Making a drama

Cinderella and King Lear, Jaws and An Enemy of the People, David Brent and Dogberry - they might seem to have nothing in common. Look closer, argues playwright David Edgar, and you'll find they all obey the same rules

1) A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature. A leading citizen seeks to take the necessary action to protect the community from this danger, but finds that the economic interests of the town are ranged against him and he ends up in battle alone.

2) Two sisters are unjustly preferred over a third sister. Despite their efforts, the youngest sister marries into royalty and her wicked siblings are confounded.

3) A young woman is pledged to a young man, but finds that a parent has plans for her to marry someone else. Calling on the assistance of a priest and a nurse, the young couple plot to evade the fate in store for them.

4) A husband and wife are at war. A younger influence enters their lives, providing a sexual temptation which threatens the marriage. But ultimately, they discover that, although they find it hard to live together, they cannot live apart.

5) A man who has scaled many heights senses that his powers have deserted him. But a woman from his past re-enters his life, and provokes him to take one last, fatal climb.

6) With her father's encouragement, a young woman allows herself to be wooed and wed by a prince. Her brother moves a long way away. The prince behaves increasingly peculiarly, and, shortly after the death of the woman's father, leaves on board ship. The woman goes mad, alarms the royal family, gives everybody flowers, escapes from her minders, and dies in a suspicious accident. The brother returns, angry, at the head of a popular army. There is a contest over the funeral arrangements between family, church and state. The prince returns and he and the woman's brother end up fighting over the coffin.

Regular theatre and cinema audiences will spot that all of these summaries describe more than one play, film or story. The first is the story of Jaws, but also Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. The second outlines the situation at the beginning of both King Lear and Cinderella. The first sentence of the third summary is the action of most comedies written between the fifth century BC and the end of the 19th century (the second demonstrates that Romeo and Juliet is a comedy gone wrong). The fourth description applies to a host of 19th- and 20th-century marriage plays, including August Strindberg's The Dance of Death, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Noël Coward's Private Lives and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The fifth outlines the common action of three of Ibsen's last four plays (The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken), in all of which old men are confronted by women from their past and end up climbing towers or mountains, to their doom.

On the last one, I'm not the first to spot the parallels between the tragedy of Hamlet and that of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The point of the game is to show that apparently very different dramas can share an underlying architecture. In that sense, plays are like the human body. What's distinctive and unique about us is on the surface: the skin, including the most particular thing of all, the human face. Although they differ a bit in shape and proportion, our skeletons are much less distinctive. But without our skeletons holding them up, what's unique about us would consist of indistinguishable heaps of blubber on the floor. So plays that no one else could possibly write (as no one else could look exactly like us) can nonetheless share an underlying structure. You could argue that one of the least interesting things about King Lear is that it shares a basic action with a fairytale. But without that fundamental geometry in place (there are two nasty sisters and one nice one, and their father judges them wrongly), the whole thing collapses.

All of these outlines also share a basic shape: they all start one way, and then twist into another direction. By imposing narrative patterns on the seemingly infinite variety of human activity, they privilege plot over character. In this they conform to the theories of the first literary critic, Aristotle, who insisted that plot "is the first essential of tragedy, its lifeblood, so to speak, and character takes the second place". They also follow the early theoreticians of modernism.

The ambition of the 1920s Prague School of literary criticism was to identify the basic patterns of narrative fiction. Their crucial distinction is between the story - the bare, chronological succession of events drawn on in a fiction - and the plot, the events as they are ordered and connected. Like rhyme and scansion in poetry, this ordering draws attention to the underlying shapes, patterns and meaning of the narrative.

The first systematic attempt to categorise the elements of story was undertaken by the French theorist Georges Polti, who in 1921 published The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, whose number is echoed - in "a singular corollary" - by "the discovery that there are in life but thirty-six emotions".

The idea that characters are an embodiment of forces that are present in a number of stories was explored in more detail by Vladimir Propp, whose 1928 Morphology of the Folktale sought to analyse the plots of more than 100 Russian folktales. He concluded that, while the names and attributes of characters varied wildly from story to story, neither their actions nor their functions changed. For example, the person from whom the hero receives the magic weapon with which he will defeat the villain could be an old woman, a witch, a group of knights, a robber, an animal or even a river or a tree. In the Hindu epic The Ramayana it's a wise man who gives Rama a magic arrow; in the James Bond movies it's Q, the gadget demonstrator. In CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the magic weapons with which the children will defeat the White Witch are distributed by Father Christmas from his sleigh. From this, Propp argues that the important thing about a person in a story is not their characteristics or personality, but their narrative function.

