WELL-MADE PLAY 4.0: FORMULAIC DRAMA IN OUR TIME

In recent years, many plays staged off Broadway seem to follow a common structure:

  • The cast is small—no more than four or five—and we come to know the each character well. As they interact in various combinations, each of the characters pursues goals and undergoes changes over the course of the play.
  • The action is broken up into short scenes rather than long acts, and the scenes may be in chronological order or not. Each scene is extremely economical, with a cut-to-the bone feeling of nothing extraneous to this tiny portion of the whole. Often, a surprise leaves a memorable stage picture as the lights go down. And viewers learn to anticipate the coming dark when they hear a challenge, a question, or a new piece of essential information. Any messiness or turmoil that might naturally follow from that revelatory moment is cut off, and we know that the action will resume, usually at a different place and time, often with different characters.
  • Most of the scenes involve only two or three characters—dyads and triads. There can be great intensity in such interactions, which is why playwrights through the ages have included them in their bag of dramatic tricks. But writers of today’s well-made plays rarely include scenes with more than three characters. The gain in intensity is offset by a loss in variety and scope. It is as if a skilled composer wrote only duets and trios, never indulging in string quartets, let alone symphonies. Which playwrights today demonstrate the kind of skills Lillian Hellman displayed in handling various combinations of her cast of nine characters in The Little Foxes?
  • The dialog is primarily an exchange of short lines (what the Greeks called “stichomythia”). While such speech is often described as “realistic” or “naturalistic,” it is in fact quite artificial. Anyone who has ever eavesdropped in a coffee shop realizes that most conversations involve long awkward pauses and that people occasionally speak in paragraphs rather than single sentences.
  • The structure of short scenes has led to the return of the single set. Between scenes, small changes may be made to the props by actors or stagehands. If multiple locales are used, the sets tend to be minimal and suggestive rather than detailed.
  • Exposition is scrupulously avoided. Plans and motives are not revealed to confidantes, nor do the characters in these plays “break the fourth wall” with asides or other explanations to the audience. The audience must pay close attention to subtle hints to figure out who these people are and what is going on.

Older forms of theater used “dramatic irony,” in which the audience knew something that characters on stage did not know. So, for instance, when Oedipus declared that he would pursue the murderer even if he should be a member of his own household, the spectators knew—as he did not—who the murderer would turn out to be. But now, each member of the audience must be his or her own Hercule Poirot. While asking the normal dramatic questions about the unfolding action (What will happen next? How will the characters react?) the “little grey cells” must simultaneously be involved with many other questions—Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? What are they planning to do? The task of discovering the truth is complicated by the fact that the characters often lie to each other in our presence, presenting various revisions of their accounts of events.

And in today’s dramas, Poirot never calls everyone together to explain the solution to the mystery and confront the villain. The play simply ends with a final piece of the puzzle. When everything in a contemporary well-made play works—when enough clues are provided and the audience is very attentive—this missing explanatory scene takes place as a kind of explosion in the mind of the viewer, after the final curtain (i.e., blackout). Or during the subway ride home. Or in a discussion later in the bar. And this sudden insight can be an exciting mental and emotional experience—today’s substitute for Aristotle’s catharsis. But if the clues are too obscure or the viewer’s attention lapses, he or she is simply left  bewildered.

With each passing year, more and more plays seem to follow this formula, which I have come to call “Well-Made Play 4.0.” Why 4.0? As students of theater history know, the well-made play (“pièce bien faite”)—with its long exposition, secrets revealed to the audience, vital documents and props, radical reversals of fortune, revelations and stage pictures at the ends of acts, and necessary scene (“scène à faire”) where antagonists confront each other and all mysteries are cleared up—was invented and promulgated by Scribe and Sardou in the 19th century. But this structure was really WMP 2.0, because Scribe and his disciples based their prescription for stage action on their understanding of the plays of Sophocles (WMP 1.0). When what we think of as modern theater developed toward the end of the 19th century, Henrik Ibsen, who had produced many plays by Scribe and his disciples, adapted the formula, making it more appropriate for his realistic depictions of the unacknowledged taboos of middle class life. George Bernard Shaw professed to hate the mechanical nature of the plots of “Sardoodle-dum,” but he, too, adapted many of its conventions for his didactic comedies.  The Ibsen-Shaw formula (WMP 3.0) was successfully carried into the twentieth century by the long-lived Shaw, Lillian Hellman, and others. Now, over the past thirty years or so, a new formula has developed, discarding some of the features of WMP 2.0 and 3.0, resurrecting some from 1.0, and inventing others of its own.

Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal is perhaps a pre-cursor of WMP 4.0. David Auburn’s Proof (2000) models all the elements. And as the 21st century progresses, we see the formula applied more widely. I would include as examples Donald Marguiles’ Sight Unseen and Time Stands Still, Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views, Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap, David Adjimi’s Stunning, David Hare’s Skylight, Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few, and Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles. Some playwrights we think of as very experimental have written at least one play that mostly conforms to the formula: for example, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Top Dog/Underdog, Moises Kaufman’s, 33 Variations, and Stephen Adly Guirguis’ The Mother Fu**ker with the Hat.

Make no mistake. I admire all these plays. They are incredibly powerful. I do not think they are formulaic hackwork. This structure works. And there is some truth to the proposition that writing for the stage or screen is more a craft than an art (hence, the troubling spelling of the “wright” part of “playwright.”)

Still, I wonder how this single prescription for playwriting has become so prevalent. In the late 1990s, I was lucky enough to be in a playwriting seminar with Tina Howe, who admires Ionesco and has never written a formulaic play. One of the many things that impressed me about Tina Howe was the helpful way she responded to plays in many different genres, perceiving what each script needed in order to be true to itself, rather than to some pre-conceived notion of what a play must be. But perhaps many people leading seminars today have narrower tastes. And perhaps graduate students who were taught to admire WMP 4.0 are now teaching playwriting classes. Or they are judging play contests. Or they are working as dramaturgs to “help” playwrights “develop” their work. And so the influence spreads.

As the WMP 4.0 formula comes to dominate off-Broadway and regional professional theaters, it creates certain problems.

These small-cast productions are well-suited to the financial restraints of small commercial theaters, but they are less attractive to community and educational theaters, which thrive on large casts. So those theaters continue to present the same old familiar musicals and comedies, year after year, leaving their audiences unprepared to deal with contemporary theater.

And with its demands for total attentiveness, the 21st-century well-made play can “put people off” at a time when theaters recognize the need to bring in new audiences. Solving the mysteries of a play involves the viewer as a participant in the action. Cool. But if you have some hearing loss (as many current theater-goers do) and miss one crucial line, you may not understand what’s happening. If you rarely attend live theater and your attention wanders for a moment, you will be lost. If you don’t figure out who became the mad hermit in Tom Stoppard’s Acadia—and why—you are left bewildered. If you cannot explain the unlikely happy ending of McPherson’s The Night Alive, you will not find it “pleasurable to experience its mysteries” as the program promises. Everyone around you is applauding, and you just don’t get it. Your reaction will be similar to one that many people have to contemporary art: “What’s all the fuss about? It’s just a canvas covered in grey paint. Is this some kind of a con game? A joke?” You are left feeling stupid and angry. And you won’t come back.

Recently I saw a local community theater production of William Hoffman’s 1985 play, As Is. I was struck by the freedom and adventurousness of its form. I speculated that, in some ways, the 1980s were more open to theatrical experimentation than the 2010s. I am not arguing against the many fine plays that follow the WMP 4.0 formula. But I am arguing for greater openness. Let us continue to perform and produce plays by Tina Howe, Paula Vogel, Chuck Mee, Annie Baker, Anna Deveare Smith, and all the others who are exploring new frontiers in both the content and the construction of work written for the theater.