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Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 2)

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Comedy!   ::   Tragicomedy   ::   Other Forms   ::   Aristotle's Six Elements   ::   Activities

Aristotle's Six Elements of Theatre

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher who studied all kinds of things from crustaceans to the cosmos to theatre. He was pretty well rounded. When his teacher Plato, wrote a treatise condemning theatre as groovy and interesting, but "too dangerous to be allowed in society." Aristotle countered with a treatise of his own entitled The Poetics. The volume was lost for hundreds of years until rediscovered by European scholars in the 14th century. In it, Aristotle described what theatre, especially Tragedy, should contain and how it should be composed. Aristotle was, in the 14th and 15th centuries, instantly hailed as THE expert on theatre. His famous six elements have retained their importance through time, and only in our contemporary society have theatre practitioners begun to question whether or not they always apply. However, these six elements are still the most widely known and used evaluative tools and general rules for artistic theatre performances. His thoughts still reign supreme, despite current undermining by some contemporary scholars and theatre practitioners.

The six elements are only a small part of the much longer Poetics. However, they comprise some of the most vital aspects of theatre from the whole work. They are very useful in identifying the whys and whats of theatre. His six elements included (and are in order from most important to least important):

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Thought
  4. Diction
  5. Music
  6. Spectacle


Plot is the first and, in Aristotle's mind, most important of all dramatic elements. Can you guess why that would be? Why would plot be numero uno for Aristotle? Let's venture a few guesses.

First, imagine a play with lots of really great characters, great scenery and stunning dialogue. Is that enough to be interesting? Maybe, but don't you crave a story line? Don't you want ... well ... something to happen? Of course you do. If nothing happens, it is difficult to have a play.

Nowadays, playwrights who think they know better have started experimenting with plays without plot—with limited success. We'll read one later in the semester that comes close! It's called The Bald Soprano.

There are two major kinds of plots for theatre: dramatic and episodic. There are other experimental kinds, but they are far and few between.

All plots, however, have a beginning, middle and end.

The Beginning

The beginning of a plot includes the background, setting and introduces the characters. It is usually called the exposition. Most important, the beginning of a play (or story, movie, or any other narrative) lets the audience know the routines of the world of the play. What does Cinderella usually do, for instance? She is a slave in her own house and with her step family. Of all the information we could give (hair color, how many dead bugs on the window sill, the color of the wall paper, etc.), that's the most essential thing to know: her routines.

The End

If the beginning establishes the routines of characters in a play, what does the end do? Usually, events of plays change routines in plays, so the end of a play usually establishes new routines of characters. Cinderella's new routine?: She is now a princess and lives with the Prince. In short: She lived happily ever after. In a play, the end is often called the denouement (pronounced "day-new-ma"), which indicates a resolution to the action or "falling action." And for action to fall, it must rise. That happens in the middle.

The Middle

Here is the meat of the story. It begins with the Point of Attack—that point in the story when the normal routines of characters change. Cinderella's routine changes when there is a knock at the door and a princely messenger brings an invitation to the ball. Suddenly, both we and Cinderella have a hope that things might change for her. This hope leads to suspense. Suspense means our interest in her success increases. As our interest increases with the actions of the play, the plot is said to rise. More accurately, the events in the play that lead to our interest are collectively called the Rising Action of a play. After a while, the stakes become higher and higher, and the chance for success is threatened more and more until it reaches a "do or die" state: the climax. At the climax of a play, the action and suspense rises to its highest point. Either Cinderella succeeds and becomes a princess, or she is doomed forever to be a slave for her step family. For Cinderella, this is near the end of the story when she does or does not get to try on the shoe.

Cinderella has a typical dramatic plot. It contains rising action and a climax.

Here is a visual representation of how a dramatic plot works:

Basic Plot Structure
Image courtesy of Ryan Harris

An episodic plot is different. Rather than have rising action that increases the energy and suspense of a story, it shows the audience a series of scenes or episodes that show various events. At the end, the routine is still changed by these events, but there is no single suspenseful driving action that moves the plot forward.

Take the story of Hercules (not the Disney movie, PLEEEEAAASE not the Disney movie!). Hercules is a special guy with great strength. He is the son of Zeus, a god, and a mortal woman—notably NOT Hera, Zeus' wife. Hera, jealous and spiteful of Hercules, is intent on destroying him. The first episode of Hercules, the beginning, portrays Hercules happy at home with his wife and kids. But suddenly (the point of attack), Hera manages to make Hercules insane for a time, and he kills his wife and kids, thinking they are attacking soldiers. He is understandably upset by this and seeks to redeem himself. Apollo, another god, tells him to visit a certain King who gives him tasks to perform. In one episode, he kills the hydra. In another episode, he cleans some massive stables by diverting a river. He kills a great lion. He kills other beasts. He does other great feats as well. But no feat is any greater than the last one. There is not rising action, only one action after another. At the end, the last episode, Hercules is redeemed of his horrible crime, he moves to New Zealand, and he starts his own TV show!