A parallel way of analysing plot is by summary. The playwright Stephen Jeffreys lists the proverbial seven basic plots as that of Cinderella (virtue finally recognised), Achilles (the hero with a fatal flaw), Faust (the debt that must be paid), Tristan and Isolde (the eternal triangle), Circe (the spider and the fly), Orpheus (the gift withdrawn) and Romeo and Juliet (boy meets girl).

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker has come up with an overlapping list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. What both attempts to define plot expose is that it is a way of ordering a story into a meaning, and is close to what Aristotle himself defined as a play's "action". An action provides the principles by which the story is structured into a plot. Or, the other way round, the plot is the way the story is presented dramatically in order to reveal an action.

As EM Forster put it, "The king died and the queen died" is story, while "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is plot. But there is another element: the idea that the dramatic action expresses not just a progression of cause and effect, but a contradiction in the human condition, between the limitlessness of our ambition and the inevitability of our failure to achieve it. A dramatic action consists of a project (someone sets out to do something), followed by a contradiction or reversal (as like as not a clause beginning with the word "but"). So the project of the Achilles story is his mother's ambition to arm him for a life of military glory; but her means of doing this is the very thing that brings about his untimely death. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus seeks everything he wants in this world, but at the price of eternal sacrifice in the next one. In order to achieve its objective, the fly sacrifices its independence to the spider; Orpheus makes a huge effort to rescue Eurydice, but his work is wasted by one last, tiny mistake. In both the tragic romance and the eternal triangle, love aspires to conquer all, but ends up conquered, from without or from within.

This is a model of actions of plays with tragic or ironic endings, from "A general comes back in triumph from the war, but is killed by his vengeful wife" all the way to "Two men wait for a third man, but he doesn't arrive". There is an alternative model, which applies fully to only one of the usually cited seven plots. Despite the efforts of her jealous elder sisters, Cinderella nonetheless goes to the ball and wins the prince. Similarly, the basic action of traditional comedy is that, despite the objections of her parents, a young woman nonetheless wins the man she loves. However, a shadow of the "project but reversal" action often lurks behind the cheerful "despite/nonetheless" model. Cinderella wins her prince, but at the price of her sisters' humiliation. In achieving their romantic ambitions, the young couple may have sacrificed more than they know. In Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, Prince Hal grows up, assumes his destiny, rejects his dissolute associates, but loses part of his soul.

Some people argue that actions are specific to the times in which they are coined. In a secular age, Macbeth appears to be the story of a soldier sacrificing his moral scruples to achieve his objective, but finding that his ambitions will always outreach him; but you could also see it as a Christian allegory (as Hamlet can be read as a Freudian one). Nahum Tate's 18th-century subtitle for Coriolanus - "The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth" - implies a very different meaning for the play from the one we've grown accustomed to. When it was written in the early 1980s, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls seemed to be about the perceived conflict between the aims of feminism and the ideals of socialism. A decade later, David Mamet's Oleanna - about a female student accusing a lecturer of sexual harrassment - was read in very different ways by those who backed the student and those who sided with the lecturer.

Hegel saw Sophocles' Antigone as a play about the irreconcilable tragic conflict between the absolute right of the family and the absolute right of the state. For other critics in other times it has been interpreted as confronting the conflict between community and blood, culture and nature, law and passion, expediency and integrity, and, in the 1960s, rebellion and oppression. But however disputable and disputed these various readings may be, Antigone's meaning is demonstrated by the way it's put together.

There are two chief methods of emplotment: plotting by time (by ordering the events of the story), and plotting by space (juxtaposing its different strands). In both cases, the playwright's decision expresses the meaning. So, although almost all plays start some way into the story, the import of that decision goes way beyond mere storytelling convenience.

One of the best examples is Sophocles' Oedipus, in which the protagonist discovers that his parents abandoned him as a baby in order to evade a terrible prediction that he would eventually kill his father and marry his mother. Having accidentally fulfilled that prediction, the action of the play as written is: "To save his city, the king seeks the identity of the author of a crime, but he discovers in the end that it is himself."

But had Sophocles plotted the story chronologically, the action would be different. The protagonists would be the parents, and the action would be something like: "Threatened with the prediction that their son will commit two terrible crimes, a king and queen decide to take extreme measures; but the fates are too strong for them, and the prediction is fulfilled despite their efforts." Laius and Jocasta's story is about how you can't avoid fate, however much you try. Whereas by starting with Oedipus, Sophocles' play becomes about human volition; the message changes from "you can't win" to "leave well alone".

