W. T. (William Thompson) Price.

The analysis of play construction and dramatic principle online

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The Analysis of Play Construction
and Dramatic Principle











The Delusion About Dramatic Instinct I

Analysis 9

The Method to be Pursued 16

Theme 19


, The Material 26'

The Conditions Precedent 33

The Proposition 50

4 The Plot > 64

The Division into Acts 78

The Division into Scenes 86

The Scenario 121


^ The Action of a Play 123

fr- Unity -.77 146

Sequence 156

Cause and Effect 171

S Action (Drama) is not Mere Ijfe 182

"*" Action (Drama) is not Story 193


-j- Action (Drama) is not Mere Business ............................. 206


f~ Action (Drama) is not Primarily a Matffe*-oi Words ............... 220 V. *


Indirection is the Dramatic Method, the Opposite of Story Telling. . 232

Objectivity The Visual .......................................... 246

The Unexpected ................................................. 259

Preparation ...................................................... 282

Action (Drama) Must be Self-explanatory, Self-developing and Self-

progressive ................................................ 294

Compulsion .................................................... 309

Facts .......................... ................................. 321

The Necessary and the Unnecessary. . . ...................... 328


^Character ........................... >~c<T:, ........ ............ 335 ^

Dialogue, Monologues and Asides ................................. 343

Entrances and Exits ............................................ 363

Episode ......................................................... 381

Scenery ......................................................... 390

Detail ; Circumstantiality ........................................ 396

The Condescending Fallacy that only the Rudiments can be Taught 408

Systematic Study ................................................ 412



After the publication of my "Technique of the Drama,"
sixteen years ago> and while I was acting as playreader for
the then leading manager in New York, I was constantly
besought by people for advice on their plays. I found that
nothing could be done with the individual who, although he
had read everything ever written on the subject, knew no-
thing of the art of playwriting. It required the expenditure
of too much vital energy to combat his self-confident ignor-
ance. It was the bottomless pit. I discovered that this
ignorance was not altogether his fault, for no book, my own
included, had ever been published in any language that was
adequate for the practical requirements of the workshop.
Such books as had been published were useful as an intro-
duction to the study, and they are still absolutely essential
to the student, but something more is required. It also be-
came plain to me that the art was too large to be compassed
by a single volume or by any one method of investigation or
instruction. It is not to the purpose now to enquire into
the reasons why no dramatist has ever attempted to provide
these needed text books for the student, supplying him
with the tools of the workshop and not books of literary
style addressed to posterity, with the quick delivery stamp
on them of an endowed college professor. It was also plain
to me that the whole subject required a new investigation
and restudy conducted on an entirely independent initiative.
It was not possible to meet the demand by a compilation.
The process of the amateur's mind had to be considered,
that process which is entirely natural to the mind ignorant
of dramatic law in all directions. I am free to say that I
have learned more on that line of investigation than on any
other. It has been to my profit, and I hope to that of the
student, that I have read and analyzed thousands of plays
by amateurs. The study of false dramatic syntax will be an
important element in our work together. This volume con-


cerns Analysis only. In another section of our study I shall
trace dramatic law back to nature and the constitution of
the human mind, thereby proving to you that the form is
not purely artificial and that true plays are not written by
"rules;" and then step by step we shall do all that is re-
quired of the craftsman to gain his art. My sole and con-
stant aim is to be of service to the student by formulating
the art in the most practical way and by not writing a sin-
gle line for the mere sake of writing.

New York, June, 1908.



Reserving for another chapter the vivisection and the
complete demolition in every honest mind, I believe, of the
absurd and monstrous idea that a playwright is or can be
or ever was or ever will be born, I wish now to urge upon
you the practical dangers of any belief on your part that
you have any dramatic instinct as something apart from
a knowledge of dramatic principle that must be gained. If
you hug and caress this delusion your progress will be de-
layed and the day of your success will be remote. Your
mind will not be open. You will not accept the authority
of Technique and you will be constantly assuming that you
fully understand something of which you really see only
the surface. You will be constantly saying that you "knew
all that before," when it is something about which you
know the least. I am not trying to establish any personal
authority over you by these statements, but I have a jeal-
ous regard and a profound respect for an Art whose author-
ity cannot be denied by any one without his loss of my
respect. I am speaking plainly and in the first person, for
my feeling on the subject proceeds from a large experience
with people of this recalcitrant mind. If one begins this
study with the idea that he has a dramatic instinct superior
to fixed law, he begins as a fool and usually ends as a fool ;
or, he loses years in self-complacent vanity before he yields
to the authority of the Art. I think I shall conclusively
demonstrate that the idea that one can be born a play-
wright is a monstrous lie and fraught with evil. If one
personally believes it of himself he is suffering from a forrrt
of insanity. It is an evil lie, for all lies are evil. It makes
vanity a loathesome appanage of a professional career. If
you have the dramatic instinct in the misleading and dan-


