The well-made play and the play made well, by Maddy Costa

“Not long ago I was talking with a group of young British dramatists about the theatre and play-writing in general. The term ‘well-made play’ came up, as it will, in a derogatory sense, and suddenly one of them said, ‘Come to think of it, why shouldn’t a play be well-made? What’s wrong with that?’ What indeed. And yet the phrase, which seems obviously designed as a compliment, is almost invariably used in modern criticism as an insult.”


So wrote John Russell Taylor in the introduction to his book The Rise & Fall of the Well-Made Play, neatly encapsulating a 21st-century concern, despite looking no further ahead than 1967, the year his book was published. Such a lot has changed in the intervening five decades, not only in terms of how theatre is created, but in the kinds of participatory relationships it seeks to have with its audience. And yet plays continue to be written – or wrought – by individual playwrights, and as long as they do this phrase “well-made” lingers in the background. It’s a provocation in the sense of taunt, in that even Michael Billington, the critic mostly likely to use the words “well-made play” with admiration, accepts that there is something “dirty” about the phrase, suggestive of a “dated, 19th-century formula”. But it’s also a provocation in the sense of stimulus or inspiration: because after all, what is anyone going to the theatre for except to see a play – or, to cast the net wider, a performance or production – that is at the very minimum made well?


Perhaps, before that question can be answered, I ought to do as Taylor did, and find out what the well-made play is. But rather than re-rehearse the arguments set out in his book, which examines in detail the work of British playwrights from the 1870s to the 1950s, I spoke to 12 people working in theatre today, as playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, critics and producers, and put the question to them. Fascinatingly, the answers reveal that while the phrase connotes one thing, culturally and critically, for many theatre-makers it potentially means something quite different.


First, the connotations. Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, declares the well-made play a relic of the past: “a very particular form of storytelling that no new play subscribes to now at all”. In describing that form, she thinks of Ibsen and Chekhov, “protracted narrative development” and “a maid coming on for two scenes”. What we have now is “the grandchild of the well-made play: conventional narrative drama where we tell a story from A to B, where we meet the characters and follow their story, which we have empathy for”.


Dawn Walton, founder and artistic director of the theatre company Eclipse, skips the bit about family relations but also describes the well-made play in terms of “a specific structure, usually three acts, with a particular arc: there is a problem, this thing affects everything, it plateaus up, and there’s a fall-off, a coda, at the end”. This is exactly the structure that playwright Ella Hickson teaches aspiring playwrights: “You have your rising action, you have a moment of change, and then you have your falling action where you demonstrate how that change is lived out in the world”. Director Kirsty Housley adds flesh to the idea: the well-made play also has “a fourth wall, lots of people in costumes pretending to be someone they’re not, and no acknowledgement of reality”, descriptions that might seem quite innocuous without Housley’s dismissive tone of voice to slant them towards disparagement.


This is the interesting thing about what the words “well-made play” connote: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with drama that adheres to certain structural guidelines, the issue is where it impacts with taste. Or is it really that innocent? For Housley the problem of the well-made play lies in the notion of “neutrality” inherent in what it presents as “naturalism and realism” – which isn’t in fact, natural or realistic at all, because “if you wrote a play the way people talk it would be really dull”. She sees “an idea of purity in the well-made play which is dangerous: there’s a right way of doing things and if you do it differently you’re either wild or wrong”.


As assistant artistic director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Erica Whyman rarely works with plays from the well-made heyday: instead her focus is on the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama that amply preceded it, and the contemporary or new writing that followed it: plays, she says cheerfully, that might be deemed to “misbehave”. She sees “a positive and a negative connotation” in the well-made play: “The positive version is that they don’t have too many people, so you can make a strong connection to the characters, and they’re robust pieces of writing, so as a director or an actor you can make them work by listening to them well. Where I find it a stifling idea is that it becomes a huge long list of what makes plays work: has it got a beginning, middle and end? Who is the protagonist I’m meant to care about the most? What is the inciting incident?” She compares this to the ways in which Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, “sprawl between styles, muck around with who we care about, explode the space-time rules” – that is, the unities of time and place advocated by Aristotle. “Most literary managers”, Whyman notes, “wouldn’t allow Elizabethan plays to be written now: and if they did, they wouldn’t get programmed.”