Oedipus demonstrates, in one of its purest forms, the effect of starting late. This strategy works - it only works, in fact - when it involves "the past coming to life in the present and creating drama" (as Arthur Miller's playwriting tutor Kenneth Rowe taught him). The backstory is not something we need to know before the present-tense story can begin; its revelation is the drama because it brings about what happens in front of us. So while the plot of many Ibsen plays covers no more than a couple of days, the story starts years before. Almost every mature Ibsen plot hinges on a revelation from the past.

By contrast, the plays of Shakespeare rarely involve such revelations, and have little backstory. For Brecht this form of playwriting was both a method and a theory. Brecht wrote in the present tense because he wanted us to ask, moment by moment, whether his characters could have behaved differently. It's more than an enjoyable parlour game to imagine how Brecht would write an Ibsen play or vice versa.

The plot of Ibsen's Ghosts, like Brecht's The Life of Galileo, turns on the denial of a truth. Ten years after the death of his father, Oswald has come home from Paris to Norway to see his mother, Mrs Alving, who is setting up an orphanage with the puritanical Pastor Manders in memory of her husband. We learn that, far from being the upstanding paragon Oswald believes him to be, Captain Alving was a promiscuous drunkard (he fathered the household's current maid) and Mrs Alving once wanted to leave him for the pastor, but was refused.

Now Mrs Alving has to decide whether to tell Oswald the truth about his father. Before this can happen, Oswald tells his mother that he's contracted syphilis, of which he is mortally ashamed, not least for having let down his father's memory. After news arrives that the orphanage is on fire, Mrs Alving tells Oswald the truth: he contracted syphilis from his father; she will look after him as he dies.

In a Brecht version of Ghosts, the two big decisions would be but the last of a whole series. We would start - at the very latest - with Mrs Alving's proposal to Pastor Manders and his refusal. We would probably travel with Oswald to Paris, and certainly we would see Mrs Alving deciding to continue to lavish praise on her reprobate husband in her letters. Maybe we'd witness Oswald's minor debauchery and the embarrassing interview with the doctor somewhere discreet on the Left Bank. The play as we have it would be the last couple of scenes. Oswald and Mrs Alving's decisions to come clean would be balanced by our knowledge of her and Pastor Manders' previous decisions to lie.

Similarly, Ibsen's Galileo would be entirely set in the second-to-last scene of Brecht's play, during which a former student visits the elderly Galileo and confronts him with his decision to recant his beliefs before the Inquisition. Rather than questioning Galileo's decision to betray the truth, the play would be about his coming to terms with it.

The power of plotting to convey meaning is even clearer in plays which disrupt time, in which the meaning is provided by the ordering, not just of past revelations, but of present-tense action. JB Priestley's family saga Time and the Conways (currently at the National Theatre) is shown to be about dashed hopes by Priestley's decision to place the ambitions of the Conway family in 1919 either side of a scene, set 18 years later, in which their dreams are shown to have fallen apart. In Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling (just closed at the Almeida), the lives of four generations of a single family are interwoven concurrently not just to show the influence of the past on the present but to demonstrate the circularity of their experience.

The action of Churchill's Top Girls is "a woman achieves success in business, but at the price of an aspect of her womanhood". The reversal of the central character's project is dramatised by the last scene of the play, in which we discover that the woman has given up her child to be brought up by her sister. But in fact the last scene of the play is the first thing that happens chronologically: it explains much, but in retrospect. Had it been the first scene of the play I think the action would have been reversed, becoming "despite having to make a hard choice, a woman nonetheless succeeds in a man's world". Changing the order of events changes what they mean.

If time plotting reveals meaning by putting events in a particular order, then space plotting works by juxtaposition. The most obvious example in Shakespeare is the use of the subplot. The fact that Hamlet is about the means by which a man avenges the death of his father (and not about, say, a man in love with his mother) is demonstrated not by a careful reading of other Elizabethan verse dramas, nor by an understanding of how Shakespeare has been read in particular periods since. It's shown by there being three men who set out to avenge their fathers' deaths (Hamlet himself, Laertes and the King of Norway's son Fortinbras), and, hence, by almost all the stage action consisting of one or other of them pursuing that objective, in contrasting ways.

Similarly, the idea that King Lear is about a man misjudging what his children tell him is demonstrated by the fact that the same thing happens both in the main and in the subplot: Gloucester believes that his illegitimate son Edmund is telling the truth, and that his younger son Edgar is lying. That we are being invited to compare the two men's understanding as well as their misunderstanding is shown in Act IV, in which Gloucester serves as the mad Lear's wits, and Lear as the blind Gloucester's eyes. At the beginning of the play, two decent if flawed old men get it wrong, and three corrupt young people get it right. At the end of the play the situation is reversed.