gerous sense that I describe, why are you seeking 1 further
knowledge? Instinct does not have to be taught. If
you have any instinct about the stage it is something that
you have acquired by reading or seeing or hearing or ob-
servation of your own initiative. It takes years to gain
this "instinct" and even then it may be imperfect instinct.
The inherent characteristic of every Art is that it re-
duces its principles to terms, and if you do not understand
those terms and the full meaning of each principle in all its
aspects you are not an artist. You would not be able to
discuss intelligently or intelligibly any given scientific sub-
ject with the professional scientist. He would not under-
stand you and you would not understand him at all. He
talks in shorthand, you would be talking ^gibberish. You
may occasionally see in the depths of night a gang of work-
men making some repairs of an electrical trolley way. Great
gasoline lamps flare up with a constant roar and throw a
lurid light against the darkness and giving picturesqueness
to the busy laborers. Here and there flames from a blow-
pipe are shot against the joints of the rails. A superintend-
ent is standing perhaps on the sidewalk. Address him and
ask him what they are doing. My own personal experience
in this particular matter was brief. The courteous reply
of the superintendent was, "Do you know anything about
electricity?" "No." "Then, I am sorry, I cannot explain
it to you." In every Art everything, not one or two things,
has a definite meaning. You would not think much of a
mathematician who could not define a straight line, would
you? He might have that idea of a straight line which
perhaps every human being has, but if he could not define
it, stripped of all manner of verbiage, and in its one scien-
tific expression, he would not be a mathematician at all.
It is not enough merely to know the terms themiselves. One
hears many people who have tinkered at the study of the
drama and who think they know something of the Art
constantly using terms without knowing what they mean.
They talk about Unity with the perfect assurance that it


is absolutely clear to them and in the practical application
of it they may be invariably wide of the mark. They speak
of their plays as being full of Action when, in fact, there
may be an utter absence of Action in them. They talk of
Plot and have not the slightest idea of the definite and in-
evitable requirements of a Plot. In order to become a
master of this Art one must rid himself of generalities.

It is very easy to be misled as to one's own knowledge of
the Art of Playwriting. I was told by a dramatist of the
highest distinction that it was only after the production
of his fourth play that he realized the exacting nature of
the Art and saw that there were one or two principles the
extent and use of which he had had little or no conception
As a play reader for managers I have been in a posi-
tion for a score of years and more to note the beginning
and progress of practically all the dramatic authors who
have succeeded in that time. In most cases, the first manu-
scripts submitted by these authors revealed little or no dra-
matic instinct. There may have been abundant ability,
there may have been very apt portrayal of character and
scenes worked out with more or less effectiveness, but an
all embracing Technique was invariably lacking. They
have since learned the Art, and every honest dramatist
among them will tell you that his experience began in
comparative ignorance accompanied by self-confidence. If
the Art is lacking and everything in a play, as a play, is
wrong, what kind of instinct is that which instinctively
does things wrong? If you have any idea that you have
dramatic instinct and that it was born in you, get rid of it.
I have a contempt that I cannot begin to express, although
my vocabulary is not altogether meagre, for people who
claim to have been born with a knowledge of any Art. Art
is a human thing. It has to be acquired. I would like to
take hold of these people and have them do the exercise
work required to bring them to their senses. Many of them
think that analytical work is not necessary or that their
minds are so constituted that they are not analytical but


what they call "creative." Get that out of your head. In
playwriting, at least, there is no distinction between these
qualities. You must be analytical or you will never write
plays with any professional firmness of touch. The diffi-
culty of enforcing analytical exercise work, however, I
have found to be so great that I require it only in the
answers to the Question Sheetsy Of course an infinite and
serviceable amount of analytical work may be done in the
analytical study of plays without committing the results to
paper, but the habit of analytical thought should be gained.
I do not recognize aptitude except as it comes from knowl-
edge, experience and training. You may have an ad-aptitude,
but aptitude means skill. If one has been reared on or
about the stage he may acquire it unconsciously, but this
aptitude comes from having learned the Art in one way
or another. Learning it primarily from the stage itself has
its dangers, which will be explained later. It is easy
enough to learn the Art superficially, but this is an Art
that one must master completely if he has any self-respect
or hopes for a career uninterrupted by deficiencies.

