Making a Drama out of a Crisis by David Butler

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David Butler

David Butler

Every Easter, Halesworth, a picturesque East Anglian town about an hour’s drive outside Ipswich, is home to the INK short drama festival. Since its inception around a decade ago, the town’s various venues have hosted in excess of 300 original plays. After a two year Covid hiatus, this year an expanded four day festival saw more than fifty new plays performed to packed houses by around thirty actors. Fifty sounds a lot, until one learns that the prestigious event attracts upwards of 2000 submissions annually! In 2022, I was fortunate to have my ten-minute drama ‘Consent’, which deals with the aftermath of a college ‘date-rape’, among the chosen. A slightly reworked version, ‘He Said/She Said’, which was shortlisted for both the Short + Sweet Festival in Dublin and Wexford’s Billy Roche Award, can be viewed here:

During the INK festival, plays are typically put on in batches of three to five over an hour to an hour and a halfr, with the same troupe of actors sharing out the roles in the various plays. To make this entertaining format possible, stage-sets are required to be minimalist, casts limited to three, and there is a premium on pace and variety of genre. The versatility required of the actors is quite astonishing. I’d seen my two actors and the play’s director just once (by Zoom) in advance of their performances – my one useful suggestion being that Irish accents should be ditched and the play relocated to an English university canteen. Despite the very tight scheduling and multi-tasking involved in the ambitious festival, I have to say I was delighted with the chemistry and intensity the pair of actors brought to bear on the roles of Emer and Danny. One could sense a palpable tension in the auditorium as the dialogue progressed.

So how does writing for the stage differ from writing short fiction? Before I answer, let me say that in what follows I’m discussing plays that have been fully dramatized (ie, performed ‘in real time’ as though overseen) rather than that recent staple of the Irish circuit, the monologue play (in which stories are narrated directly to the audience ‘after the event’). In his book length study The Life of the Drama, the influential critic Eric Bentley, himself a playwright, quotes philosopher George Santayana to the effect that where the novelist gives us the action of the hero refracted through the prism of their mind, the dramatist gives us the mind of the hero refracted through the prism of their action. Indeed the Greek word drama derives from the verb ‘dran’, to do or perform, so that dramas are literally ‘things done’. On the stage language is character and character is language, where language is understood to include accent, dress, demeanour, gesture and tone in addition to words.

This point is important when approaching writing for the stage. Instinctively, we might imagine that good dialogue makes for good drama. But drama is essentially situation, and at the heart of it is the Greek idea of the ‘agon’, a contest or struggle. The word is the root of the terms protagonist and antagonist. In drama, pretty much from the get-go, something needs to be at stake, and this is as true for comedy and farce as it is for any other dramatic genre. What the audience then engages with is the tennis match between protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) to try to achieve their mutually exclusive goals. The power-shifts, the unexpected retort, the clever play, the parry, the curve-ball – no less than in a gripping tennis rally, these are what make for edge-of-the-seat drama. A scene in which the characters are essentially in agreement is akin to putting all the tennis players on the same side of the net.

As with the short story, the essence of drama is an absolute economy. Typically, an abrupt change to the status quo has already taken place at the start of a play, a change which itself entails the question to be answered by the play. We are introduced to the protagonist(s) as they react to this change. When the curtain rises, Othello has already eloped with Desdemona; Christy Mahon has already ‘killed’ his father and fled to Mayo; a conspiracy is already under way to kill the future tyrant, Caesar. The first movement of the play, the ‘exposition’, may be said to end when the protagonist(s) decide what their reaction to the altered situation will be – Romeo and Juliet will secretly marry; Hamlet will adopt an ‘antic disposition’; Brutus will join the conspiracy to kill Caesar. If this decision suggests the outlines of the resolution, the heart of the play consists in the series of complications which prevent the protagonist(s) moving directly from exposition to resolution.

One final Greek term. Memorable drama frequently entails ‘anagnorisis’ – a revelation or realisation, usually on the part of the protagonist. Othello would be no tragedy if the Moor never realised he’d been duped. What we’re interested in, here, is character arc – how and what has been learned in the course of the action. To the extent that we live vicariously through the hero or heroine, this adds an ethical dimension. In ‘Consent’, a ‘date-rape’ has already occurred – we are introduced to Emer and Danny in their respective reactions to it. What is at stake – the dramatic question – is whether Emer will convince Danny to talk the victim out of accusing Emer’s little brother. The ethical question, so to say, is whether she should.

There is, of course, a more fundamental way in which drama differs from fiction. Drama is collaborative. Every time a play is staged it becomes a new interpretation, which is to say a new artistic creation. Actors, directors, set-designers, light and sound people, even the audience, they all bring something new to the party. It’s nerve-racking. But then, it’s also the great pay-off of having one’s work performed.

For more information on the INK festival, see https://inkfestival.org/

(c) David Butler

About the author

David Butler’s most recent publications are the poetry collection Liffey Sequence (Doire Press, 2021) and the short story collection Fugitive (Arlen House, 2021). Awards for short drama include a British Theatre Challenge, Cork Arts Theatre and Scottish Community Drama Award. His radio play Vigil, which was broadcast on RTE Radio One, was shortlisted for a ZeBBie award.

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