Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Five Acts

Recently I was reflecting on how to coax a play out of a certain story. It’s the second or third time I’ve given this particular short story a run-over, and both my earlier attempts completely dissatisfied me--so much so that this time I decided to scrap everything I had done before and start afresh. So I did what every good writer with writer’s block ought to do: I wrote something else, in this case, something in the nature of an outline. Since a great part of my difficulty with the story in question was structural (it’s cursed with scenes in many places, lots of time elapsing, plenty of authorial intrusion, etc.), I decided to set out the approximate structure of a play, in hopes that doing so might give me a template for altering the story in question.

I’ve always believed in five-act as opposed to three-act plays. Part of the reason is that I like to have a single intermission when at a theater, and a five act play allows you to place that intermission much closer to half-way through the action. Part of the reason may have something to do with having a
five-day work week (now there’s a great idea for someone: Shakespeare meets The Office. Or maybe not). However, in this case I confess that a good deal of my reason for wanting a five-act play was the suspicion that the order and structure so lacking in the darling short story would be more fully delineated in an outline of five bullets than in an outline of three. At least I’m honest in my self-deception.

I make no further apologies for the outline produced; the above excuse should suffice to indicate just how adamantly I hold what lies below: not at all.

Saturday’s Play-writing 101 Class: Introduction to Five-Act Structure

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Today’s lecture is devoted to the approximate structure of the modern (i.e., post-medieval) five-act play. In rough outline, the five acts can be characterized thus:

Act 1: Meeting;
Act 2: Misapprehension;
Act 3: Conflict;
Act 4: Pain; and
Act 5: Resolution

In Act 1 we are introduced to the main character or characters, as well as their situations. The "meeting" here refers
(a) to the audience’s introduction to them and sometimes also
(b) their introduction to each other.
(Think of Rosalind and Celia meeting Orlando in the first act of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.) We get an idea of who these people are, where they are coming from and where they think they are going (also where they probably are going--which may be different from where they think!). We learn a bit about what motivates them, both generally and in the specific context of the events the play will depict. The misapprehension and conflict of Acts 2 and 3 are usually foreshadowed, since these should grow organically out of the characters and their situation, although an audience unfamiliar with the play may not yet recognize the foreshadowing as foreshadowing, much less be able to guess the events foreshadowed. However, it is not necessarily a defect in the play if the unfamiliar audience is in fact able to recognize the foreshadowing and correctly guess the future events. “I knew it was coming!” can be an exclamation of delight as well as of disgust. Whether the audience is delighted or disgusted at being able to predict the outcome of a situation will depend upon many factors. Essentially, if your characters are life-like and therefore in some degree likable, and if the development of the misapprehension and conflict are reasonably based upon the characters, then delight is more likely to occur. If your characters are wooden and stereotypical (or if your actors present them poorly) the reaction is more likely to be boredom and disgust. To recapitulate: Act 1 is the place for meeting and getting to know the main character or characters and their situation.
In Act 2 something bad happens. Well, not always very bad. Usually one or more of the characters will make a mistake, which results in the other characters misjudging him or her. Sometimes the villain (if there is one) will lie about one of the characters to another, or trick him into the mistake (a classic example of this is Iago’s driving a wedge between Cassio and Othello); but as often as not the trouble arises from one of the characters making a poor decision on his own. Sometimes an author will permit accident to cause the misunderstanding (e.g., one character overhears another and misinterprets what is being said, through no fault of his own). However, this breaks the (admittedly not iron-cast but nonetheless wholesome rule) that the misunderstanding shall arise out of the nature of the characters and their situation. If Jill must hate Jack because of an accident, it should be because Jack is accident-prone or Jill prone to suspicion. Likewise if the villain tricks Jack into mistrusting Jill, it ought to be either because (a) Jack is too trusting of the villain, or (b) Jack is generally suspicious of Jill, (c) Jill is not always trustworthy (according to the best impartial evidence), or (d) all or some combination of the above. (Again, see Othello: (a) he trusts Iago implicitly and (c) Cassio is, in fact, not the strongest character around town.) The misunderstanding can involve any number of the characters, from one to the whole cast, and can be one- or two-way or more. In a one-way misunderstanding, Jill thinks Jack doesn’t love her any more, but Jack knows he loves her and she loves him. In a two-way, Jack and Jill each think the other doesn’t love him or her. (Think Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.) Obviously these examples are simple. The misapprehension could be about oneself (Jill thinks she doesn’t love Jack, but she really does--see Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of the same title). It could be circular (Jack’s mistaken about Jill, who’s mistaken about Fred, who’s mistaken about Jack), and the circle can be as big as you please, even including the whole cast. The misunderstandings can be of varying natures. I used the example of being in love, but I could just as well have made the example to deal with cowardice, money, or what have you. It is possible too to have more than one type of misunderstanding in the play, but don’t throw in the kitchen sink! If you do have more than one type of misunderstanding, make sure that they are related. (For example, Jill thinks Jack only wants to marry her for her money, and Jack thinks Jill won’t marry him because he has no money. Meanwhile, secondary character Fred has been mooching off his wife Ethel--who married him for love--for years. The three problems are distinct but clearly related.) So again, Act 2 is about misapprehension, mistake, or misunderstanding.

