As professor Adamson mentioned in the class, a drama contains all five elements: characters, action, spectacle, thought, and audience. In a play, characters are performed by actors who are responsible for establishing something intangible to a more solid form of expression from cold scripts. For most plays, there is one or some main characters who are called protagonists. Action, or plot, includes exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, all of which serve to move the plot forward, thereby creating a certain movement pattern. The exposition reveals the primary characters and plot elements, such as setting.
Spectacle mainly represents visual elements such as the scenes, costumes, as well as the facial makeup of actors. It is crucial for producing a dramatic background or atmosphere, thereby attracting audiences to focus on the show. Thought, as known as an idea, it is what the playwright wants to tell the audience and expressed through the drama’s theme.
The audience is also as influential as other elements, and the presence of the audience could inspire actors or even promote the change of performance. The past live performances are quite different from today’s films and televisions because modern actors always act without live audiences in film productions. In general, all well-made plays, regardless of long or short, should include careful exposition, the building of suspense, surprises, use of withheld information, and a resolved ending. Given that purpose, however, why some plays still differ to a great extent in length?
Character’s development is considered as a determining factor for a playwright deciding his or her play’s length. William Shakespeare uses many dialogues to focus on the description of Viola, a gender-bending heroine in Twelfth Night. To adequately portray her native intelligence, engaging wit, and an immense amount of charm, it is necessary for Shakespeare describing Viola’s detailed interactions with others. With longer paragraphs, thus, her wisdom, as well as enchantment, can be delivered thoroughly to the audience by actor’s right intonations, pauses, and body language.
In Tartuffe, however, the protagonist does not show up in the first two acts, which seemly makes those beginning acts too lengthy. In fact, Molière intentionally delays the entrance of Tartuffe until act 3 to develop Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. In that way, Molière not only heightens the audience’s anticipation of Tartuffe, which makes his final entrance theatrically exciting, but also exhibits an instance of how Tartuffe’s deceptions work—He consolidates his control by employing the pervasion of rumor, argument, and dread by others rather than through direct interactions with others.
Therefore, his eventual arriving causes the drama becomes even more pronounced, although Molière does not present Tartuffe in the first two acts. Take another example, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King does not merely depict a person who finds himself has no control to direct his own life. Instead, the play offers an example of how individual human beings can find ways to assert their independence within limits determined by their destiny. Fate certainly shapes characters’ lives in the play, but it does not define them ultimately. To that purpose, Sophocles presents Oedipus in the flesh by writing many shadowing or discoveries, thereby putting a vivid figure into the audience’s minds. Those characters in Everyman, on the other hand, are allegories of an individual’s molarity. They are more like personal traits rather than live people. Therefore, those characters do not need to be in-depth comparing with other plays, which makes Everyman’s plot more straightforward and concise.
The action is considered as one of the most crucial factors in determining the length of the play. A play with more plots, of course, may have a longer body. To help the decisive moment or turning point to leave the audience as much as possible astonishing, playwrights may use several skills such as discovery, foreshadow, or reversal. Among those, reversal refers to struggles that the audience usually unexpected during the paly. Furthermore, discovery usually implies a rising action, which is a series of events that can create tension savor for the audience.
Take Twelfth Night as an example: before the climax of Viola finally reunions with her brother, there are many rising actions, which may pave the way for the result, thereby yielding a better catharsis effect on the audience. And Twelfth Night tends to have a relatively complex plot because it has more characters, thus leading more conflicts between them. For instance, not only Twelfth Night depicts the tortuous loving experiences of two couples (Viola and Orsino, Oliva and Sebastian), but it also describes how Feste, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew trick Malvolio because of his bossy demands.
To stress the complication of the story, Shakespeare utilizes man reversals to grab the audience’s attention. A writer may also use character dialogues to hint about future events or actions. The conversation between Oedipus and Teiresias in Oedipus the King is an example of foreshadowing, which creates an ambiance of suspense in a story, thereby stimulating the audience’s interests.
From spectacle’s angle, some plays must be made shorter due to some physical limitations. As a reminder, a good spectacle should enhance the audience’s sense of immersion into the story. To reach that goal, the costumes in Everyman, consequently, are different props or masks for each character, which are deliberately chosen to match their characteristics. According to a live performance of Everman in the PCC Performing Arts Center, to better indicate each individual’s representative for the audience, the actors need to wear big masks or hold big signs, which are tremendous burdens on them. Hence, from spectacle’s view, the need for that kind of makeup does not allow the play to be very long.
Thought or idea also plays a vital role in deciding the length of the play. Through longer paragraphs, playwrights’ thoughts can, therefore, be expressed thoroughly. The purpose of Anton Chekhov, the playwright of Cherry Orchard, is to use that play as an indication of the revolutionary change in Russia. To reach that purpose, Chekhov utilizes the subtext, a technique to express unspoken themes as well as ideas, which, in turn, can invite the audience to seek the implicit meaning about the paly. For instance, the annihilation of the cherry orchard, which represents the falling of prior noble class, alludes that a new world order has been reconstructed.
