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- Writing for Vaudeville - 30/95 -


minor scenes and the final big situation have for the characters and their destinies, and that this dramatic effect depends, furthermore, upon the big broad meaning which it bears to the minds of the audience, who have taken sides and feel that the chief character's life and destiny represent their own, or what they would like them to be, or fear they might be. In the next chapter we shall see how the dramatic spirit is given form by plot structure.

CHAPTER XIV

THE STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS OF PLOT

In the chapter on the germ idea we saw that the theme or subject of a playlet is a problem that must be solved with complete satisfaction. In this chapter we shall see how the problem--which is the first creeping form of a plot--is developed and expanded by the application of formal elements and made to grow into a plot. At the same time we shall see how the dramatic element of plot--discussed in the preceding chapter--is given form and direction in logical expression.

I. WHAT IS A PLAYLET PLOT?

You will recall that our consideration of the germ idea led us farther afield than a mere consideration of a theme or subject, or even of the problem--as we agreed to call the spark that makes the playlet go. In showing how a playlet writer gets an idea and how his mind works in developing it, we took the problem of "The System" and developed it into a near-plot form. It may have seemed to you at the time that the problem we assumed for the purpose of exposition was worked out very carefully into a plot, but if you will turn back to it now, you will realize how incomplete the elaboration was--it was no more complete than any germ idea should be before you even consider spending time to build it into a playlet.

Let us now determine definitely what a playlet plot is, consider its structural elements and then take one of the fine examples of a playlet in the Appendix and see how its plot is constructed.

The plot of a playlet is its story. It is the general outline, the plan, the skeleton which is covered by the flesh of the characters and clothed by their words. If the theme or problem is the heart that beats with life, then the scenery amid which the animated body moves is its habitation, and the dramatic spirit is the soul that reveals meaning in the whole.

To hazard a definition:

A playlet plot is a sequence of events logically developed out of a theme or problem, into a crisis or entanglement due to a conflict of the characters' wills, and then logically untangled again, leaving the characters in a different relation to each other--changed in themselves by the crisis.

Note that a mere series of incidents does not make a plot--the presence of crisis is absolutely necessary to plot. If the series of events does not develop a complication that changes the characters in themselves and in their relations to each other, there can be no plot. If this is so, let us now take the sequence of events that compose the story of "The Lollard" [1] and see what constitutes them a plot. I shall not restate its story, only repeat it in the examination of its various points [2].

[1] Edgar Allan Woolf's fine satirical comedy to be found in the Appendix.

[2] As a side light, you see how a playlet theme differs from a playlet plot. You will recall that in the chapter on "The Germ Idea," the theme of The Lollard was thus stated in terms of a playlet problem: "A foolish young woman may leave her husband because she has 'found him out,' yet return to him when she discovers that another man is no better than he is." Compare this brief statement with the full statement of the plot given hereafter.

The coming of Angela Maxwell to Miss Carey's door at 2 A.M.--unusual as is the hour--is just an event; the fact that Angela has left her husband, Harry, basic as it is, is but little more than an event; the entrance of the lodger, Fred Saltus, is but another event, and even Harry Maxwell's coming in search of his wife is merely an event--for if Harry had sat down and argued Angela out of her pique, even though Fred were present, there would have been no complication, save for the cornerstone motive of her having left him. If this sequence of events forms merely a mildly interesting narrative, what, then, is the complication that weaves them into a plot?

The answer is, in Angela's falling in love with Fred's broad shoulders, wealth of hair and general good looks--this complication develops the crisis out of Harry's wanting Angela. If Harry hadn't cared, there would have been no drama--the drama comes from Harry's wanting Angela when Angela wants Fred; Angela wants something that runs counter to Harry's will--_there_ is the clash of wills out of which flashes the dramatic.

But still there would be no plot--and consequently no playlet--if Harry had acknowledged himself beaten after his first futile interview with Angela. The entanglement is there--Harry has to untangle it. He has to win Angela again--and how he does it, on Miss Carey's tip, you may know from reading the playlet. But, if you have read it, did you realize the dramatic force of the unmasking of Fred--accomplished without (explanatory) words, merely by making Fred run out on the stage and dash back into his room again? _There_ is a fine example of the revealing flash! This incident--made big by the dramatic--is the ironical solvent that loosens the warp of Angela's will and prepares her for complete surrender. Harry's entrance in full regimentals--what woman does not love a uniform?-- is merely the full rounding out of the plot that ends with Harry's carrying his little wife home to happiness again.

But, let us pursue this examination further, in the light of the preceding chapter. There would have been no drama if the _meaning_ of these incidents had not--because Angela is a "character" and Harry one, too--been inherent in them. There would have been no plot, nothing of dramatic spirit, if Harry had not been made by those events to realize his mistake and Angela had not been made to see that Harry was "no worse" than another man. It is the _change_ in Harry and the _change_ in Angela that changes their relations to each other--therein lies the essence of the plot. [1]

[1] Unfortunately, the bigger, broader meaning we all read into this satire of life, cannot enter into our consideration of the structure of plot. It lies too deep in the texture of the playwright's mind and genius to admit of its being plucked out by the roots for critical examination. The bigger meaning is there--we all see it, and recognize that it stamps The Lollard as good drama. Each playwright must work out his own meanings of life for himself and weave them magically into his own playlets; this is something that cannot be added to a man, that cannot be satisfactorily explained when seen, and cannot be taken away from him.

Now, having determined what a plot is, let us take up its structural parts and see how these clearly understood principles make the construction of a playlet plot in a measure a matter of clear thinking.

II. THE VITAL PARTS OF THE PLOT

We must swerve for a moment and cut across lots, that we may touch every one of the big structural elements of plot and relate them with logical closeness to the playlet, summing them all up in the end and tying them closely into--what I hope may be--a helpful definition, on the last page of this chapter.

The first of the structural parts that we must consider before we take up the broader dramatic unities, is the seemingly obvious one that _a plot has a beginning, a middle and an ending_.

There has been no clearer statement of this element inherent in all plots, than that made by Aristotle in his famous twenty-century old dissection of tragedy; he says:

"Tragedy is an imitation of an action, that is complete and whole, and of a certain magnitude (not trivial). . . . A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity or in the regular course of events, but has nothing to follow it. A middle is that which naturally follows something as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to the type here described." [1]

[1] Aristotle, Poetics VII.

Let us state the first part of the doctrine in this way:

1. The Beginning Must State the Premises of the Problem Clearly and Simply

Although life knows neither a beginning nor an end--not your life nor mine, but the stream of unseparate events that make up existence--a work of art, like the playlet, must have both. The beginning of any event in real life may lie far back in history; its immediate beginnings, however, start out closely together and distinctly in related causes and become more indistinctly related the farther back they go. Just where you should consider the event that is the crisis of your playlet has its beginning, depends upon how you want to tell it--in other words, it depends upon you. No one can think for you, but there are one or two observations upon the nature of plot-beginnings that may be suggestive.

In the first place, no matter how carefully the dramatic material has been severed from connection with other events, it cannot be considered entirely independent. By the very nature of things, it must have its roots in the past from which it springs, and these roots--the foundations upon which the playlet rises--must be presented to the audience at the very beginning.

If you were introducing a friend of yours and his sister and brother to your family, who had never met them before, you would tell which one was your particular friend, what his sister's name was, and his brother's name, too, and their relationship to your friend. And, if the visit were unexpected, you would--naturally and unconsciously--determine how they happened to come and how long you might have the pleasure of entertaining them; in fact, you


Writing for Vaudeville - 30/95

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