Shakespeare mirrors his plots and subplots again and again. In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero and Claudio are broken apart by malicious lies while Beatrice and Benedick are brought together by benign deceit. The two plots of The Merchant of Venice both involve good people swearing oaths to uphold bad laws. Similarly, in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, we find the action of the play when we ask what its two male protagonists have in common: we find that both Jack and Algernon create a world of fantasy in order to evade the social limitations of their daily lives, but both find that their imaginary worlds can be made real through love. Literally dozens of contemporary British plays, from Rebecca Prichard's 1994 Essex Girls to Simon Stephens's 2008 Pornography, present audiences with seemingly unconnected stories and/or characters, inviting us to find their meaning in what links them up (or, in some cases, doesn't).

Finally, returning to Antigone, we find that here, too, the mirroring of two plots unlocks the action of the play. For reasons of state, King Creon has ordered the body of Antigone's defeated brother to be left to rot outside the city gates. His determination to condemn Antigone to death for trying to give her brother a proper burial leads to the suicide of his own son. The action of the play is: "A king condemns his predecessor's rebellious daughter to death in order to preserve civil concord; but, in doing so, he brings about the death of his own son."

How does character fit into this? I believe Aristotle is right in his claim that plot is "the first essential of tragedy", and character takes the second place. There is, of course, a contrary view, starting from the premise that the mainspring of drama is not plot but character. Indeed, you could see both the progress of drama historically, and the division between serious and popular drama today, as defining that distinction.

So Shakespeare bases many of his characters on a conflation of medieval vices and the stock figures of Roman comedy - such as the deceived old man - which speedily break free from their archetypal origins. The characters in Italian Commedia del Arte called their archetypal roles "masks"; by the late 19th century, Ibsen is describing his characters not as actors in a drama but as persons of his acquaintance. The British realist John Galsworthy insisted that "The dramatist who hangs his characters to his plot, instead of hanging his plot to his characters, is guilty of cardinal sin". Harold Pinter explained how he had originally conceived of his play The Caretaker ending with the violent death of one of the three characters at the hands of another. But, when he got to the point, the characters that he had created just wouldn't act that way.

In fact, the unique character doesn't stand in contradiction to the dramatic action, but provides its essential component. Indeed, the dramatic action relies for its power on the tension between the requirements of the plot and the nature of the character.

In Don Quixote, Cervantes complains of plays that defy verisimilitude by showing "an old man who's courageous and a young one who's a coward, a lackey who's a great orator, a page who's a counsellor, a king who's a porter and a princess who's a cleaning woman". In great drama, however, a perfect fit is the last thing you want. Clive James identifies what he calls the "jobswap" principle of great comedy: the simple technique of inserting a character into a profession for which they are temperamentally unsuited. In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry is not a good judge; in The Office, David Brent is a terrible manager. Basil Fawlty might do many things well, but he shouldn't be running a hotel.

This principle applies far beyond comedy. Othello and Coriolanus are great soldiers, but Othello is a bad husband and Coriolanus an incompetent ruler of men. Hamlet is suited to neither his role as avenger nor his office as prince, though he would spot Iago's duplicity at the start. In Bernard Shaw's play about a brothel madam, Mrs Warren's Profession, Shaw wants us to believe that Mrs Warren's daughter Vivie, who has defied her womanly office by getting a job, and her rank by refusing to marry, will at least fulfil her daughterly role and forgive her mother at the end. In fact, she abandons her. By defying our expectations of her office, rank and role, Vivie Warren asserts herself as a character.

This doesn't have to happen in plays: you could define melodrama as a genre in which role, office and character completely accord: the hero behaves entirely heroically, the prince royally, the servant loyally and the villain dreadfully. But in great drama, the most memorable and indeed the most meaningful moment is when the character departs from and even challenges his or her role; when the old man is brave, the lackey eloquent, the page gives sage advice, and the cleaner behaves like a princess (or, indeed, the other way round). It is the character - unpredictable, irrepressible - who declares unilateral independence from the tyranny of the preordained.

So although character is revealed to us through the rules of drama, it is in many ways its wild card, the element that breaks through the limitations of the play's predictable project, providing the surprising reversal which makes each individual play unique. And it's the moment of the character's rebellion, the moment of the "but", which transforms the stereotype into a character, undermines or reverses the play's project, and reveals what's really going on.


David Edgar

The GuardianTramp

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