Those people who think they have genius, and imagine
that man is everything, are misguided egotists. They ig-
nore, or pretend to ignore, the existence of Technique, or
they may contend that technique is an indefinable thing and
personal and private property. They even think that they
have created Material. They are all wrong. Technique is
what shapes the Material. The three elements, the
Man, the Material, the Technique, exist with abso-
lute distinctness, and each gets its value when the three
are put together in combination. They must fuse as chemi-
cal elements do in creating a new substance. As a practi-
cal matter in playwriting, they are not only dependent the
one upon the other, but the one helps the other. Technique
suggests new material and stimulates the imagination.
One man uses his technique better than another. Irldi-
vidual qualities are never absent. Everything is co-opera-


The art of playwriting, Technique and the Material
for plays, are as absolutely distinct from you as are the sci-
ence and the substances of chemistry. Do you think you
could be a born chemist? It would take you three years of
hard study in some laboratory under chemists who labor
to give you instruction for you to acquire sufficient know-
ledge to obtain a certificate of your proficiency. The State
requires this certificate and does not permit born chemists
to deal out death at their indiscretion and with their ignor-
ance in the prescription departments of a chemical estab-
lishment. The text books of the science are enormous in
volume. New discoveries are being made constantly. How
could you be born to a knowledge of something not yet dis-
covered? By what biological process could you be a born

Comparisons are not always conclusive, but it is
absolutely certain that you can no more be a born play-
wright than you can be born a chemist. I want to demol-
ish this preposterous and, as I call it, and believe it to be,
soul destroying idea for all time, and to attack it in as many
different directions as possible. The point in this attack is
to urge the distinction between the Man, the Material and
the Technique. It alone should be conclusive. Of course,
the Material that we have to do with in playwriting is appa-
rently not so recondite as in chemistry and would seem to
be something of universal experience and apprehension.
Nevertheless it is something apart from the individual.
This Material cannot be classified with the same complete-
ness and minuteness as chemical substances are. Never-
theless the emotions that you represent must have been ex-
perienced by others than yourself, and you cannot attribute
to them that which is impossible for them to have felt. You
cannot create any Material in a real play in the sense of
making it different from nature. New combinations only
can be formed, and this depends upon the man in consulta-
tion with his Technique. Naturally one experiences satis-
faction in and assumes credit for all the niceties of spirit


and of form that he gives his Material ; but it is easy
enough for him to attach too much importance to him-
seJf/Let us take the first example that occurs to us,
'Browning's "Blot on the 'Scutcheon." Browning is lauded
as one of the greatest poetic or creative minds that ever exist-
ed. The man undoubtedly had a great scope of mind and
was an uncommon word monger, but how much of the ma-
terial of "The Blot on the 'Scutcheon" did he create? Is it
not a familiar and, in a sense, common-place bit of material
out of literary ultra-romanticism, grounded, of course, in
the possibilities_of4i|ejx

^lie^Material may be so potential or actual in its relations
to Technique or form that the play may write itself without
any material indebtedness to the dramatist. How false and
absurd the claim of dramatic instinct in a case of this sort
is demonstrated by a very common result, the dramatist is
never heard of again. He doesn't understand the art of
playwriting, never succeeds in writing another play, and his
subsequent manuscripts afford amazed amusement in the
offices of managers. Can you doubt the independent exist-
ence of the three elements described when you consider Sir
Walter Scott and Dickens ? These two novelists, the great-
est so far in English literature, in their respective fields, pos-
sessed more "dramatic instinct" than an infinite number of
successful and even famous dramatists of many countries
put together, but they worked with different tools from
those of the dramatists. Their processes of thought were
different. The form was different, and therein lies the
whole matter. Form implies a particular Technique. Sir
Walter Scott was observant of the drama and wrote a good
deal about it, but he certainly was not a dramatist, and his
practical knowledge of the laws of the stage was slight. It
is not at all improbable that he could have become a drama-
tist. Dickens was very close to the stage, one of the most
intimate friends of Macready, constantly behind the scenes,
was an excellent amateur actor and wrote a number of
small plays, but he did not cultivate the form. Neither Scott


nor Dickens took the trouble to get at the details of the
workshop. If the "dramatic instinct" of these men was not
sufficient to enable them to write plays of the highest dis^
tinctive quality by what chance is it that you have been
born with a "dramatic instinct" that is equivalent to a com-
plete Technique?

