What’s in a play? : Alexander Ray Edser discusses this question while also examining how play structure gives clues to the play’s meaning. Thoughts triggered by a handful of current productions. On the way, the word ‘playwright’ is considered.
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Interesting to consider exactly what the requirements are for a work to be considered a play. The real basics. The things that if the event doesn’t have them, then it’s not a play.
Before we embark on this question, though, it’s worth noting the word ‘playwright’. Plays are created by a playwright – not ‘written’. This is just as true if the playwright is an individual, two people (or more), or a group of people devising; individually or collectively they stand as a playwright.
‘Playwright’ is a loaded word, a word full of history and honour, a playwright needs to be proud of the title, and humbled by it. For the ‘wright’ means ‘maker’; it belongs to the mysterious group of trades that includes a cartwright (cart maker), wainwright (waggon maker), arkwright (chest maker) and so on. A playwright is an artisan, he or she makes plays, constructs them, builds the framework for this most powerful of all art-forms. The word has nothing to do with ‘writing’, so I shall coin the word ‘playwrighting’; the commonly used ‘playwriting’ is a dumbing down.
So back to the main issue.
If an event is to be more than simply an event, or say, a ‘happening’ – to use a 60s expression – then it must have a story. However, the story is put together in a certain way by the playwright; he selects the extracts to be told and puts them into a certain order. He decides when to start the plot (often in the middle of the story). In other words, the playwright creates a plot. And the plot is there to add meaning to the story. The added meaning may well be the playwright’s message or the play’s theme or themes.
It might be noted here that by putting plot elements in different orders, the meaning of the play could be changed. And when plays begin in the middle of the related story we should note that the playwright has specifically chosen that point because it helps communicate his themes. The play doesn’t achieve its starting point by accident nor idle whim. And it’s not to save paper nor time.
Ranevskaya comes into The Cherry Orchard with all the baggage of Paris, dead child, terrible lover, and bringing up children. Lopakhin comes into the play with all the baggage of entrepreneurship, poverty, servitude and a bloody nose. Chekhov doesn’t want us to see all these things because he wants us to focus on Ranevskaya and Lopakhin juxtaposed at a crucial moment in their lives. They have completely different histories, and Chekhov’s meaning lies not with either one, but with their juxtaposition. The Cherry Orchard is no more Ranevskaya’s story than it is Lopakhin’s. Chekhov, master-playwright, wants us to view the plot (their joint story) in the round.
In Love’s Labours Lost Shakespeare pairs up four sets of young men and women. But the structure of his play would indicate that this is not a play about the loves between the couples. If it were about this, the women – or rather the men with the women – would be given more space within the plot. As it is, a large section of the play is first given up to the men alone. They make silly oaths and act like silly, pampered young men. The women come along and bring about change in the young men, causing them to grow up. Then Shakespeare takes their loves away again. The whole focus of the plot is on the men and their growing up. This meaning is beautifully and vigorously demonstrated in Christopher Luscombe’s current telling production in the RSC’s main theatre.
Shakespeare, a young playwright, has written a play about young men.
In the Swan, on the other hand, is Webster’s The White Devil. Here a clue to the meaning of the play is given by Webster’s manipulation of the Revenge Play framework. It’s true the Revenger opens the play, but he is, as his opening line declares ‘Banished’ both physically within the play world and literally from the plot – until needed to fulfil the Revenge model’s requirement.
The focus of this play is on Vittoria; not even on her love affair with Bracciano, but on her. She dominates the play, has most of the best speeches. She is never criticised by Webster for her actions. He structures the ‘trial’ scene so that she can be seen as an isolated woman fighting against the Church and State in all their panoply. In the audience we cannot but admire her. As for her crimes, well, her husband is set up as a cold-fish fool and her lover’s wife as a holier-than-thou Christian – conclusions we read with our heart rather than our head.
It’s true that her brother, Flamineo, is also a key character. But we do not relate to him in the plot in the same way. He is a bridge between us and the play-world working on a healthily, bawdy level to make us laugh.
Webster gives us the moral tone only in so far as the Revenge conventions require it, and, frankly, in the theatre, we don’t give a damn.
In a nutshell, then, the general principle is ‘the story is what happens, the plot is the way you tell it.’ And the first required play element is plot . . . And we may see that ‘story’ is bound up in the plot.
It follows that in order for us to have the plot communicated to us we need characters. It may be tempting to say ‘actors’, but it’s characters that we require. The plot is communicated by actors through the medium of characters. Characters may be seen to incorporate actors – even if the actors are, say, puppeteers . . . but that’s another road. The audience’s immediate relationship is with characters.
However, the functioning of characters is not as simple as it might seem.
The varying relationship of the actor with the audience is important to note; in a play an actor doesn’t have a direct relationship with an audience. A storyteller (who may or may not be an actor, but who is certainly a performer) does. A storyteller may act characters as he tells his story, but in storytelling the characters are viewed through the storyteller. In a puppet play, the puppets are the characters directly in contact with the audience and the puppeteers hidden. A storyteller may use puppets, but they are props for him to use. I hasten to add that none of these forms is better than the others; they are simply different.
But here’s a grey area . . . Let us consider two adaptations. Firstly The Kite Runner, currently on tour in a fairly straightforward, traditional style of adaptation – novel by Khaled Hosseini, adaptation Matthew Spangler. Secondly, the adaptation by David Edgar’s of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. In the first adaptation, narration invariably sits with the main character from the novel Amir (frequently in large chunks); in the second, the narration sections are shared out among the whole cast.
A careful analysis of these two adaptations in performance might indicate the actors being placed in different contexts. In the Kite Runner, it could be argued that the actor playing Amir always communicates to the audience through his character – whether in a ‘scene’ or in direct address. In the Nicholas Nickleby adaptation, the actors are constantly (and extremely quickly) switching between actor role (communicating through a character) and storyteller role (communicating as themselves.)
Character, we might argue then, is the second element we require for a play – even though the play might have storytelling elements in it.
However, when wrighting the play we might note that the playwright creates those characters in order to give his plot the greatest amount of meaning; characters are, therefore, functions within the plot; or at least, the plot can’t function without the characters.
Plays are watched in real time; in the audience we expect things to change from moment to moment. In order to ensure we aren’t looking at a painting (which might be considered to have both plot and characters) it would seem sensible to add into the requirements a sense of time passing.
Time is multi-layered in drama terms. In this instance the reference is to time passing, related to the time the play takes to happen – the running time. But there is also the time the play is performed, the time (date) it was created, the time is was set, the time the production is set. To say nothing of the time passing within the world of the play, and the time of day or season in which any scene within the play happens. All these manifestations are considered as the playwright wrights the play – and choices made for specific reasons.
And so to the final element – and one most easily over-looked. The audience. The play does not exist on paper (for it isn’t written). A play is a constructed artefact; it requires an audience in order to live. The play may be considered to exist in the space where the audience and performance merge.
It may be presumptuous to suggest that this is special about a play (though it shares it with music.) The novel, the painting, the poem all exist without an audience – and when they have an audience they are not changed by the audience. But the play needs to be seen to exist, and is changed by its very act of being.
That makes an act of theatre ephemeral. Which in turn makes it unique on every occasion.
To summarise. The four elements without which an event cannot become a play are: plot, character(s), time, audience. However, characters are functions within the plot, so implied by it. Similarly, time passing is a prerequisite of plot. So perhaps there are only two requirements plot and audience.
A very small formula for such a powerful art form. But then it’s not what you wright, it’s how you wright it.