One Act Play : origin and development

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      Like the short story, the One Act Play is a thing of recent growth. It is the latest phase in the development of the new drama that began with George Bernard Shaw and had its tendency to shorten itself. Much of what is said about the short story applies with equal force to the 'one-act play'. Its origin is rooted in the social and cultural conditions of the modern society. Its popularity may be ascribed to various causes, the most important of which is the mad rush, the sick hurry and hustle of modern life. Life today has become an extremely busy affair and we have little time "to stand and stare." We have so many calls on our short leisure, that we cannot spend much time in the theatres; an afternoon hour or so or a brief spell in the evening is all that most modern men can spare to devote to the theatre. Besides, in England the theatre - going public had considerably increased in this age. The spread of education had created a huge body of intelligent literates, whose craving for the drama as the most popular form of literature, has to be satisfied. The problems of the lives of the common people, of the middle class and the working class had multiplied enormously and drama must reflect all these "hold the mirror up to life".

Singleness of aim and singleness of effect - these are the two great canons by which we are to judge the value of a one-act play as much as of a short story.
One Act Play

      The new drama had done this and in this process its theme, art and technique had undergone a profound transformation. In place of the conventional five-act play, Shaw, Galsworthy, etc. wrote three or four-act plays, with little or no sub-division into scenes. With the further increase in the tempo of life both the dramatists and the audience were left with lesser leisure hours. So the three-act play had further to reduce its bulk to suit the complex modern conditions and thus one-act play came into intense vogue. This does not mean that the regular three-act play had died out or suffered any threat from the rivalry of this latest arrival in the field. Regular plays and one-act plays continue side by side and many theatre houses alternate their programmes of regular ana one-act plays. The radio particularly lays more emphasis on one-act plays to suit its limited programme.

      We have said of the short story that it is not merely a novel on a reduced scale, but a distinct species; the one-act play, too, is not a mere reduced form of a five act or three-act play. The one is not reducible to the other either by lengthening it out or shortening it as the case may be. The two kinds differ radically in spirit, art and technique. The one-act play presents only a slice of life rather than life itself; it deals with a single problem or situation to the exclusion of many others which might be equally important or interesting. It must aim at 'a unity of impression'. Multiplicity of situations or characters or themes is fatal to it. Its total effect is also one and single, there should be no mingling of tragedy and comedy in the same play. Its dialogue must be rigorously economical and effective. The 'generous superfluity' of a Shakespearean drama is altogether ruled out or the one-act play. Concentration is its strength. Thus singleness of aim and singleness of effect - these are the two great canons by which we are to judge the value of a one-act play as much as of a short story.

      The one-act play (it may be also called 'short play' just as we call 'a short story') is an entirely new and original product of the modern times. It has no counterpart in the history of any past drama. Its near counterpart may be found in the mediaeval 'morality' plays, which were strictly restricted to one Single plot or incident and to a paucity of characters, producing single effect. The famous morality play Everyman, which is a masterpiece of its kind was revived in the first years of the century in both Britain and the U.S.A. Some critics like to call it the remotest forbear of the modem one-act play.

      The first two decades of the new century had seen a good crop of one-act plays both in England and Ireland. In Ireland Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and Lord Dunsany; and in England Stanley Houghton, W. W. Gibson, L. Abercrombie proved by their performance what impressive artistic things were possible within the limited range of short or one-act plays. Only some passing reference to these may be made here. The Abbey Theatre in Dublin was established with Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory as directors and with Miss Horniman as the financier. Its object was to revive the national drama of Ireland and to give scope to the Irish poets and actors to produce plays which might get a national hearing. They sought their themes among the legends, folk-lore and peasantry of Ireland, Yeats was essentially a lyrical poet and lacked dramatic power.

      Synge was the most gifted dramatist of the group and some of his plays are of a stature to place him high among the greatest playwrights in the language. His world is not the modern civilized world but a small pre-civilized world of imagination peopled with Irish peasants, fishermen, etc, His one-act play Riders to the Sea is a powerful and deeply moving tragedy, dealing with the toll taken by the sea in the lives of the fisher-folk of the Aran Islands. His material is reduced to the utmost point of Concentration, the scene being laid in a cottage and the time only a few minutes. Its stark simplicity is impressive to a degree. Its diction and rhythm is poetic and exalted and attuned to the tragic theme. It is a local play attaining universal significance by its poetic qualities, symbolism and portrayal of the basic human predicament.

      Lady Gregory's best known pieces are Seven Short Plays, many of which have themes connected with Irish Freedom Movement. The Rising of the Moon is a very familiar play. Her short plays reveal her great skill in devising plots and in presenting the life of Irish men and women with all its humour than those of Synge and not like 'the strange Irishman.' The dialogues in her play have a savour all their own and there is no baldness about the language of her peasants. On the whole her plays are fresh, lively and natural and she held the stage much longer and more successfully than most of the playwrights of the time. Lord Dunsany is one of the best exponents of the one-act'er by virtue of the romance on which his plays are built and his ability to conjure powerful atmosphere. His best-known one-act play is A Night at an Inn.

      Stanley Houghton connected with the Manchester Repertory Movement wrote two problem plays, Hindle Wakes and The Younger Generation which were received with great enthusiasm on the London stage. His career as a dramatist was thus made'. He also wrote three short plays for a London actor manager - Phipps, Pearls and Trust the People, but the plays were not much of success. The failure of these plays had a damping effect on him. He went to Paris and died a few months later.

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