The following article is reprinted from The Technique of the One-Act Play. B. Roland Lewis. Boston: John Luce and Company, 1918.
Students of literature and of life are quite agreed that both the subject-matter and the technique of any literary product are often very largely determined by the prevailing social conditions of the period during which it has been produced. There is frequently prevailing mode and convention in literary activity quite as much as there is in the current social decorum. Today it is not the three-act play nor the five-act play that is the center of interest in dramatic expression: it is the one-act play--not a new form of course, but one that, despite unsympathetic animadversion, challenges attention.
Theatre managers, the general theatre-going public, actors, playwrights, and even the professors in the University, recognize its presence. It is observed, too, that no apology is being offered for the better sort of contemporary one-act plays, and indeed none is needed. They justify themselves as worthwhile studies of human life and character. Their effectiveness as a form of dramatic expression is their own justification for being. They cannot be written, any more than can the three-act form, without adequate first-hand acquaintance with life. A good many lack dramatic style and value--and so do many of the longer plays--but a surprisingly large number possess them. The one-act play can no longer be dismissed, with a lofty wave of the academic hand, as of no consequence. It is with us; and it warrants being taken seriously.
The one-act play is claiming recognition as a specific dramatic type. The short-story, and likewise the novel, was once an embryo and an experiment; but no enlightened person, nowadays, would care to hold that it has not developed into a worthy literary type. Its popularity is attested by the fact that most of the contemporary fiction writers have assayed it. This shorter form of fiction was once apologetic, and that not so many years ago; but it has come unto its own and now enjoys the recognition of being a distinctive type of prose narrative. What the one-act play asks is not an advocate or a defender. It asks opportunity for development! Its possibilities are as much greater than the short-story as the drama is greater than the novel. The one-act play is no longer wholly an experiment; it is succeeding in high places. And the signs of the times are that at a date not far distant, perhaps already arrived, this form of drama will stand erect and take its place among the significant types of literary expression.
The one-act play is not merely a thing of practice for the amateur and the novice. A critic of no mean value, in a current volume on playwriting, has asserted that the one-act play offers the amateur the easiest opportunity for testing his skill, and that the time and the labor involved in its composition is perhaps less than a fourth or a fifth of that demanded for a five-act drama. "Beginners," he says, "will do well to practise the various forms of composition in the brief sketch, before venturing upon the full-fledged play." It is quite well known that some good plays have been written in a few days, others have required months and even years of arduous labor. Some novels have been quickly composed; whereas some short stories have required the undivided attention of the author for weeks and months. The time element for composing a one-act play, or any other form of literature, is wholly relative; and comparisons of any kind are invidious. Those who have written one-act plays give ample testimony that their composition is not a matter of time but a matter as serious and important as the composition of any other form. And to recommend to amateurs that they try out their powers by practising with the one-act form with the view that the one-act piece is only a stepping-stone to the three-act form, is only to reveal one's ignorance of the constructive problem involved in the shorter type of dramatic composition. In individual cases, no doubt the advice is sound; but to urge it as a general recommendation is to relegate the one-act play into a category where it does not belong. There is not a writer of the short-story, with all its richness of subject-matter and technical excellence, but would resent any insistence that the prospective novelist would do well to begin on the short-story as a stepping-stone to novel-writing. The one-act play, like the short-story, is a type unto itself; and to suggest that the prospective playwright use the one-act play only as a thing on which to practice before attempting the larger form, is an insult to the form.
Today, the greatest obstacles to the one-act play are the conventions of the stage and of the longer forms of dramatic writing. The conventional objection that the audience cannot easily adjust itself to the changing scenes of a bill of one-act plays for an evening's performance is ridiculous andnot founded on psychological fact. One has yet to hear a music-lover report that he was unable to appreciate a concert of miscellaneous numbers because he could not adjust himself psychologically to the various parts of the programme. A theatre audience has something of the characteristics of a crowd, and, as such, is always wholly receptive to any stimulus, varied and changing though it be. Whatever bit of shock there may be at the beginning of a following number, it is soon forgotten in the emotional response to the matter immediately in hand. Even in a long play of three or five acts, between which there are the respective intermissions and interruptions, one experiences little difficulty in readjusting oneself at the rise of each curtain; and this is true not only in plays in which the story is not told in direct sequences of events, but also in plays between the acts of which there are often long lapses of time. One-act plays, when well done, are masterpieces of technical construction; they are individual and complete units; and an audience, receptive in mind rather than reflective and active, makes adjustment to any change with little conscious effort.
Another objection made to the one-act play is the conventional one that it is too small to be of any value. Too frequently literary critics have been almost obsessed with the idea that bigness or large complexity are the first criteria by which a given product shall be judged. Indeed, Milton is known by his "Paradise Lost," not by his "Comus" and minor poems; Dante, by his "Divine Comedy" and not by his supposedly minor products. The sympathetic student, however, knows that in many cases the really superior values do not always lie in the large products of a man of letters but often in the smaller and more highly artistic bits of work. Largeness of conception or bigness of structure are in themselves no guarantee of literary excellence. A literary product is essentially a work of art; whether it be wrought out on a large scale or on a small one is quite another matter. The lyric is quite as much an art form as the epic. The cameo is as much an art product and has as much claim to be recognized as has the statue; the etching is often superior in art values to the larger painting; the short story is as much a literary type as the larger novel; and the one-act play must not be lightly thrown aside just because it happens to be smaller than the multi-act form.
Back to 20th Century Theatre