If by the possession of dramatic instinct you mean that
you have an innate knowledge of all that Aristotle commu-
nicated to the world, of all that has been written upon the
subject (a considerable part of which, however, is compila-
tion of an uninformed kind), of all that the experienced and
trained dramatist knows, you have a pitiful misconception
of your own relation to the world and to human thought.
If you confidently believe that you instinctively know all
that some student may have gained in the toil of a well
planned and essential obscurity, of privation, in the pursuit
of elemental truths, you can take a little time for reflection
and then apply to yourself that epitjiet which no one word
in the English language can supply and which perhaps you
may find in Esperanto, a combination of all languages. "In-
stinct" is knowledge, whether it be in a bird building its
nest or in a beaver constructing its dam. At all events,
Technique is a matter of knowledge ! Technique is science
and art. It requires that everything that concerns it be
definite and scientific, and "instinct" is too vague to be tol-
erated for one instant. Just as the art existed centuries be-
fore you were born and will continue to exist centuries af-
ter you perish in your vanity, so has existed, does exist, and
will exist, independently of you, the Material out of which a
play is made. You were no more born with an innate know-
ledge of all the Material in the world or one atom of that
Material than you were born with a knowledge, an "In-
stinct," of the Technique. What are you and your thoughts,
your imaginings and your combinations compared with the
complexity of emotions and happenings between the my-
riads of souls that live and have lived? Do you think you
are larger than the Material and more important than the


Technique? Man was created a little lower than the angels
and, we may surmise, in all modesty, is not altogether a
worm; but his powers are relative. He has no instincts
that are not shared by every other human being in a greater
or less degree. You may believe that you have the quali-
ties of a dramatist. That is an altogether different matter.
But what qualities? The drama or its Material embraces
every emotion felt by any human being.



What is analysis? It is the taking apart of anything, the
resolving of it into its elements, in order to discover its na-
ture and the principles of its construction whereby it ex-
ists and has its functions. It is the source of all scientific
knowledge. It is something that every man of good and
practical sense exercises in the simplest matter that he
wishes to understand. He can tie a sailor's knot only
when he finds out how it is done. He is on the road to un-
derstanding if he takes a watch to pieces in order to ascer-
tain the relations of its various parts. He will not be a
watchmaker until he understands also the principles that
have led to the devising of these various parts. There is
a certain mechanism about playwriting that is just as dis-
tinct as the mechanism of a watch. Any contention to the
contrary is the prejudice of ignorance. The principles re-
main the same in the one case as the other. Remember that
this refers only to the mechanism, principles of construc-
tion and the law of the drama which must be obeyed by
every one who attempts a drama, whether he be a genius
or an ordinary human being. I may incidentally remark
that many of our best plays are written by so-called ordina-
ry people and that many of our worst plays are written by
so-called geniuses. I do not believe it is possible for one
to become an expert in playwriting without understanding
Analysis. Do not make the mistake of thinking that it is
not playwriting and that you are not beginning to learn
playwriting when you begin with exercises in Analysis.
In point of fact, it is playwriting, which, as I have already
set forth, is a process of thought first of all. Coming over
on a steamer not a great while ago some one cornered Paul
Potter, the dramatizer of "Trilby," which was played in
many countries, a man whose mastery of Technique is


as great as that of any other I know, and asked him "How
one learned to write a play." That is a question that can-
not be answered in a single word; but his answer comes
as near covering the case as possible. His reply was "By
analyzing plays." He added that he had analyzed a thous-
and plays, and Mr. Bronson Howard, the first scientific dra-
matist America ever had (apart from Bartley Campbell) told
him that he -had analyzed twelve hundred or more. Now,
what does one discover on analysis? He certainly finds that
there are not one hundred new and different principles in
each of these thousand plays and that the art of playwriting
does not depend upon the caprice of each writer, but that
it is systematic and can be reduced to system, one system,
not a hundred systems, while the principles are compar-
atively few, although there is infinite detail. He finds that
it is the same art, whether exercised by Shakespeare or by
Ibsen or by Henry Arthur Jones. This art is independent
of genius. It is the same thing at all times ! It is a univer-
sal keyboard. We analyze with reference to the art, to
mechanism, to the Technique. We have nothing to do with
the qualities or general nature of a play. The play may be
good or it may be bad. The Technique, and perfect Tech-
nique, may be applied to something that has no value or
which is abhorrent in morals and taste. Reconcile yourself
to that at the very outset. You will understand it fully
after a little. Of course morality and taste and all the
best human qualities should exist in a play, but that is not
the question. In making an Analysis of a play we take it
apart with reference to the principles. To consider as a
whole is not Analysis at all. To read a play for informa-
tion, for its historical bearings in any sense, is for the gen-
eral reader and not for the student. That kind of informa-
tion is useful and perhaps indispensable, but it lies far away
from the study of structure and how the play is put to-
gether. One might know every play, or every important
play, ever written and still have little or no understanding
of Technique, which is to say, how they were written. We


must, then, .take up the Analysis of a play, point by point,
with reference to each established principle, such as Pro*

Online LibraryW. T. (William Thompson) PriceThe analysis of play construction and dramatic principle → online text (page 1 of 34)