For an episodic plot, the visual representation would be the same, except it would have no rising action.


In your workbook, write a story outline for a dramatic plot in five sentences. Here's how:

First, select a protagonist (main character) from the following: A baby monster, Sammy the Salamander, Irene the Ibex.

  • Sentence #1 - The Beginning, (Exposition and Point of Attack). State the most important routine(s) for your character and then state the point of attack. (Example: "Sammy the Salamander basked in the sun on his rock as he normally did UNTIL a fish came and began squirting him with water."—Note the word UNTIL. Please use it!)
  • Sentence #2 - The Middle, Rising Action: State the first attempt that your protagonist makes to rectify the problem. Your character will not succeed. (Example: "Sammy began yelling and cursing at the fish, BUT the fish continued to squirt him"—Note the word BUT. You will want to use it!)
  • Sentence #3 - The Middle, Rising Action: State the second attempt that your protagonist makes to rectify the problem. Your character will NOT succed. (Example: "Sammy threw rocks and pebbles at the fish, BUT the fish just laughed and continued to squirt him" Again, the word BUT--use it!).
  • Sentence #4 - The Middle, Climax: State the third attempt that your protagonist makes to rectify the problem. Your character will usually come up with an unusual and surprising solution and will succeed. (Example: "Sammy suddenly began absorbing the water through his skin as the fish squirted until he became swollen and immense and frightened the fish away with threatening gestures."—Note the word AND. You will want to use it.)
  • Sentence #5 - The End or Denouement: State the new routine of your protagonist. (Example: "From that day forward, Sammy found a different, fishless place to bask.")

Note how Sammy tries three times to achieve his objectives. Only on the third try (sentence #4) does he succeed. His two failed attempts increase our concern for him and increase the suspense over whether he will ultimately succeed. When you write your five sentences, make sure your protagonist (your main character) makes three distinct attempts at something.

Another dramatic plot model posits that rather than Sammy (or another character) trying three times to do something, three things HAPPEN to Sammy that he must deal with in various ways. Again, these are three distinct events.

In a play such as the ones you'll read in this class, you will find that the attempts made and the things that happen to the protagonists of the plays are far more complex and sometimes more subtle than found in the story of Sammy. You'll also find that the events often build upon themselves to become "super-events" of sorts. I hope, however, that you'll be able to perceive how each play is constructed in terms of structure.

Plays often use scenes and acts—subdivisions of the plays action—to clearly show how attempts are made by protagonists or how things happen to protagonists to which they then must react. Plays are first divided into acts. Many plays have 3 to 5 acts. These acts are further subdivided into scenes—which are then subdivided into units and beats—to which directors and actors must pay attention to succeed. The end of acts or scenes is often where you will find the end of an attempt or a distinct event that happens to a character. Most plays and movies can be broken down, ultimately, into 5 sentences like we've done above. Some have fewer than five, and some have a few more, but five is probably the most common number. This number is so common and so effective to use, that it has a name: a Well Made Play.

The Well Made Play became popular at the middle to end of the 19th century. One playwright, Eugene Scribe, found it so effective, that he made it into a formula and opened a playwriting factory, hired "playwrights" to write simple Well Made Play plays, and made lots of money. Nowadays, the Well Made Play is still very popular, though playwrights are beginning to try new ways of crafting plays.


Aristotle ranked this element of theatre as second in importance. I suppose that as many have figured out, if a play or movie has a good plot, you can have the shallowest of characters to fill it. In a recent comic strip, a big hulk of an actor was asking: "What's my motivation for this scene?" The director replied, "I'm paying you ten thousand dollars for junk acting."

Still, many play goers and movie goers demand interesting and engaging characters.

Characters that seem to have deep personalities and complex personalities are known as three dimensional characters. They may be good or evil, but if they are good, they probably have some failings. If they are evil, they may have a few redeeming qualities. These characters often must make tough decisions in which right and wrong are difficult to decipher. Plots that contain three dimensional characters and rely on them to work are often very interesting and work well. The reason many of Shakespeare's plays are considered so fantastic is that they are filled with such characters. Think of characters like Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Othello, Henry V, Macbeth: They are all very complex characters faced with difficult challenges and choices.

Some characters are two dimensional. They are not as complex, and they are usually not as engaging for longer periods of time in a play or movie. When the same type of 2 dimensional character appears in many different plays or movies, these characters can be called stock characters. In the past, stock characters included such individuals as the clever servant, the greedy old man, the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armor, and others. In our time, many of these characters still exist.


