Monday, July 13, 2009

David Edgar: How Plays Work

In The Guardian, an extract from playwright David Edgar's new book, How Plays Work.
There are two chief methods of emplotment: plotting by time (by ordering the events of the story), and plotting by space (juxtaposing its different strands). In both cases, the playwright's decision expresses the meaning. So, although almost all plays start some way into the story, the import of that decision goes way beyond mere storytelling convenience.

One of the best examples is Sophocles' Oedipus, in which the protagonist discovers that his parents abandoned him as a baby in order to evade a terrible prediction that he would eventually kill his father and marry his mother. Having accidentally fulfilled that prediction, the action of the play as written is: "To save his city, the king seeks the identity of the author of a crime, but he discovers in the end that it is himself."

But had Sophocles plotted the story chronologically, the action would be different. The protagonists would be the parents, and the action would be something like: "Threatened with the prediction that their son will commit two terrible crimes, a king and queen decide to take extreme measures; but the fates are too strong for them, and the prediction is fulfilled despite their efforts." Laius and Jocasta's story is about how you can't avoid fate, however much you try. Whereas by starting with Oedipus, Sophocles' play becomes about human volition; the message changes from "you can't win" to "leave well alone".
Link courtesy of @TWPGoSee on Twitter

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