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Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
What Makes A Good Play or A Play Good?

Aristotle's The Poetics probably can be thought of as notes for a descriptive lecture about the writing of tragedy.  These notes include a range of ideas that we think of as common, basic facets of a play. We can separate action or plot from character, probably because of Aristotle.  The notion of what makes a good hero – someone neither too good nor too bad – comes from Aristotle.  And, of course, that old bugbear of many a high school kid – the "tragic flaw" – comes from Aristotle.

One of the things that didn't get emphasized too much when I took theatre history (and maybe didn't get much discussion when you took the class too) is that the great glories of the Greek tragic theatre had long since passed away before Aristotle was even born.  Aristotle comes along after Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were dust in the grave.  Aristotle seems to like Sophocles a great deal.  And, in a neat quirk of fate, one of Aristotle's favorite plays – the Oedipus by Sophocles – survived the years at the same time that The Poetics survived the years. In an elegant package students can study Aristotle and one his exemplar plays at the same time.

One of the places we moderns give Aristotle hell is that he seems to concentrate on the writing of the play rather than on the performance of the tragedy. He mentions music and spectacle, but he doesn't seem to think the spectacle of the show is worth much comment. Perhaps he figured his students had all seen a play and knew what the state of the art of spectacle might be.

But I think it goes back to a greater emphasis on the writing back in the day of Aeschylus and Sophocles.  We know that Sophocles was a beautiful man who could sing and dance with great artistry.  But the competition of the Great (or City) Dionysia is a competition of writers.

At an appropriate time each year, an announcement was made of the writers whose work would be featured in the coming festival.  Each would have a choragus, and away the troupe would go in working on each writer's plays.  At the end of the festival a prize was awarded.  The prize went to the writer.

Jump ahead to the Italian Renaissance.   

Some of the nouveau riche of Florence wanted to have a means by showing off their worldly wealth in a way that wouldn't offend contemporary sensibilities.  To bolster their ideas, they had to tie them in a meaningful way to the ideas of an equivalent ancient thinker.

Aristotle's Poetics provided a useful anchor for a number of Renaissance men of letters interested in theatre.  Out of their reading of Aristotle (and Horace), men like Scaliger and Castelvetro derived the base for the unities.  The unities of time, place, and action provided both a prescription for writing good plays and for assessment of plays to see if they were good.

This kind of thinking led ultimately to the Cid controversy in France in the early 1600s.  Pierre Cornielle wrote a version of a story about the Spanish hero El Cid.  Even though Cornielle gave a glancing consideration of the "unities," Le Cid didn't conform to the French Academy's notions about what makes a good play.  It was a bad play to them, and they said so.

This prescriptive neo-Classicism led multiple great thinkers to pooh-pooh Shakespeare as a savage, since his works didn't conform to the blessed "unities."

The question of what makes for a good play has been much on my mind this winter and spring.  With my company of novice actors, the question of material is ever-present.   

For my purposes an ideal play contains high quality writing, challenges the actors, and provides an opportunity for humor and some thoughtfulness.

Some twenty or so years ago I had the opportunity to be an actor for the reading of the first act of a new play by a talented graduate student named David Blakely.  The act centered on the lives of six friends – three young men and three young women – in a small, fictional Texas town at the dawn of the 20th century. The central event in the lives of these kids was the impending high school graduation of the three boys, the awarding of the town's one college scholarship, and the effects of these events on the lives of the six.

As anyone who has ever dealt with anything artistic knows, some projects come to fruition swiftly.  Others stay with us for years and decades before coming to some conclusion.

As the years passed I tried to keep current with the ongoing progress of that play I'd had a part in when I was a novice myself.  The play had some public readings and won awards.

In looking at my current company of actors, it appeared that I might have the available raw material to stage The Tales of Shoogilly as the play is now named.  I asked my colleague in design if the show was possible and what she thought of the play.  She liked the play and also thought it was possible.  So away we went.

Tales of Shoogilly is a three act play that centers on a group of friends.  The first act takes place not long after the Wright Brothers first escaped the Earth in their flying machine.  The second act takes place about a dozen years later, and the third act takes place just before astronauts break away from Earth entirely to step on our own Moon.

The friends are a group of three men and three women in a fictional small town in Texas.  A hill outside of town is haunted by unexplained and inexplicable mountain lights. The first act focuses on the events just before the three boys graduate from high school.   One boy is the town favorite and commits suicide.  One boy is an orphan being raised by his uncle and aunt who run the town's general store.  He is kept at home to run the store.  The boy with the least prospects for a great future, a boy who wants to explain and understand the mountain lights is the one who gets the town's one college scholarship and a train ticket that enables him to leave.

Over the remaining acts we see the lives of these people unfold.

The play provides multiple challenges.  Each of these six main characters is played by multiple actors. And some actors also play multiple characters.  So an actor plays the Pastor in Act I becomes the adult Bill (the boy who wants to understand the mountain lights) returning to town some dozen years later in Act II. The play climaxes in Act III when the three actors who have played Bill confront each other as different characters at a town dance not long after the youngest of the three actors was shown caught up in the mountain lights.   

The play confronts questions of faith and belief and includes (among other features) a midway "digger" or crane and a pendulum made of a bowling ball on a rope.  It also includes tender love scenes, the spectacle of a girl grabbing a boy's crotch and saying, "Name it or lose it," and a banjo player.

All of this may sound confusing.  But in fact, it makes a great deal of sense of the stage.

And this is what I found watching the play.  My actors were the first actors in the world to ever fully mount this play.   

And in watching this play I learned the lesson that probably needs to be learned more than once.  We get ideas about what makes a play good.  I know from some colleagues who came to watch the play that it can be easy to categorize quickly a work and be done with it.  Thus, "Oh, well, this play is like play 'x.'  So it's that kind of play."  And I like it, or I don't -- based on that generalization.

Sitting watching the play, I found again the basis of what makes a play good.  Does the play provide an opportunity for a group of actors to show us something about humans?  A play can have all kinds of excitement or all kinds of talk.  But in the end, does the play provide the raw material to allow actors to show an audience something profoundly human?  If so, the play is good.  And it's a good play.

I was lucky enough to do Tales of Shoogilly by David Blakely the first time.

The play is good.  And, it's a good play.


©2009 Nathan Thomas
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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