List and describe 5 stock characters with which you are familiar. They can be from movies, TV, plays, or even video games. Remember, they should be similar in nearly everything in which they appear. Briefly describe these familiar attributes.

List one 3 dimensional character, and describe him or her in detail—make sure you explain why you feel this character is 3 dimensional.


"What's the moral of the story?" is a question that is often asked, even in theatre. It is a tricky question. Thought is often equivalent to the more used term (that I don't care for very much): "Theme." The thought of a play can be found by asking "What does it mean?"

We'll start with an example: The story of "The Tortoise and the Hare."

There are two main characters. Describe the Hare: arrogant, fast, foolish, etc. You can think of more adjectives, I'm sure. Now how about the Tortoise: quiet, humble, steady, etc. You get the picture. In the story, the Hare brags about how fast he is to the Tortoise, so the slow reptile agrees to a race at which our arrogant mammal laughs and laughs. Nevertheless, the two race, the Hare takes a short nap only to find that the Tortoise is at the finish line. The Hare had lost! The moral of the story? Aesop suggests one: "Perseverance wins the race" or "Slow and steady wins the race." I disagree. That may be a moral, but I don't think that it is THE moral. Can you think of a good moral for this simple story? How about "Don't be arrogant." "Don't brag." "Don't take naps in the middle of races." I'm sure you came up with better ones. With a good story or a good play, one simple theme just doesn't cut it. The story is good because many themes are present—or are at least potentially present. Some plays just make us ask good and hard questions about ourselves, and so no theme is overtly evident.

All good drama, and all good art, for that matter, has three attributes that we have noted over time:

First, it is universal: it applies to many different people in many different circumstances. Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, is very popular not only in England, American and Europe, but even in Oriental countries like Japan and China. Its themes are important enough and broad enough to be accessible to many, all over the world.

Second, good art is individual: it is unique and unlike anything else. A play full of cliches and events that can be anticipated is probably not great art. Shakespeare again provides a good example. Many of this plays contain language (phrases and ways of saying things) that he invented and have now become our cliches. And Romeo and Juliet, though a play about love and young romance (in part), is different and unique from any other play about this same subject.

Thirdly, good plays (and good art) contain suggestion: it isn't readily apparent or extremely clear what the themes are. It doesn't bang you over the head with some kind of message. This is in part because, as in The Tortoise and the Hare, good art can have several themes simultaneously, depending on how it is received by a particular audience member. It is also important to remember that good art often asks more questions than it answers. I like to say that "Good art is exploratory, not explanatory." Good art provides a vehicle for exploration rather than a vehicle for pat and simple answers to often complex problems. When you go to church and the pastor reads a poem that hits you over the head with a theme or lesson to be learned, it may be appropriate for church, but it is probably not considered great art. The opposite problem is just as deadly: when after you've seen a play you ask, "What was the point?" or "What was all that about?" This is probably not good either, though in this case, it may be you who isn't thinking deeply enough or making enough connections with the clues given in the play.

In sum, Thought is the subject matter of a play. Aristotle considered it to be third in importance. This element will be addressed in your play critique (see the syllabus), as you discuss the possible themes of a play and how the various arts of theatre (acting, directing, costume design, etc.) helped or hindered a production's attempts at communicating these themes.

One final note: the themes of great plays are often difficult to state concisely! Nevertheless, it is important to try.


Using your best educated guess from the information above, write a short paragraph describing why your instructor (me!) does not like the word "theme" very much, though he is forced to use it himself quite often. Go ahead and take your best guess! Then defend your answer and explain whether you agree or disagree with him.


Sometimes in a play (or a movie) it's not what is said, it's how it's said. This is diction: the words and language used in a play. Plays with "good" diction have language that is appropriate and often lovely. If a play has "bad" diction, it probably contains language that does not fit the characters or the tone of the play.

Once again, Shakespeare is a supreme example. "To be or not to be, that is the question." Sure it's poetry, but it also says in a very appropriate way, "Do I kill myself, or not?" Or take Romeo looking up at Juliet's balcony: "Behold! What light through yonder window breaks? 'Tis the east, and Juliet is the sun!" That's a very appropriate way of saying "Dude! She's a babe!" Comparing her to the sun is a wonderful way of alluding to all sorts of things: Imagine what the sun is and does for you, and you can imagine what Juliet is and does for Romeo. It's the diction that Shakespeare uses that makes this famous scene so rich and beautiful.

Some plays have poetic diction, like many of Shakespeare's plays. Some do not. At the end of the play, The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco (that you will read later in the course, by the way), the characters say nothing but vowel sounds and strange syllables. In the play, Ionesco explores issues about communication, so even that diction (or non-diction) is appropriate for that particular circumstance.

