Renowned playwright David Edgar pioneered the teaching of playwriting in the UK, founding the Playwriting Studies course at Birmingham University in 1989. In this extract from the new, revised and updated edition of his seminal book How Plays Work, he investigates the fundamental geometry of plays, and why playwrights need to know the ‘rules’ that govern audience expectations…
What am I describing?
1) A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature. A leading citizen seeks to take the necessary action to protect the town from this danger, but finds that the economic interests of the town are ranged against him and he ends up in battle alone.
2) Two sisters are unjustly preferred over a third sister. Despite their efforts, the younger sister marries into royalty and her wicked sisters are confounded.
3) A young woman is pledged to a young man, but finds that a parent has plans for her to marry someone else. Calling on the assistance of a priest and a nurse, the young couple plot to evade the fate in store for them.
4) A married couple is at war. A younger influence enters their lives, providing a sexual temptation which threatens the marriage. But ultimately, the couple finds that although they find it hard to live together, they cannot live apart.
5) A man who has scaled many heights senses that his powers have deserted him. A woman from his past re‐enters his life, and provokes him to take one last, fatal climb.
6) With her father’s encouragement, a young woman allows herself to be wooed by a prince. Her brother moves a long way away. The prince behaves increasingly peculiarly and abusively, and, shortly after the death of the woman’s father, leaves on board a ship. The woman goes mad, alarms the Royal Family, gives everybody flowers, escapes from her minders, and dies in a suspicious accident. The brother returns, angry, at the head of a popular army. There is a contest over the funeral arrangements between family, church and state. The prince returns and he and the woman’s brother end up fighting over the coffin.
Regular theatre and cinema audiences will recognise some of these summaries, and people who enjoy parlour games might have spotted that all of them describe more than one play, film, or story. The first is the story of Jaws, but also Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (and The Pied Piper of Hamelin). The second outlines the situation at the beginning of both King Lear and Cinderella. The first sentence of the third summary is the action of most comedies written between the fifth century BC and the end of the nineteenth century; with the second sentence, it describes Romeo and Juliet, and the subplot of John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, both Jack and Algernon seek to fulfil their romantic ambitions with the aid of a priest and a governess.
The fourth description applies to a host of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century marriage plays: obviously to August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; but also to Noël Coward’s Private Lives, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Peter Nichols’ Passion Play. The fifth outlines the common action of three of Ibsen’s last four plays (The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken), in all of which old men are confronted by women from their past, and end up climbing towers or mountains, to their doom.
On the last one, I’m not the first to spot the parallels between the tragedy of Hamlet and that of Diana, Princess of Wales.
There is a danger of taking this idea too far. In the mid‐1950s, London audiences probably didn’t notice that two groundbreaking new plays both had five characters and one set, and included long speeches, a crucial offstage character, music‐hall turns, people taking off their trousers, elements of the first half being echoed in the second, nothing much happening, and the two protagonists spending the play trying to leave and ending up agreeing to stay. The reason why playgoers are unlikely to have spotted these similarities between Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger is because they employ completely opposite strategies to dramatise the conditions of their time.
Nonetheless, audiences do recognise that plays, which are on the surface as different as can be, can share an underlying architecture. I’m aware how unpopular this idea is for playwrights beginning their careers. Properly, playwrights insist that their voice is unique, and they don’t want to start a new project with an audit of how many other people have been here before. But without the kind of common architecture which I’ve identified, the uniqueness of their vision will be invisible. In that sense, plays are like the human body. What’s distinctive and unique about us is on the surface, the skin, including the most particular thing of all, the human face. Although they differ a bit, in shape and proportion, our skeletons are much less distinctive. But without our skeletons holding them up, what’s unique about us would consist of indistinguishable heaps of blubber on the floor. So plays that no one else could possibly write (as no one else could look exactly like us) can nonetheless share an underlying structure. You could argue that one of the least interesting things about King Lear is that it shares a basic action with a fairy tale. But without that fundamental geometry in place (there’s two nasty sisters and one nice one, and their father judges them wrongly), the whole thing collapses.
