One-Act Modern Plays in English Literature

Brief Historical Survey
The One-Act Play, very popular in the 20th century, is regarded by many as a modern product. But this is far from the truth. One-Act Plays were written and staged throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, as “The Curtain Raisers” or “The After Pieces”.

They were chiefly farcial and served to amuse the audience before the commencement of the actual drama or were staged for their amusement, just after it had come to an end. The famous One-Act Play “Monkey’s Paw” was first staged as a “Curtain Raiser” and it proved to be more entertaining than the main drama. It may be said to mark the beginning of the modern One-Act Play.

It was great Norwegian dramatist Ibsen that gave to the One-Act Play its modern touch. It was he, who, for the first time, introduced the minute stage-directions into the One-Act Play. Before him one act plays were written in poetry, but he made prose the medium of his one act plays. In short he made the drama, simple and real, and brought it nearer to everyday life. He made the modern One-Act Play what it is and his example has been widely followed.
George Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy are two of his greatest followers. Bernard Shaw, a writer of international fame and the chief English dramatist of modern times, very closely follows the technique of Ibsen. His plays have long stage directions and are marked by a truly Ibsenian realism. The plays of Galsworthy, another dramatist of international fame, are also realistic and his characters are all of flesh and blood. His dramas have one idea and, consequently, one action which is sought to be illustrated through the interplay of circumstances on character or vice versa.
Owing to the influence of Ibsen the modern drama has come to have the following characteristics:
(a)      It depicts characters which are real and related to everyday life.
(b)      It treats of the problems of everyday life as marriage, punishment for crimes, labour conditions, divorce etc.
(c)       It introduces elaborate stage directions to minimise the time taken by the action itself.
(d)      It aims at simplicity of plot; concentration of action and unity of impression.
(e)      It does not reply on spectacular effects and common dramatic tricks of old.
(f)        It makes the dialogue more interesting than ever before.
(g)      Its language is simple and can be followed without any strain.
All these tendencies of the modern drama are suitably expressed through the One-Act play of to-day. In a way the modern One –Act play owes its growth to Ibsen. It is his technique which has made the One-Act play what it is, an important branch of literature and the most popular form of dramatic representation.
The One-Act Play also received impetus from the “Repertory Theatre Movement”. A Repertory Theatre is a theatre with a permanent company of actors who have a repertoire of plays to be performed by them. They do not give a large number of performances of any play but change their “bill” as often as two or three times a week. They do not function with a view to profit but to help the author and to recreate the artistic values. They therefore discard the “long run” system which may have financial advantages but is bad for both the actor and the dramatist. As the plays are chosen for their artistic value, the amateurs have a good chance as they do not care so much for financial advantages. As for art the amateurs were enthusiastic about the One-Act Play gained ground in spite of the opposition of the managers of Commercial Theatres.
The amateurs have done a great deal to popularise this dramatic form. It is short, requires no elaborate setting and costumes, and so comes in handy to be staged in amateur dramatic societies and clubs. It is the best training ground for the new aspirants to dramatic fame.
Chief Characteristics
The One Act play is often thought to be a short form of the long play. But the question is not one of length. A One-Act Play is a separate literary form by itself. It is not a condensed three or five Act Play, nor can it be elaborated into a three Act play. The very nature and structure of the two are entirely different. A One-Act Play deals with a single dominant situation, and aims at producing a single effect, though the methods used may vary greatly from tragedy to face, according to the nature of the effect desired. As the play is short and the action takes place within a short period of time, greatest economy and concentration is required. Everything superfluous is to be strictly avoided. The play must be close knit and the greatest attention must be paid to its structure. This makes the One-Act Play a difficult form of art and much training and practice is required to master it. It is a highly artistic form and has immense possibilities for development.
Though short in form the One-Act Play can have as its theme a large number of varied subjects. In fact every subject between heaven and earth is fit for the One-Act Play. It, of course, deals with only one action to produce the maximum of effect. Some tense situation or some particular phase in the life of an individual is chosen and is depicted in an effective manner. All attention is concentrated on that particular moment and the story of the play hangs on it.
