Dramatic Structure: Climactic, Episodic, and Other Forms


        A.    Basic dramatic forms reappear throughout theater history

                1.    Climactic

                        a.    Greek Drama

                        b.    17th Century France

                        c.    19th Century Norway

                2.    Episodic

                        b.    Shakespeare


    A.    Characteristics of Climactic Structure

            1.    The plot begins late in the story

                    a.    When all roads of past converge at one crucial climax

                            I.    Makes character exposition necessary to get audience up-to-speed

                            II.   Time span of play usually compressed due to starting late in story

                                    A.    Playwrights often have stage time=real time

            2.    Scenes, locales, and characters are limited

                    a.    Limited number of acts or scenes

                            I.    Greek drama has five episodes separated by choral interludes

                            II.    French neoclassicists invariably used five acts

                            III.    19th and 20th century usually had 3 acts

                             IV.   Today norm is two acts

                                    A.    Limiting scenes usually forces limiting locale

                                     B.    Small locale cuts down on number of characters

            3.    Construction is tight

                    a.    Carefully constructed plot with no loose ends

                    b.    Like detective story: a leads to b, be leads to c

                    c.    Chain of events is locked; there's no way of stopping

                    d.    According to Anouilh, the spring is wound up tight; it will uncoil itself; the least turn will

                            do the job.

                    e.    Tightness of construction gives them the title of a well-made-plays

    B.    Significant Periods of Climactic Structure

            1.    Greece, fifth century B.C.--Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides

            2.    Rome, third to first centuries B.C.--Plautus, Terence

            3.    France, seventeenth century--Corneille, Racine, Moliere

            4.    France, nineteenth century--Augustin-Eugene Scribe, Victorien Sardou

            5.    Europe and US, late nineteenth and twentieth centuries--Ibsen, Strindberg, O'Neill, Williams,

                    Miller, Albee


        A.    Characteristics of Episodic Structure

                1.    Plot begins early in story; doesn't compress action; expands it

                        a.    People, places, and events proliferate

                                I.    Can cover many locations over many years

                                II.    Lots of locations and characters possible

                                III.    Short scenes often happen

                        b.    There may be a parallel plot or subplot

                                I.    Parallel plot or subplot replaces compression

                                        A. Parallel plot reinforces main plot

                        c.    Juxtaposition and contrast occur

                                I.    Short scenes alternate with longer scenes

                                II.    Public scenes alternate with private scenes

                                III.    We move from one group to an opposing  group

                                IV.    Comic scenes alternate with serious scenes

                        d.    The overall effect is cumulative

        C.    Significant Periods of Episodic Structure

                1.    England, late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries--Shakespeare, Marlowe

                2.    Spain, late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries--Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca

                3.    Germany, late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Buchner

                4.    Europe and the US, late nineteenth and twentieth centuries--Ibsen, Brecht, Genet

                        a,    Modern authors often write both types of plays


        A.    No law says a play has to be purely episodic or climactic

                1.    Sophocles is more climactic because it begins late in story, etc., but chorus

                        tends to change it from a purely climactic style play

                2.    Ibsen's Cherry Orchard is climactic but includes 15 characters and an extended period of time


        A.    Rituals

                1.    A repetition or reenactment of a proceeding or transaction which has acquired special meaning

                        a.    National Anthym

                        b.    Catholic mass

                        c.    Fraternity initiation

                        d.    Olympic ceremony

                         e.    Sacrifice

                2..    Benefits

                        a.    Continuity

                        b.    Security

                        c.    Comfort

                3.    Ritual has structure

                        a.    Actions are repeated in set fashion with beginning, middle and end

                        b.    Natural progression of events

                        c.    Active, not passive; doesn't get boring

                4.    Works well in theatre productions to induce energy

        B.    Patterns

                1.    Related to rituals

                2.    When a play like Waiting for Godot has no normal structure, repeating events substitutes

                        a.    Give audience a framework to work with


        A.    Using a series of actions or episodes for structure. Individual segments strung together like beads on

                a necklace. 

        B.    Sometimes a central theme holds the serial together

                1.    Musical revue with songs by same author or on same theme

        C.    Sometimes little or no connection between parts

                1.    Master of Ceremonies often ties the parts of a program together

        D.    An evening of one acts is an example of serial structure


           A.    Special Structures

                    1.    Avant-Garde groups question long-held beliefs about theater

                            a.    Theater of past not relevant to today's problems

                            b.    Baggage built up from 2,500 years of organized theater muddies purity of art form

            B.    Departures from Traditional Theater

                    1.    Emphasis on nonverbal theater--using gestures, body movements and sounds without words

                    2.    Reliance on improvisation rather than written text

                    3.    Interest in ritual and ceremony

                    4.    Stress on the importance of the physical environment of theater including that between audience

                            and performers

            C.    Segments and Tableaux as Structure

                    1.    Tableaux is a static scene onstage featuring performers in costume

                    2.    Segments of plays often begin or end with tableaux

                            1.    Dance is a form of tableaux

                            2.    Slow motion or rapid silent film movements is a form of tableaux


            A.    Often involves alternation and juxtaposition

                    1.    Musical numbers alternate with spoken scenes

                    2.    Solos and duets alternate with choral numbers

                    3.    Singing alternates with dance numbers

                    4.    Comic songs and scenes alternate with serious ones

                    5.    Spoken scenes interspersed with musical numbers

                    6.    Purpose is to build excitement as musical progresses



1.    Climactic plot

2.    Episodic plot

3.    Exposition

4.    Juxtaposition or contrast

5.    Subplot or parallel plot

6.    Chorus

7.    Well-made play

8.    Ritual

9.    Serial structure

10.    Nonverbal theater

11.    Avant-garde

12,    Tableau

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