Like all other artists, playwrights choose, arrange, and above all concentrate events and behaviours they observe in the real world in such a way that gives them meaning. George Bernard Shaw argues that ‘It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible’, because the writer ‘rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them into works of art’.
How playwrights do that has been the focus of my teaching for over thirty years, and is also the subject of my book, How Plays Work.
Do plays have rules?
The idea of plays having shared structures is also suspect because it implies that there are rules. Many people – including many playwrights – remain attached to the romantic ideal of the uniquely expressive artist. The idea of playwriting as a craft with rules that apply over time is resisted theoretically by postmodern literary critics who believe that nothing cultural applies over time. Those playwrights who read historical criticism are understandably put off by the iron determinism of the French neoclassicist critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their iron laws about how many characters can be on the stage at any one time (in Vauquelin’s L’Art Poétique it’s no more than three), how long a dramatic action may be permitted to last without flouting Aristotle’s unity of time (generally held to be no more than twenty‐four hours), and how far distant from another a location might be without flouting Aristotle’s unity of place (another room in the same house occasionally permitted, another house in the same town frowned upon, another house in another town beyond the pale).
Similarly, playwrights are alarmed by the contemporary equivalent of the French rules, those prescriptions handed out by American screenwriting experts. The founder of this school is Syd Field, who famously divided film screenplays into three acts of thirty, sixty and thirty pages, with a significant propelling plot point occurring between pages twenty‐five and twenty‐seven (this may sound absurd, but I am assured that p. 26 of I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder’s script for Some Like It Hot includes Marilyn Monroe’s character undulating unforgettably along the station platform).
More liberal – and critical of Field over such matters as the admissibility of flashbacks – is Robert McKee, whose weekend courses did so much to homogenise the vocabulary of BBC script editors in the 1980s (he then committed the cardinal error of writing it all down). But while McKee accepts what he calls open and closed endings, multiple protagonists, nonlinear time and even inconsistent realities, his definitions of ‘protagonist’, ‘inciting incident’ and ‘act design’ still seem schematic. And the idea that screenwriting gurus might have become less prescriptive in the new millennium is countered by Blake Snyder’s 2005 how‐to movie‐writing guide Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, with its six things that always need fixing, its nine immutable laws of movie physics, its ten genres of any movie ever made and its fifteen essential beats: from the ‘Opening Image’ and ‘Theme Stated’ via ‘Fun and Games’, ‘Bad Guys Close In’ and ‘All Is Lost’ to the ‘Finale’ and ‘Final Image’.
And writers who’ve read any twentieth‐century literary theory are understandably irked by the arithmetical reductionism of so much thinking in this field, with its mechanical lists, symbols, charts and graphs.
I share some of these prejudices. But I think that the neo‐classicists, Hollywood gurus and structuralist thinkers all remind us of a basic reality of playwriting, which is that, however much playwrights may choose to ignore them, audiences have certain expectations of what they’re going to see in the theatre and they cannot be required to check those expectations in with their coats.
In this sense, the ‘rules’ are a sedimentation of all of the expectations of all the plays (and, to an extent, all the stories) which we have ever encountered. This is why the argument that one should know the rules in order to break them is only half the story. Playwrights should know the rules because they are the possession of the audience, their essential partner in the endeavour. They won’t be thanked for sticking so closely to the rules that the play is predictable from start to finish. But nor will audiences readily accept their expectations being wilfully ignored.
This is an extract from the revised and updated edition of How Plays Work by David Edgar, published in 2021 by Nick Hern Books. See more about the book and order your copy here.
David Edgar is the author of many original plays and adaptations, including Maydays (1983), The Shape of the Table (1990), Pentecost (1994), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1996), The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001), Continental Divide (2003) and Playing With Fire (2005). Most recently, he performed his own solo show, Trying It On, which toured the UK in 2018 and 2019. All are available from Nick Hern Books.