Saturday, July 17, 2010

Theory and Technique of Playwriting by John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson. Theory and Teaching of Playwriting. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.

This book is of interest to both playwrights and screenwriters. Originally published in 1936, it established many of the ideas adapted by early screenwriters and screenwriting text authors.

Lawson believes that drama has undergone changes. It arose from tales with significant meanings to stories where authors presented their ideas of critiques of characters, ethical decisions, or emotional problems. While plays are often written with a profit margin in mind, the stories must be something that audiences will pay to view and appreciate. Audiences will likely expect to see something with action building to a climax.

Theories of drama can be traced to ancient theaters in Athens, China, India, and Japan. European and American theories of drama have emerged and evolved from those theories.

Sartre presented existentialist ideas examining the ironies that life is both absurd and tragic. This has been explained by several writers attempting to find a purpose in life in an existential environment.

Social criticism is the aim of some writers. Some have explored the absurdities of life. Some have explored the torments of life.

Some actors have interpreted their roles according to the Stanislavsky method where they explore the psychological and sexual emotions of their characters. On the other hand, some actors have deliberately rejected this method of expressive acting.

Aristotle believed tragic plays need to be present one day or less in time in the course of the entire play. He believed audiences would wonder about details if more than one day is presented.

Drama emerges from probably scenes. Actions are derived from reversals of fortune. A sudden event, revolution, or peripeteia, changes lives of characters and sends their lives towards new directions. The directions of the characters’ lives are also changed by “anagnoris”, or recognition scenes, which is the unexpected association with friends or enemies.

Aristotle believed that actions are more important than characters. This is the basis of technical playwriting theory. Thus, truth is defined by a series of actions and is not simply defined. In plays, the actions must be dramatic rather than general.

Aristotle viewed character as the sum of numerous qualities that make character difficult to evaluate. Later theories believed character was worth exploring and that drama can emerge from a conflict of will. Character, though, must be established in how one reacts to events.

Aristotle’s “Poetics” states the writers must evaluate action, what characters think, and create revelations in how they respond. The actions are the plot. There must be unity to the plot’s contents.

In Aristotle’s ideas, characters must find consequences when they violate taboo. Later theories explored how societal pressures could create tragic stories.

Aristotle’s writings were republished in 1498. The Renaissance period was not directly aware of Aristotle’s beliefs. Horace wrote his ideans in “Ars Poetica”. He believed in maintaining the proper manners of the day. He insisted decorum should be maintained. The presentation of anything lacking decorum reduced the possibilities for actions that Aristotle believed were essential. The rules of decorum were challenged by vulgar comedies that appeared as satires in the 15th century and then by Gresset, who wrote a play depicting a murder (an event lacking decorum then) in 1740. Voltaire further challenged this with “visions” of nudity on stage.

Machiavelli wrote plays that promoted his ideas of morality, ambition, and conformity. While Machiavelli wrote about manipulative politicians, he also believed the goal of a unified state was the important goal. Ibsen and other 19th century writers noted that ethical lapses in political systems were creating societal disorders. Shakespeare noted how society was disrupted
by disturbances within the ruling elite.

Laape de Vega in 1609 stated there was no set theory of dramatic playwriting. Shakespeare is presented as writing without any sense of an established technique. The knowledge of psychology and sociology was very limited then compared to a few centuries later. Plays then did not then reflect issues of psychological drama or societal challenges. The Renaissance era saw adherence to mostly static laws, and plays reflected this stability.

Plague, disease, and a large London fire during the times of King Charles II helped create several societal tensions. Plays, whose audiences were upper class attendees, reflected growing class cynicism.

John Dryden in 1668 noted that plays should avoid recreating previous knowledge and present a new genius of ideas. This was the first historical analysis found in playwriting criticism.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1767 to 1769 argues that drama must be socially relevant and should explore the psychology of characters. Revolutionary ideals in politics and society in France and America were reflected in writings. Authors became concerned with issues of idealism and materialism. John Locke’s ideas of government representing people and of labor rights should determine property rights were repeated by American revolutionaries and French materialists that led to the French revolution.

Social realism emerged in 18th century plays that examined middle class realities. Plays focused more on relations between people than relations with the rulings class, as were common before.

19th century plays presented explorations on romanticism, especially in the earlier days which evolved towards more explorations or realism in the later decades. Romanticism represented traditional values of romantic language societies. The German middle class grew quicker than it did in other European countries and its romantic writings were critical of French classical writings. Goethe believed the soul needed to unite with divine will and thus evil could not fill a soul.

