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Well-made play

The well-made play (from the French: pièce bien faite) is a genre of theatre from the nineteenth century, which Eugène Scribe first codified and is thought to have created and which Victorien Sardou developed. By the mid-nineteenth century, it had entered into common use as a derogatory term. This did not prevent Henrik Ibsen and the other realistic dramatists of the later nineteenth century (August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Émile Zola, Anton Chekhov) employing its technique of careful construction and preparation of effects. "Through their example", Marvin Carlson explains, "the well-made play became and still remains the traditional model of play construction."

In the English language, that tradition found its early twentieth-century codification in Britain in the form of William Archer's Play-Making: A Manual of Craftmanship (1912), and in the United States with George Pierce Baker's Dramatic Technique (1919).

Form

The form has a strong neoclassical flavour, involving a very tight plot and a climax that takes place very close to the end of the story, with most of the story taking place before the action of the play; much of the information regarding such previous action would be revealed through thinly veiled exposition. Following that would be a series of causally-related plot complications.

A recurrent device that the well-made play employs is the use of letters or papers falling into unintended hands, in order to bring about plot twists and climaxes. Following the recommendations found in Aristotle's Poetics, the letters must bring about an unexpected reversal of fortune, in which it is often revealed that someone is not who he/she pretends to be. The reversal will allow for a quick dénouement, and a return to order, at which point the curtain falls.

The majority of well-made plays are comedies, often farce. In his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Bernard Shaw proposed that Ibsen converted this formula for use in "serious" plays by substituting discussion for the plausible dénouement or conclusion. Thus, plays become open ended, as if there were life beyond the last act curtain.

Examples

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest exaggerates many of the conventions of the well-made play, such as the missing papers conceit (the hero, as an infant, was confused with the manuscript of a novel) and a final revelation (which, in this play, occurs about thirty seconds before the final curtain).

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House follows most of the conceits of the well-made play, but transcends the genre when, after incriminating papers are recovered, Nora (rather shockingly) rejects the expected return to normality. Several of Ibsen's subsequent plays seem to build on the general construction principles of the Well-Made Play. The Wild Duck (1884) can be seen as a deliberate, meta-theatrical deconstruction of the Scribean formula. Ibsen sought a compromise between Naturalism and the Well-Made Play which was fraught with difficulties since life does not fall easily into the syllogistic of either form.

Although George Bernard Shaw scorned the "well-made play", he accepted them and even thrived by them for by necessity they concentrated his skills on the conversation between characters, his greatest asset as a dramatist. Other classic twists on the well-made play can be seen in his use of the General's coat and the hidden photograph in "Arms and the Man".

Also, J. B. Priestley's 1946 'An Inspector Calls' may in some ways be considered a "well-made play" in that its action happens before the play starts, and in the case of the older Birlings no moral change takes place. The similarity between Priestley's play and this rather conservative genre might strike some readers/audiences as surprising because Priestley was a socialist. However, his play, like Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' transcends this genre by providing another plunge into chaos after the return to normality. He replaced the dramatic full stop with a question mark by revealing in the last scene that the 'inspector' who has exposed the complicity of a prosperous industrial family in the murder/suicide of a working-class girl, is not an inspector at all (perhaps a practical joker, an emanation of the world to come, or a manifestation of the world to come), and the curtain falls on the news that a real girl has died and a real inspector is on the way.

Works cited

  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521434378.
  • Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801481546.
  • Elsom, John. 1976. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0710001681.
  • Innes, Christopher, ed. 2000. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415152291.

Notes

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