Ay, there’s the rub, to quote Hamlet, decidedly not a well-made play. The phrase doesn’t merely connote a set of structural interests but what Walton calls “establishment” thinking that is “quite male, and very middle-class”. She’s aware this is a generalisation but also speaks from direct experience of the ways in which “the well-made play can be quite exclusive, or will exclude extraordinary things”, and in particular how it “has been one of the greatest barriers to Black writing”. She recalls attending script meetings at the Royal Court in the late-1990s and realising that the texts to which she had a “visceral and emotional” response invariably struck her colleagues as underdeveloped; Black writing has more chance of being programmed, she’s found, through staged readings rather than script meetings. Housley, who often works collaboratively, and with technologies ranging from live video to binaural sound to Whatsapp, also sees the bias in an industry where the fate of a new play “depends on someone reading it and thinking it’s good – not seeing it and thinking it’s good. Our new writing culture is so language-driven,” she says, the phrase “new writing” itself telling in its application to a medium so dynamic visually and physically.

The RSC’s Romeo and Juliet. Photograph Credit: Topher McGrillis

Hickson wonders whether there might even be “a corollary between how we run buildings, how we put plays on, and what shape the plays are”: a mirroring or looping effect, whereby one hierarchical system informs another. She takes the “political” perspective that “form is related to cultural structures: how we tell stories is how we organise societies to a certain extent. The well-made play usually comes from a slightly uninterrogated hegemonic middle, and has been a patriarchal construct for a very long time: there’s a man at the centre doing things to make that man feel powerful and domineering. It’s a singular character in pursuit of a desire and something is stopping him getting that desire: that is capitalist.”


Whyman agrees that “the form itself has become associated with a kind of masculine sense of success. Well-made plays have a masculine heritage and a very strong, often paternalistic masculine voice: I’m not talking about the author but the way they work internally. A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler have these extraordinary female protagonists – but the agents for most of the length of those plays are the men.” Both Hickson and Whyman are careful to acknowledge the “risk”, as Whyman puts it, “that what we’re heard to be saying is the way that certain men write plays is no good” when the issue isn’t individuals but societal superstructures. Hickson points to the “brilliant experimental men” from whom she learned a different approach to the wroughting of plays, including David Greig and Simon Stephens. This isn’t about gender: it’s about systems of power.


Playwright Vinay Patel – who finds the well-made play “formally quite conservative”, with a “slickness that disguises a lot of humanity” – is so suspicious of the hegemonic narrative structure he wrote an MA about how “fragmented narratives are more truthful to a global society”. But he also admits feeling suspicious about his own sense of comfort and predictability when faced with the “warm familiar bath” of the well-made play. “I try to check myself and ask, am I bored by it or do I find it unsatisfying because I’ve seen under the hood of it and know the machinations going on there? As someone who really loves audiences and wants to put stories that are accessible in front of people, I wonder if I’m just being a bit pretentious.”

AN ADVENTURE by Vinay Patel. Photo Credit Helen Murray

Louise Stephens, dramaturg at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, shares that concern. She connects the “natural and satisfying journey” presented to an audience by the well-made play to the structures of storytelling embedded in humans as children, “before you can read or process words”. This is what makes the well-made play “incredibly seductive”, suggests Featherstone: “conventional narrative structure is in our DNA”. As such, she’s inclined to believe it’s also “democratic: you don’t need to learn it to be able to write, because it’s how you tell stories”. But both Stephens and Featherstone agree that these are also Western structures, making Stephens “fascinated by the ways in which that might be different in different places”.


Conventional western storytelling is also, argues Patel, a hallmark of cinema and television. In fact, when playwright Lucy Prebble thinks about the well-made play, her mind goes immediately to “a time before screen was as ubiquitous as it is now. Naturalism and a sense of heavy structure are things that I associate with movies, and that medium probably does both better.” Patel actually came to the stage from the screen, and wonders why so much theatre doesn’t “think more theatrically. Why does this have to be a play? What is it about this as a thing to sit with in time and space?” Faced with a lot of issues-based drama, Featherstone asks another question: “What’s the difference that turns something into a piece of theatre, that could be told better in a documentary or a really good news article?” Or, as Emily McLaughlin, head of the New Work department at the National Theatre, puts it: “What can you detonate as a playwright, in a way that can only happen on a stage, in front of a live audience?”