Imagine yourself in a romantic situation. If you're a guy, what kind of language would you use? What does your partner want to hear? Poetry? "Sweet nothings?" Even you use diction in your daily life. In fact, the more power you have over the words you use, the more flexible you'll be in various social situations.

How about the job interview? I doubt you'd say "Dude!" very often, unless you were applying for a position as surf board instructor.


Take the following common and benign statement, and make it poetic by using more lyrical or poetic diction. Romeo took, "Dude, she's a babe!" and made it into "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!" Show me what you can do with this sentence!:
"My midterm exam really sucked."


When Aristotle wrote his Poetics and outlined his six elements of drama, nearly all plays had music. Either the actors sang many of their lines, or they acted with musical accompaniment.

In today's theatre, there is sometimes a music soundtrack—this appears much more in movies—but Aristotle's element of music is now said to be the sound elements of a play.

In one play, Anton Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, for instance, the characters are sitting around chatting when a sudden plunk is heard, as if a harp string broke. It is a very symbolic sound, announcing the end of one era and the beginning of another. The play really couldn't be done without it.

Sound, outside of the actors speaking, happens quite often in theatre. In the past five years or so, with the advent of personal computers with a bit of umph to them, sound design for theatre has exploded. Almost anyone can now edit and produce sound just like Hollywood!

My own personal experience with sound design has been varied. I have designed sound for several productions. One production, Fool for Love, required that the walls be microphoned so that when the actors banged against the wall, it would echo in surrealistic ways. There was also a scene in which the actor stormed out the motel room and shot a car with his shotgun which made the car explode which made some horses panic and run away and then the fire burned for 40 minutes until the end of the play. That was all sound. None of it was seen. I created it by finding first of all the sound of a shotgun. All gun sounds were too wimpy for my tastes, so I found a mortar explosion sound and sped it up. It sounded great! A nice dull and deep BUMPH! I then needed the sound of a windshield smashing from the shotgun. None of the sounds of glass breaking were any good, so I had to find one and speed it up as well. I found some horses okay, and I had access to many explosions, so that wasn't a problem, but I didn't have 40 minutes of fire noise. So I went to my back yard barbeque pit, soaked some newspaper in some gasoline, and lit a match. The resulting explosion and subsequent mushroom cloud singed my eyebrows off! But I had fire. And my tape player was recording. I recorded over 60 minutes of fire that day—and melted my tape player by putting it too close to the fire! The editing I did for Fool For Love was all reel to reel and took me over 60 hours. It sounded great, though. With the personal computers of today with the really nice software that exists, I have done other similar sound projects and have taken a tenth the time.

Recently, I had to design sound for a production of Selkie, a play for young people by playwright Laurie Brooks. The play takes place on the Scottish coast, and I needed over an hour of waves and sea sounds. I also needed the sounds of seals braying and howling and making a general ruckus. For this production, I went to the internet and found a cool site with which I could search for sounds. I found lots of different seal sounds, which I downloaded. I also found lots of whale sounds, which sound mysterious and which I thought would give a cool touch to the atmosphere of the play. After about 5 hours on my nifty Macintosh computer, I had created a series of overlaid sounds of great complexity that I used throughout the show. The sea sounds were done in much the same way: digitally. I also needed music for the opening and closing of the show, and special music for when the seals came and danced on the beach and in the water. Additionally, there needed to be party music and party sounds for the end of the play. I spent about 20 hours on this show, and the sound was much, much more complex than Fool for Love had been. I had more fun doing it digitally. It is indeed fun to play with sound!

Aristotle called it music, and in the eyes (or ears) of one sound designer, my seal sounds and fire sounds were just that!

To find cool sounds on the internet, try going to


Remember this: Aristotle ranked this LAST! And yet, when one thinks of a Broadway show, this is what one often things of: Spectacle. Simply put, spectacle comprises the visual elements of a play.

In the hit musical Phantom of the Opera, the phantom rows his boat through a maze of floating candles. The boat actually lifts off of the stage and moves through a bunch of candles. It is breathtaking.

In the hit musical The Lion King, amazing things are done with puppets, and in one scene, a vision in the sky of Mufasa, the protagonist's dead father, suddenly becomes a flock of birds that fly away.

In the hit musical Miss Saigon, an actual helicopter lands on the stage. Incredible! No wonder tickets for these shows cost $50 or more. This spectacle costs a lot of money!

Spectacle includes the set design, costumes, properties (the things the actors hold like swords, etc.), lighting and special effects.


There are some who say that with the rise of spectacle in theatre, the literary and other artistic qualities go down. Why would this be? Is it true? Can the two co-exist? Write your own opinion in a short paragraph. (Incidentally, as one studies theatre history, this has often proved to be true—but not always).

This is the end of the workshop, please see activity summary .

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 2). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License