The one-act-play- a new contribution to drama
Scannell, Madge Leslie
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The twentieth century has witnessed the birth of a new member into the family of drama—the one-act play. For more than a century there had been no dramas written that were worthy of note. The theatre had degenerated to the point of presenting plays built around jugglers and animal acts, farces, or melodramas with swaggering, boisterous heroes and impossibly wicked villains. The plots were empty and monotonous; the stage as a whole was artificial. Ibsen was the firat of a group of playwrights who denounced the emptiness and artificiality of the theatre and attempted to present a true picture of life. This revolt, begun on the continent, spread to Britain. Talented playwrights again began writing dramas, and plays became rich in content and deep in purpose. As the plays became better, the audiences grew to be more intelligent and more critical. This new type of audience, desiring to rescue drama from commercialism, established the Repertory Theatre. Endowed either by the state or by private individuals, these theatres were able to present plays which the commercial theatres would reject because they were too literary to appeal to the ordinary run of people, one of the most famous of these theatres was the Irish National Theatre, which had for its advisers such people aa Lady Gregory, John Synge, Padraio Colum, and William Butler Yeats. The one-act play as a new form appeared simultaneously with the Repertory theatres. The Repertory Theatre movement spread rapidly to the United States when the Irish Players visited America, presenting the one-act plays of Synge and Lady Gregory. The movement became known as the Little Theatre movement. It developed so phenominally that by the time of World War I there were about eight hundred Little Theatres in the United states. During the first decade of this century there appeared in the colleges and universities of this country, courses in playwriting and in the history of the drama. To-day almost every college or university in the United States has its own Little Theatre. Teachers of drama soon found that the one-act play was more satisfactory than the three-act for use in these laboratory courses. In response to the demand of Little Theatres all over the country for short plays, writers of talent began writing one-act plays, a regular scheme of collecting royalties was established, and many anthologies of one-act plays appeared on the market. To-day the one-act play is recognized as a dramatic form of real worth with characteristics all its own. The influence of realism that is reflected in much of the drama of this century is shown in the one-act play. in a folk play, such as "Welsh Honeymoon," by Jeannette Marks, the dramatist, through the dialect of the characters, interprets an environment. The realistic tendency shows itself in an entirely different way in the social drama, which is used successfully to-day by Noel Coward, Clifford Odets, and William Saroyan. The influence of romanticism is also conspicuous in the one-act play. The dramatist often shows us the fanciful in a commonplace environment, as in Lord Dunsany's "A Night at an Inn." One of the chief characteristics of the one-act play is unity of effect. There must be one theme developed through one situation to one climax. This single theme is often announced in some way early in the play, as in Oliphant Downs' fantasy, "The Maker of Dreams." Unity of effect is also achieved through singleness of impression or atmosphere, as in Percy MacKaye's "Gettysburg." Economy is another characteristic of the one-act play. There must be no line, no character that is not necessary to the theme. By presenting a crucial moment in the life of a character, the author implies his past and intimates his future-—as in Synge's "Riders to the Sea." Rapid characterization is another quality of the one-act play. Lady Gregory's "Spreading the News" is an excellent example of this. Suggestion being the keynote of the one-act play, the scenery itself is usually suggestive. in staging a play such as Maeterlinck's "The Intruder," the creation of mood, or atmosphere, is indispensable to its success. The one-act play is one of the most technical forms of drama. The one-act playwright starts with a germinal idea. It may be an axiomatic theme, as in Oliphant Downs' "The Maker of Dreams" and George Kelly's "The Flattering Word" it may be a theme that is not stated but pervades the whole play, as in "The Intruder" and "Riders to the Sea"; it may be a hidden theme, as in Galsworthy's "The Little Man"; or the germinal idea may be a situation, as in Lady Gregory's "Spreading the News"; or it may be a character, as in Eugene O'Neill's "Ile." Once the playwright has his germinal idea, he must work out his plot. The most effective beginning is one that suggests much more than it gives, as in William Butler Yeats's "The Land of Heart's Desire." It must present a question, for which the audience eagerly awaits the answer. As the plot develops, the one-act dramatist cannot draw out the suspense too long. He solves this problem by raising questions in the mind of the audience to which he gives half answers. This is done effectively by Booth Tarkington in "Beauty and the Jacobin In the one-act play the climax often has little dialogue. It is as though the emotion was too deep for expression, in Thornton Wilder's play "Mozart and the Gray steward," Mozart speaks two words at the moment of decision. The ending of a play must answer the questions that have been raised, and the answer must be logical. "Ile" and "Riders to the Sea" are effective examples of a satisfactory ending. The characters are the important part of any play. They may be type characters, as in "The Little Men," or a psychological study, as Captain Zeeney in "Ile." in the one-act play a single trait is usually emphasized, as there is not time for complete characterization. The dialogue of the one-act play must be purposeful; the best dialogue is that which does several things at one time, as in "The Land of Heart's Desire" and "A Night at an Inn." Stage business is doubly important in the short play, for it must do what dialogue does not have time to do. It may be as effective as dialogue in bringing out the comedy or the tragedy of a play, as in "Riders to the sea" and "A Night at an Inn." The one-act play, with characteristics and technique peculiarly its own, has played no small role in the dramatic awakening of this century. With the contribution that it can make to the films, to radio, to television, to the theatre, and to the school, it bids fair to continue to fill a place in drama that the long play cannot fill.
This item was digitized by the Internet Archive. Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University