Georg Hegel believed logic emerged through disturbances in the equilibrium until a new equilibrium was reached. This is the dialectic method. Tragic conflicts could create dramatic actions leading to examinations of the will of characters. Hegel believed there was a universal will. Schopenhauer believed there was an ultimate idea. Hegel argued a rational existence could be reached. Schopenhauer argued that people are not committed to rationality. Hegel believed it could take much conflict before equilibrium is reached.

Subjective dramatic criticism gained notice in the 19th century. Issues of technique were explored as well as commentary on issues, such as debates on free will.

Victor Hugo believed romanticism and realism could be molded together.

Karl Marx rejected that there is a permanent dialectic. He argued that people and their relationships create their awareness, which is constantly changing. Social conditions are strong factors in creating public wills. Marx and Engels argued there are causes in society, but not spirituality, that affect public souls.

Honore de Balzac criticized moral decay and corruption that destabilized society. Emile Zola was influenced by Balzac. Zola wrote on social issues in the belief that justice could be reached by perfecting human behavior.

Gustav Freytag wrote an idealistic view of drama in “Technique of the Drama” in 1963. Freytag believed plays released emotions within the audience that improved their perceptions.

Ferdinand Brunetiere saw drama existing in people’s attempts to control their environment.

Ibsen examined middle class conflicts, social pressures, how environment shapes people, and how finding one’s inner self can produce solutions.

The perceptions of a playwright affects the creativity of the work product.

Early 20th century playwrights often wrote how social instability led to psychological difficulties.

George Bernard Shaw struggled with an unsuccessful search to rationally explain social philosophy.

Constantin Stanislavski believed the inner psychology and past experiences drove characters, each with their own idealism. A character’s expressionism are portrayed not just by statements but by behavior and something lighting and/or scenery.

Eugene O’Neill wrote now hostile fates made characters angry and that their anger and useless fights lead to their fate of destruction. Eugene O’Neill believed the techniques of plays were characters subjected to fate or whim but not to their will, that psychic motivations drive characters’ actions, that actions illustrate characters, that conflict is diffuse, and that actions are repetitious.

Dramatic structure should involve conflicts in relationships. Dramatic construction involves a series of conflicts, crises, and suspense. Conflict must create crisis.

Dramatic actions disrupts the equilibrium. The climax is the greatest disequilibrium that is reached. Actions must be dramatic and must involved meaning and purpose in the conscious activity. Physical actions and dialogue compose dramatic action.

A play should have a probable and necessary theme, where actions and the theme are united.

The climax changes the equilibrium and unifies the story. The unity includes the beginning that builds to the climax with a unity of theme and action. To build to a climax, a writer must find crises and create scenes that show actions to the climax that also present the scheme of life, also called the social necessity, that limits routes to reaching the climax. An author cannot go outside the social necessity without eliminating the reality of the climax.

There must be continuity of scenes. Continuity includes dramatic exposition, which extends from plot actions, causes leading to solutions, increasing dramatic actions, conflicts leading to the climax, increasing emotions accompanying the progression of actions, a proper rhythm and tempo, should exist with building tension, scenes should link over shared interests, the tempo should grow as the story intensifies, incidents should have value relative to root actions, new forces should be introduced only with preparation for their effects, and emotional tension should buld to the moment of explosion.

The author notes the use of “cut and flash” scene transitions that move from a height of interest to a lower level of interest. This allows people to think and realize the heights in the scenes.

The audience needs to receive required disinformation to follow a play as soon as possible. The audience must know who, where, and what time the characters are and how they relate to each other. A story should begin with conflicts, the situation must be dramatic, disturbances must be presented and felt but not described, and they must increase the purpose and needs of the character.

Exposition can be broken into subordinate actions which each build to their own climaxes.

There must be a progression of increasing action that has greater complexity to the rest of the story.

A play consists of one part exposition, five parts increasing action, an obligatory part, and the climax. The exposition may consist of two or more action cycles. The second part of increasing actions is a climax that will tie the exposition to the increased actions and the obligatory scene.

Surprise is useful, but only if it moves the story forward.

Francisque Sarcey developed the exploration of the obligatory scene. The obligatory scene is where uncertainty allows the audience to then appreciate the climax.

Freytag’s theory of drama states there are five parts of a play, 1.) the introduction, 2.) the rising action, 3.) the climax, 4.) the falling or return, which is just as important as the rising action, and 5.) the catastrophe. The climax is the important unifying middle toward which, and then away from, actions builds and then increases.

Characters must relate to others and their environment. There can not be a character that stands alone. A character must progress through the story.

Dialogue must compress and expand upon action. Dialogue should be poetic.

The audience must fell united to a play. As the author concludes, “A living theatre is a theatre of the people.”

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