Patel and Featherstone’s questions, and McLaughlin’s use of the word “detonate”, shoot with the force of a cannonball to the deepest roots of the well-made play: or at least, to the definition that emerges from Taylor’s book, particularly where he writes about the French dramatist Eugène Scribe, who constructed the formula of the “pièce bien faite” out of a recognition that “all drama, in performance, is an experience in time, and that therefore the first essential is to keep one’s audience attentive from one minute to the next”. Tom Robertson, the Victorian dramatist who adopted Scribe’s blueprint for the British stage, modified it to focus on middle-class life – but shared absolutely Scribe’s concern for “the art of telling a story in dramatic terms”.


As a description of the well-made play, that is so much more open and flexible than a list of structural edicts. And this returns us to the difference between what the phrase connotes to today’s theatre-makers, and what making plays or theatre well might actually mean to them. “It’s about the relationship between thesis and form,” says Hickson. “It’s about making sure, whatever your intention is, that your form is active in relation to that intention: that what you’re saying and how you’re saying it are in quite an interrogated relationship.”

Ella Hickson’s THE WRITER. Photo Credit Manuel Harlen

In terms of critical paradigms, says Duska Radosavljevic, thinking about the intention of the artist can seem “outdated or problematic”. And yet, in her own work as a critic and dramaturg, that is precisely where her interest lies: “When I work as a dramaturg, I understand my job is to serve the artist’s intention in some way.” To witness this process in her critical work, it’s worth looking up her review for Exeunt of Alistair McDowall’s X, a play that bamboozled many who saw it. Also an academic, Radosavljevic wrote the book Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century to make an argument for the panoply of approaches to making theatre well that sit outside the boundaries of the well-made play, focusing in particular on forms that “engage the audience in a process of participation, because ultimately it is always about the relationship between the work and the audience for me”.


A play that doesn’t adhere to well-made structures might not look familiar, says Patel, but that participatory impulse, or understanding of why it is on stage and not on screen, “teaches me how to watch it, and has an internal logic to it. You can feel like the person or people who’ve created it know why they’re doing it, and are trying to find a different language to express it.” He points to debbie tucker green’s ear for eye: its triptych structure replaces the classic three acts with scenes that zoom out from the personal to the political superstructure, then zoom out again to connect the present to the past. Even encountering such a play on paper, says Hickson, a reader should be able to “feel the structure in a muscular way”. That’s the “visceral and emotional” response that Walton talks about.

ear for an eye by debbie tucker green. Photo Credit Stephen Cummiskey

Ellen McDougall, artistic director at the Gate theatre in London, says she doesn’t use the term “well-made play” itself, but when she thinks about theatre that is made well, “what I respond to is an offer, a really clear offer from a writer. That might mean that there are character arcs and a fully realised naturalistic world, or it might mean a set of questions for a director to respond to. It might not prescribe exactly what happens on the stage, but its argument or its exploration or its perspective would be clear and fully investigated.” While the conventional well-made play would most likely be linear, theatre made well might offer “a kind of resistance to that, while still having an idea of progression over time”. She’s drawn, for instance, to the circular or repetitive, texts that “ask an audience to look again and again at something that might seem familiar, but perhaps if we look at it more closely or differently or again it will reveal something else”.


Featherstone uses some of the same language when she describes the plays that excite her: “They are offers for audience, for performance.” That offer can be hard to recognise on paper, she admits, “because often the work can be quite subliminal: you have to commit to it in order to understand it”. Not that she prioritises understanding: if anything, she’s drawn to the work she doesn’t understand immediately, wanting to feel “surprised, and smaller than the thing I’m reading”. Effectively she wants to be challenged – and that’s why she thinks there’s no such thing as a well-made play, in Scribe and Robertson’s understanding of the term, today. The well-made play in its historical period, from the beginning of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, set out to disrupt its audience and easily could, simply by showing the characters, particularly the female characters, transgressing codes of conduct that both expressed and defined morality in that time. “No story told in that form will ever disrupt an audience in the same way now,” Featherstone argues. “Even when the subject matter is something shameful to civic society, or challenging in some way, the conventional structure makes it feel safe. Now what disrupts us is form: we don’t know where something which plays with form is heading, so it unsettles us.”