In Act 3 the misapprehensions of Act 2 lead to conflict. The conflict need not be very serious; in the relatively plotless As You Like It, it is in Act 3 that Orlando first meets “Ganymede” who promises to cure him of his love for Rosalind. It’s not that Orlando and Rosalind are having a quarrel—quite the contrary!—but they do approach each other as verbal combatants. (Interestingly, Act 3 also gives us our first taste of conflict between Touchstone and Jacques, some bickering between Celia and Rosalind, and alters the dynamic between Silvius and Phebe by introducing “Ganymede” to them.) Whatever the degree of seriousness of the conflict, it should be foreshadowed by the end of Act 2, although the form it will take in Act 3 may be still unclear. We all can see that Jack and Jill are headed for trouble, but will that trouble take the form of a quarrel? a bargain which neither enjoys? a murder? The sky’s the limit. But remember: keep character. Unless Jill has shown violent inclinations in Act 1 (through action the audience witnesses, through general report, or through monologue and aside), you’d better not have her act violently here. Incidentally, the multiple misunderstandings of Act 2 can here blossom into a lovely
domino effect: because Jill finally blows her top at Jack, he goes off and fires Fred, whereupon Fred goes home and complains to his wife. If Fred’s wife Ethel happens to be Jill’s best friend also, a beautifully vicious circle can be produced. The key to Act 3, however, is that the tensions of Act 2 must produce fireworks. Remember, your intermission is up next. You want the audience to come back. Of course, you also have the alternative of postponing the fireworks until the beginning of Act 4; but if you decide to do that you will need to create enough suspense to make it clear that they are indeed coming.

Ah yes, Act 4. Now we all suffer. Not in the physical sense (not the audience, at any rate), but certainly in the mental sense. The misapprehensions of Act 2 have been brought to light in Act 3, where the character acted on them. Further misapprehensions may have ensued as a result. Thus, in Act 1 Jack was suspicious, causing him to misinterpret Jill’s Act 2 behavior as being far more serious than it really was. In Act 3 Jack confronted Jill with his suspicions, leading to a big fight. Now Jill thinks Jack doesn’t
love her, just as Jack thought that of Jill! Oh, the misery. Classic example of this? In Much Ado About Nothing, we see the gullible Claudio, best-buddy to the misogynistic Benedick, fall quickly--too quickly--in love with Hero. He comes very close to thinking her “false” in Act 1 (where he supposes Don Pedro to have “stolen his nest”). This prepares for Don John’s Act 3 deception whereby Claudio is tricked into thinking Hero grossly unfaithful. When Claudio confronts Hero in Act 4, we have a huge dramatic scene. (See note above about postponement of conflict.) Then, in the remainder of Act 4 and the beginning of 5, Claudio and everyone else are miserable as a result. Incidentally, for those of you who feel that Beatrice and Benedick are the real heroes (ahem! no pun intended) of this work, the general description fits their combined character arc fairly well too. Thus, in Act 1 we see their sparring and mutual distrust combined with real affection, and in Acts 2 and 3 each is tricked into thinking the other loves him/her. (Note that this is not the usual sort of misapprehension, but a misapprehension nonetheless. It is no less a misapprehension because they each mistakenly believe what is in fact true. The error in this case lies in their manner of coming to their conclusion (through the deceptions of the other characters), just as an invalid syllogism can erroneously produce a factually true conclusion.) In Act 4 Benedick’s "misapprehension" leads him to confess his love to Beatrice, who bids him prove it by killing Claudio, introducing a three-way conflict between Claudio, Benedick, and Beatrice, and making all three of them miserable. That’s what Act 4 is about: misery.

In Act 5 there is a resolution. This is the time of the play--either now or at the very end of Act 4--when the misery the characters are experiencing leads them to do irrevocable things, like murder or marry each
other. This is where the truth comes out. In very rare cases (where the play-write is a cynic) Act 5 can actually be about an inconvenient truth being hidden (in which case the misapprehensions of Act 2 are often not misapprehensions at all, but genuine realizations!). Generally, though the key to Act 5 is the revelation to the characters (the audience has known, or should have known, all along) of their folly. At the very end of this act tragedy becomes really tragic: Othello, unable to forgive himself for his actions, commits suicide, etc. Likewise comedy becomes fully comic: Claudio takes Hero, and Benedick takes Beatrice. It might seem that the turn of the play to tragedy or comedy took place earlier in this act (say, with Othello’s murder of Desdemona), or even in Act 4; but in fact, what truly makes a play tragic or comic is the characters’ reactions when faced with the truth of their actions. If Claudio, overcome by a sense of his folly, refused to marry Hero, could anyone say call Much Ado About Nothing comic? Or if Othello, recognizing his fault, spared Iago and entered the monastic life, would Othello be tragic? Both plays would in those cases be a sort of middle creation, neither fish nor fowl. It is the reactions of the characters that give the actions their final tone. In one sense--perhaps only in this one sense--it is true to say that “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Fools properly humbled recognize their folly, and in consequence despair:

I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee:—no way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
or else they hope and (possibly) repent:

For man is—a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.
As one great Italian almost put it, the end justifies the middle. Well, sometimes.

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