristically elevated language and verse. The dialogue included rhetorical monologues and soliloquies, with various poetic embellishments, and made use of poetic diction. Although prose began to be used for comedy during the Renaissance, verse held its place in the style of tragedy until late in the nineteenth century. Modern tragedy, from Ibsen on, has been in prose, but efforts have been made to re-establish verse tragedy, notably by Maxwell Anderson and T. S. Eliot.

The themes of tragedy are, of course, as various as the plays themselves, and reflect the philosophies of life of the dramatists and their times. Though the general meaning of certain tragedies can be labeled with a word--thus the theme of Macbeth is often said to be "ambition"--such simplifications are usually misleading. The great tragedies are often enigmatic--the spectator or reader will puzzle their significance and find it difficult to phrase to his satisfaction--or to the satisfaction of others. Yet, the great tragedies-Œdipus the King, Hamlet, Phèdre, Faust, Hedda Gabler, Mourning Becomes Electra, Death of a Salesman--do stir the most profound of human responses, evoking reflective thought upon the value and meaning of life, thoughts that often lie too deep for tears and are too personal for expression in words.

Several subtypes of tragedy--classic, romantic, neoclassic, domestic and romantic (again), realistic, and stylized--are distinguished by the dramatic styles which will be considered in the next section and are characteristic of the historic periods summarized above.

From Tragedy let us turn to Comedy.

Comedy also stems from Greek drama. Again, with the exception of the Middle Ages (when there were comic interludes and farces, it is true, as well as comic incidents in the serious plays), comedy has been a major type of drama in all succeeding periods. If Aristotle did analyze Greek comedy as he did tragedy, that treatise or part of the Poetics is lost, though some of his pertinent observations survive. Of the two sorts of Greek comedy already mentioned, it was the "new comedy" of Menander that in Plautus and Terence continued through Roman times and was revived in the Renaissance, developed in Molière and the many playwrights he influenced down to our own time. The "old comedy" of Aristophanes, however, was the ancestor of certain elements in neoclassic comedy ( Molière comedy ballets, Gay's The Beggar's Opera), but was not again realized until the end of the romantic period in Gilbert and Sullivan ( H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado) and, in the modern period, George S. Kaufman ( Of Thee I Sing [with Morris Ryskind], I'd Rather Be Right [with Moss Hart]).

In the Middle Ages the word "comedy" was used (as in Dante Divine Comedy) to refer to a serious work with a happy ending.

Something of this meaning carried over into the Renaissance, for many of Shakespeare's "comedies" are serious plays with happy endings, and by no means part of the main stream of comedy.

Comedy, like tragedy, may best be defined in terms of its characteristic effect upon the audience--laughter. There are several related sorts of laughter that may be distinguished: Thoughtless laughter is evoked by the purely comic element of buffoonery and horseplay, extravagant characterization and slapstick, wisecracks and puns. Critical laughter is evoked by the satirical element, the ridiculing of individual and social faults and foibles, personal jibes and pointed retorts, sarcasm and wit. Sympathetic laughter is evoked by the humorous element, high-spirited and good-natured, raillery and pleasantry, humane and earthy.

The comic response will range from the thoughtless horselaugh to a quick smile without regard to the persons involved. The satiric response will range from bitter or sardonic laughter to a sneer at the persons involved. The humorous response will range from hearty and backslapping guffaws to a warm chuckle with the persons involved.

Laughter itself is an amazingly complex response arising from apparently two factors: He who laughs has (1) a sudden perception of some incongruity and (2) a realization that he is not involved in the situation, or that he is superior to it. The feeling of physical well-being and the release of inhibitions heighten the propensity to laughter, and there is a strong thread of sexual suggestion common to a certain amount of laughter. In the belly laugh there is the sudden or startled moment of perception--breathless attention while you "get the point" and "clear yourself"--then comes the ejaculation of breath with diaphragmatic and abdominal spasms, facial contortions, and all sorts of bodily activity, as earlier described. It is fun-all the way from such convulsive laughter--paroxysms that will have you "in stitches"--through the various chuckling and chortling stages to the faint smile of amusement.

What in a comedy causes this laughter response?

For one thing, the situations and incidents. In comedy the plot itself may not cause laughter, but upon the plot-line will be strung along (or hung out) the comic, satiric, or humorous situations and incidents. The chief characteristic of the plot in comedy is the happy ending, and just as death is expected as the final catastrophe in tragedy, so marriage is expected as the final consummation in comedy. The ending may even be happy for the antagonist, who usually gets something less in the way of punishment or defeat than we may think he deserves. A second characteristic of comic plot is the love element or sexual angle. It is almost always there, though not always the main interest, going back through new comedy and even old comedy to the fertility origins of the drama. Third, as characteristic of comic plots, are the numerous complications that may beset the protagonist. We must have many moments of apprehension and growing anxiety to build up tensions so that laughter may come as a happy release. Comic plots involve complications, sexual love, the happy ending.

Laughter is evoked not only by the comic situations and incidents, but also by the characters themselves. It is not usual for the characters in comedy to be highly individualized, though they may be. They are more likely to be the stock characters of ancient comedy, or type characters, sometimes mere caricatures. Yet usually the protagonist or the lovers will be attractive stereotypes. Our identification with them--and antipathy for the antagonist--will point the direction of our laughter. We will want to laugh with the hero and heroine and at the villain, menace, or rival.

The style of comedy is usually rich in verbal provocations for laughter--wit and the wisecrack, double-entendre and puns, whimsy and plays on words, Irish bulls and malapropisms, felicity of expression and vulgar tongue. Comedies were written in verse for the most part up through the Renaissance, though certain ones of Shakespeare's so-called romantic comedies, such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, are more prose than verse. Molière's more celebrated comedies are in verse, but his lighter comedies are in prose. The neoclassic and later English comedies were all in prose, which has been the rule for comedy until, interestingly enough, T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry in our time.

Comedy is more likely than tragedy to have a simply expressible theme. Though it will usually not be hard to phrase--and may be quite obvious--the surface meaning of comedy is likely to be based upon profound assumptions and convictions. Look closely at any one of the great writers of comedy and you will find a philosopher expressing his view of life, concerned with social values, intent often upon human betterment.

Many subtypes of comedy are to be distinguished--classic, romantic, and neoclassic comedy, the comedy of manners and sentimental comedy, serious comedy and farce, folk comedy and social comedy, musical comedy and fantasy.



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