HOW PLAYS WORK: David Edgar
Nick Hern Books
Review: Rod Dungate, 6 September 2009
Intriguing and extremely informative.
Here’s a link to the NHB website, a link to the book on Amazon is attached at the end of the review.
‘First things first. You know all this already.’
With typical dry humour, David Edgar opens his analysis of plays’ workings. And very good it is, too – the analysis as well as the dry humour. He goes on to explain that the book stems from workshops and seminars supporting the MA (now M Phil) course in Playwriting Studies at the University of Birmingham. I must come out of the writing closet here; I was one of the first students on that course – and very good it is too, too.
Edgar is well known as both playwright and writer on matters of theatre. His analyses are based, therefore, on both a broad intimacy with the field and a deep hands-on experience. The book reflects these. But something else marks it out from playwriting books, I feel. Rather than ‘this is how you do it’ (and there are some excellent examples of such books around, several reviewed on this site), Edgar in his book takes plays apart. It’s as if he dissects them on his desk and examines the parts. He codifies the parts and explores how they carry meaning. It is an assumption that the point of plays is that they carry meaning.
Many sections of the book are logical sections; ‘characters’, ‘structure’, ‘devices’ (including dialogue). Others are more intriguing – ‘genre’. Part of the argument, here, is that genre helps audiences decode plays. Though Edgar suggests that modern plays don’t fit into genres . . . which possibly may be a genre, I suppose.
Central to his arguments about the ways plays work is his use of the term ‘action.’ The use of this term is problematic, though, for the life of me, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate. Edgar, himself, points this out – ‘Many of the terms we use to categorise the elements of dramatic fiction are slippery, and none more so than the word ‘action’.’ It could mean stage action (business), dramatic action, the action a character exerts on other characters, or the action underpinning a line of dialogue. Tricky, this. For Edgar: ‘In this chapter, I’m trying to define the term, very specifically, as a brief encapsulation of the narrative progression of a play, structured to convey its meaning.’
As Edgar demonstrates, using a huge range of play examples from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Strindberg and Stoppard and beyond, all other elements of a play’s structure face towards this action.
Edgar’s is a powerful book, but not in the least daunting. There is a power in the naming of things – and this detailed analysis offers individuals the possibility of a more control over their understanding of how plays work.
Here’s the Amazon link.