Friday, September 21, 2012

Play Structure

Ever wonder about the spelling of playwright? Why not playwrite? Well, it's because a "wright" is someone who builds. The idea is that a playWRIGHT carefully constructs and builds a play. We craft plays, not just write them.

Way back in antiquity, Aristotle (that famous Greek philosopher) wrote a book called The Poetics about how to write a play. He said that every play needs the following elements:
1. Plot
2. Character
3. Thought (by which he meant theme)
4. Spectacle (special effects, props, costumes, scenery, etc.)
5. Diction (effective dialogue)
6. Song (music)
Apart from #6, all plays usually include these things. Musicals, film, and opera incorporate all of the elements rather effectively. Most contemporary plays include non diegetic sound between scenes or before an act to set a tone. Dialogue can be beautifully written (and with enough imagery and detail) can come close to song.

Not that Aristotle said this directly, but somewhere along the line, particularly in the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, critics began to update Aristotle. They came up with the concept of the 3 Unities: 1). The Unity of Time, 2). The Unity of Place, and 3). The Unity of Action.

TIME: plays should only cover a small amount of time (usually within 24 hours)
PLACE: plays should be set in locations that could easily be reached within a short amount of time (no traveling halfway around the world!); usually one setting was preferred
ACTION: Thou shalt not mingle comedy with tragedy. Also, only one plot line. KISS (keep it simple, stupid!)

Add to this the concept of verisimilitude (the semblance or appearance of truth), and characters should act according to their economic station, i.e., a prince should act like a prince, not like a pauper.

Without structural unity, a play falls apart when performed for an audience.

We know that a play needs conflict because all plays involve human struggle. That's what they are written to examine. A playwright is like a philosopher in that all effective plays (even the funny ones) deal with human struggle and use human themes to communicate the human condition. Plays are an attempt to understand some truth about humans and our world. Make sure your play speaks to this tradition.

Today, make a mind-map or web of human struggles or themes.

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