At the same time, Chekhov not only tries to sorrow for the passing of a generation but also conveys hope towards a more equitable future. Cherry Orchard’s theme is worth pondering, and the widely use metaphor requires long enough foreshadowing, so Chekhov makes the story longer, thereby producing more echoes for the audience. Likewise, Molière wishes to use Tartuffe as a sarcastic comedy to expose social vices which were brought by catholic feudal thoughts in 17th century France.
Act 1, scene 1 in Tartuffe is about Madame Pernelle commenting a few accusatory words of advice to each of her family members but allowing no reply. This plot not only serves as an exposition about the play but also is a microcosm of what Molière sought to have in his play to reflect the real life’s buffoonery: when Madame Pernelle disagrees with other family members, she treats them as who are loath to hear truth, but the audience can quickly recognize that Madame Pernelle herself is who refuses to hear truth. By describing detailed quarrels between Madame Pernelle and others, Molière can, therefore, hold up a mirror offering the whole society to see itself and learn something from it.
When playwright writes a play, he or she should also consider the audience as a critical issue. For example, even though Everyman’s author is anonymous, numerous researches have shown that it is written under the direction of the church. In that case, the church wants to tell the audience that death is inevitable so that they should do more deeds when they are alive. Everyman, henceforth, functions as a tool that could reinforce the importance of God and religions in people’s daily lives. To that purpose, the theme should be concise and straightforward so that it did not need to tell a long story as others did. Thus, the catholic church can attract more people by performing that play. For another reason, since few of Everyman’s target audience were literate, Everyman should be somewhat shorter for grabbing the audience’s attention, as well as teaching them a proper religious life more quickly.
Apart from the above elements of drama, some other reasons may also be reasonable to account for why some plays are shorter than others. Trifles’s writer Susan Keating Glaspell was a feminist who stood for woman’s rights to get educated, and she wrote Trifles to illustrate how a woman felt hopeless in living in a life that was dominated only by men. Unfortunately, however, her work had not been appreciated at that time, and her contribution started to be considered seriously much later, which meant that she lacked the financial or spiritual support at that time to help her have the capability to write a more extended play.
From the author’s own writing habits, Glaspell was one of the best short story writers, which might explain why Trifles was a short play. On the contrary, ancient aristocrats sponsored some playwrights such as Shakespeare and Molière, whose companies both depended on noble patronage. For example, Molière gained the patronage of several aristocrats, including a king. After he made his reputation in Paris, King Louis even became his official sponsor and protected him from the church’s attacks, which meant not only he could write much longer plays due to financial support, but he also could point out religious hypocrisy boldly.
There is a Chinese legend of a tragic love story of a pair of lovers called Butterfly Lovers, whose plot is about a romantic, loving story. Like another love drama Romeo and Juliet, it is a very long play: Although women are traditionally discouraged from taking up scholarly pursuits, a girl named Yingtai Zhu still attend classes in disguise as a man. During her journey to the school, she meets a scholar named Shanbo Liang and finally falls in love with Liang. However, Liang is a bookworm and fails to notice the feminine characteristics exhibited by Zhu.
One day, Zhu reveals her true identity to the headmaster’s wife and asks her to pass a jade pendant to Liang as a betrothal gift, and when Liang eventually discovers that Zhu is a woman, they vow to each other. Nevertheless, joy is temporary because Zhu’s parents have already arranged for her to marry a wealthy merchant. Liang is despair when he hears that, and his health deteriorates day by day until he dies. On the day of Zhu’s marriage, Zhu descends in bitter despair and begs for Liang’s grave to open. Suddenly, the grave opens, and Zhu throws herself into the grave to join Liang without further hesitation. At last, their spirits emerge in the form of a pair of butterflies and fly away together.
Similarly, Chinese drama’s plot is also a causal sequence of events, asking how story proceeds. The plot draws the reader to the real life of the characters and allows the reader better to understand the choices that the characters make. That’s why Butterfly Lovers’s writer creates a tortuous structure depending on the needs of the story to arrange story elements. Butterfly Lovers, like Twelfth Night, has a plot about a girl disguising into a man to approach her lover and a tortuous loving story between two young people. To create representative characters that own distinctive characteristics, the writer hence makes the plot long enough to bring catharsis for the audience, and many reversals can hold the audience to their seats, thereby keeping rising tensions.
From drama’s theme’s angle, the author wants to show how the feudal system ruins free love, thus appealing people to resist the overcontrol of their parents, and everybody should have the right to pursuit for free love. Moreover, the financial limitation is not a big issue because drama as one of the most important entertainments had always been received attention, which supports playwrights to write longer plays. As for the audience’s view, women at that time were the primary audience as men needed to work. Hence, women have more time to have entertainment, thereby being more willing to see a more extended play.