Various problems connected with the life of the individual are discussed. Thus various sort of things – love, marriage, divorce, justice, crime, punishment, law, superstitions, customs and manners – are all suitable themes for a One-Act Play. According to its theme the One-Act Play can be divided into different types as – realistic plays, problem plays, phantasies, costume plays, satire, romance, etc. In short, the playwright has a large and varied choice of subjects which can be discussed equally well in the One-Act Play.
The One-Act Play, like the longer drama, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It may be divided into four stages: The Exposition. The Conflict, The Climax and The Denouement. All these stages may be distinctly marked as in the larger play, but more often than not they tend to over-lap in a One-Act Play.
The Exposition serves as an introduction to the play. The situation and the themes of the play are explained to the audience and the important characters are also introduced. The part of the story that has already happened and which it is necessary to know for an understanding of the play, is also told to the audience. But as the One-Act Play is very short, the dramatist cannot devote much time to this introduction-and explanation. Hence the exposition of a One-Act Play is usually brief.
The exposition is followed by the conflict. It is through the conflict that the action of the drama develops. The conflict means a struggle between two opposing forces. The conflict may take different forms. There may be a struggle between two opposite interests, ideas, persons, group of persons, or the hero and his fate or circumstances. There may also be an inner conflict between two opposite ideas or urges in the mind of the hero, who may not be able to decide what to do and so may suffer great agony of spirit as a consequence. The conflict is the very back-bone of the One-Act Play. Complications after complications arise and the readers are in constant suspense about the outcome of the conflict.
After the conflict comes the climax. It is the turning point of the drama. One of the two contending forces now gains supremacy over the others. It is now clear which of the two would win in the end. The climax is an important part of the One-Act Play and constitutes its moment of supreme interest.
The Denouement is the next and the final stage of the One-Act Play. The play now reaches its end. One of the two contending forces now definitely gets victory over the other and the action of the drama concludes. As the space at the disposal of the writer of One-Act Plays is limited, the denouement is very brief and often overlaps with climax. The plays come to an end just after the climax.
There are three dramatic unities which are observed in the One-Act Play as far as possible. The unities are – the unity of time, unity of place and the unity of action. If the drama is to be probable and natural, these three unities are to be observed by the dramatist. Of course, sometimes it is difficult to observe these unities, but effort is to be made to observe them as far as possible.
The characters in a One-Act Play are limited in number. The space at the disposal of the playwright is limited and if he introduces too many characters, it would result in overcrowding and lessen the effect of the drama. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule as to the number of characters in a play. But generally there are not more than two or three principal characters.
Not only are the characters limited in number, there is also no full development of character. The dramastist has no time to present the characters through the different stages of their development. All the different aspects of a character are not presented. The attention is focused on only one or two salient aspects of character and they are brought out by placing the characters in different situations and circumstances.
Besides this, the characters in the modern One-Act Play are ordinary men and women. They are neither saints nor devlis. They have all the faults and weaknesses, as well as all the virtues that ordinary human beings have. If they are otherwise, it would make the play unnatural, unrealistic and unconvincing.
Dialogue is of the greatest importance in the One-Act Play. As the drama is short, all superfluity is to be avoided. Absolute economy of means should be used. Every word is to be carefully choosen and sentences must be compact and condensed. Effort should be made to say, whatever is to be said, in the least possible words. Thus the language of the dialogue should be simple, brief and easy to understand. Long speeches and arguments and long sentences would be out of place and would lessen the charm and interest of the play.
Detailed stage-directions are invariably introduced by the dramatist in the One-Act Play. The space at the disposal of the playwright is limited and so he cannot supply us detailed information through a lengthy exposition or during the action of the play itself. This purpose is served by the stage directions. Moreover these stage directions, describing the minute details of the scene, give an air of realism to the drama.
Besides, the play is not meant only for acting but for reading as well. The reader can know of the entire scene through the stage direction and can, to a great extent, appreciate the real spirit of the drama. These stage directions make the play perfectly clear to the reader. They impart realism and verisimilitude to the One-Act Play.
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