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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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5 Play structure

Just like a novel or a poem, a play will have some sort of structure. The traditional plot of a play will consist of an exposition, action leading to a climax, and a denouement or resolution. A certain amount of information about characters and events is necessary at the start of a play, and sometimes an explanation of what has happened in the past is required for the audience to make sense of what is to follow: all this is accomplished through the exposition. Some skill is necessary if the exposition is to be interesting, and subtle, natural-seeming, not holding the action up for too long. The plays of Ibsen offer a particularly interesting variation on this theme, since the action of the play is in fact to unravel those happenings in the past that have led to the present consequences that the play is concerned with. It has been said that his plays are one long exposition.

Many modern plays eschew this sort of structure. Waiting for Godot, for instance, which has been described as a play in which nothing happens – twice, has two acts that parallel each other rather than making any sort of forward movement. The idea of climax is subverted by the absence of any excitement, the ‘action’ consists of intentions that fail to be implemented, and any sense of final resolution is denied. At the end of the play, the tree, which at the opening has been bare, may have gained four or five leaves, but the characters remain as they were in the beginning. In another break with tradition, the first act of Top Girls uses characters that are not seen or referred to at all in the rest of the play, and the final scene backtracks to a year before the previous one, so that the end of the play does not coincide with the end of the action it purports to represent. In the BBC performance on the video the order of the first two scenes is reversed, so that we are introduced to one of the characters who will be central in the rest of the play, but the scene in the Top Girls agency with which it now starts is not an exposition in the traditional sense. It perhaps makes more sense when discussing drama of the twentieth century and later to think of exposition in terms of themes.

In working out the structure of a play, particularly where the acts are divided into a number of scenes, as in Shakespeare, it can be helpful to make brief summaries of the scenes. These summaries will not only help to clarify the action, but are later useful for revision purposes.

Activity 8

Try making a summary of the three scenes of Act I of As You Like It. How does Shakespeare achieve his exposition? Do these scenes further the plot in any way?


The first scene introduces us to Orlando and his old servant, Adam. Through the dialogue of the old and the young man we learn of the difficult situation in which Orlando is placed, before seeing for ourselves the antagonism he faces when his elder brother, Oliver, enters the scene. Orlando out of the way, Oliver sets up a dangerous situation for him with the professional wrestler, Charles, but their conversation also acts as a preliminary exposition for the main plot, the banishment of Rosalind. It is not until the second scene that Rosalind herself appears with Celia and the exposition is completed. This scene is not purely expository since it includes the wrestling of Charles and Orlando and it starts the love interest between Rosalind and Orlando. By the end of Act I, the main plot has been moved forward significantly, since in scene 3, Rosalind, like her father, is banished from the court, and Celia resolves to go with her. A further subplot concerning Touchstone, Audrey and William, and another concerning Phebe and Silvius are revealed once the action moves to the forest.

Before the denouement can take place, there are two key features identified by Aristotle that are still important in any drama: anagnorisis, which can be translated as recognition or discovery, and peripeteia, or a change from one state of affairs to its opposite, a reversal of fortune. The famous example used by Aristotle to illustrate his theory is that of Oedipus Rex. Once Oedipus, king of Corinth, has recognized that it was he himself who, unknowingly, killed his father and thus condemned the city to relentless plague, he puts out his own eyes and goes into voluntary exile, thus reversing his fortunes.

Activity 9

Can you think of any scenes in As You Like It which mark moments of discovery/recognition or a reversal in the state of affairs?


In As You Like It, there are two main moments of discovery, one associated with the Oliver/Orlando plot and the other with the Rosalind plot, and in both cases they are linked with a change in the state of affairs. In a dramatic off-stage scene, Orlando saves a sleeping man from being attacked by a lioness. The man awakes, Orlando recognizes him as his brother, and their enmity is dispelled. Oliver meets and falls in love with Celia, resolves to marry her and to abandon the court for the life of a shepherd. The central scene of recognition, though, comes when, having set up an elaborate riddle for the various couples, Rosalind reveals her true identity and secures Orlando as her husband. This scene marks the climax of the play, and ushers in the denouement, or unravelling of the complications of the various relationships. There is yet a further moment of reversal, when at the very end of the play Jaques de Boys (brother to Orlando and Oliver) arrives with the news of the usurping Duke's sudden conversion to a life of religious solitude, and the reversion of the crown to his exiled brother, Rosalind's father.

We have just analysed the play in terms of classical dramatic structure. Modern criticism has suggested other ways of looking at the play's structure, which you will find discussed in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Interestingly, what all these analyses have in common is a three-part form, which at its most basic can be expressed as beginning, middle and end.