There is, Whyman points out, “a long and very strong tradition in this country of playful, non-linear, formal experimentation in writing, but it doesn’t quite carry the authority of the plays that we might still describe as well-made.” This is why Stephens wants to avoid using the phrase as “a value judgement rather than an analytical tool”: she wants to leave as much space open as possible for innovation. A key question for her throughout her career has been: “Where might the writers of the future take us, and have we got the tools to spot the different things they might do with the form – as well as recognising and holding the ways in which they might inhabit and reinvigorate those existing forms?” McLaughlin points to Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night as an instance of that reinvigoration: it might not be radical in form, but “at the heart of it is a voice that is not heard enough at the National”, and that’s what makes it progressive.


Essentially McLaughlin’s viewpoint is one that synthesises traditional and modern views on the well-made play. On the one hand, she argues that “architecture defines form defines content defines story”, and just as the Victorian well-made play was designed for the proscenium-arch theatre, so the vast space of the Olivier needs a big protagonist and a public address, whereas a smaller room that might more successfully hold a fragmentary narrative. (I’m not sure I agree with this, but that’s an argument for another day.) But she also has come to feel that the phrase  “well-made play certainly does not mean any of those things I originally learned in education about structure. It means a compelling story told with the right form: it means content matches the form, whatever that looks like.”


In the work of poet and playwright Inua Ellams, that can look like anything from extended poetic monologue (The 14th Tale) to globe-spanning interactions between men and their barbers (Barbershop Chronicles). And yet, Ellams sees himself as “very traditional”, focused on the basic questions of “who do I care about, why am I supposed to care about them, and what difficulties do they go through?” For him the well-made play is a tool at his service, and not vice versa. Or, to switch metaphor abruptly, the question he asks himself is: “How can I make this glove fit my hand? As opposed to: this is a shiny glove, I’m going to write a play that fits it.”

Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo Credit Marc Brenner 

Even though she pushes against the structures and strictures of well-made playwriting, Walton agrees that the “the rules are not invalid. If there’s not subtext in writing it’s boring frankly; if dialogue is not about making character, it’s dull. So there are skills and techniques and craft – wroughting – that need to happen.” But she wants that to happen alongside “an understanding that text is broader than just words”: that the text of a play is also its movement, its lighting, its design, the dramaturgy of performance and production. Hickson shares Walton’s interest in the collective and collaborative, but agrees that “there are some things that don’t change. You need a central protagonist – I have yet to see the truly choral play that works – that person needs to be in pursuit of something, and some things need to be stopping that person getting what they want. That crisis creates change, and that change tells us something about humanity. That is true of Romeo and Juliet and it’s true of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away: your form can be something else, but that principle has to be there.” Or, as Stephens neatly summarises, the “established narrative tropes” remain essential, because “you couldn’t invert it if it didn’t exist”.


What might need to change, however, is the language used to talk about plays. “We probably need to find a better term for the plays that feel conventional and safe to us,” suggests Featherstone. Or, says Whyman, we need “a new vocabulary to talk about the architecture of someone’s play, or the rigour of it, but also the deft turns of focus which you particularly need if you’re asking an audience to move in directions they weren’t expecting. That is a skill and a craft I’m not sure we know how to talk about.” At the same time, Whyman believes the process of developing work needs to change, because: “the whole way we decide whether a play is ready for the stage is out of date and unhelpful. It’s a great tool that you can send someone a play and they say this is brilliant, we should do it: but if they can’t discern what you think is brilliant, you need another way of speaking about it.” Perhaps then we’ll reach the stage when the phrase well-made play, as Stephens says, is nothing more nor less than “one that’s made well – and that could look like absolutely anything”.




Published on:
5 Mar 2019


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