Well-made play

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The well-made play (French: la pièce bien faite, pronounced [pjɛs bjɛ̃ fɛt]) is a dramatic genre from nineteenth-century theatre that French dramatist Eugène Scribe first codified. Dramatists Victorien Sardou, Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Emile Augier wrote within the genre, each putting a distinct spin on the style. The well-made play was a popular form of entertainment. By the mid-19th century, however, it had already entered into common use as a derogatory term.[1] Henrik Ibsen and the other realistic dramatists of the later 19th century (August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Émile Zola, Anton Chekhov) built upon its technique of careful construction and preparation of effects in the genre problem play. "Through their example", Marvin Carlson explains, "the well-made play became and still remains the traditional model of play construction."[2]

Eugène Scribe

In the English language, that tradition found its early 20th century codification in Britain in the form of William Archer's Play-Making: A Manual of Craftmanship (1912), and in the United States with George Pierce Baker's Dramatic Technique (1919).[3]


The form has a strong neoclassical flavour, involving a tight plot and a climax that takes place close to the end of the play. The design also involves a series of causally-related actions which complicate the plot. The use of plot events that grow logically from one to the next dates back to Aeschylus in Ancient Greece. The well-made play retains the shape of Aristotle's ideal Greek Tragedy model outlined in Poetics (Aristotle).

Aristotle's Tragic Plot Structure

Eugene Scribe contributed over 300 plays and opera libretti to the dramatic literature canon. Thirty-five of these works are considered well-made-plays. [4]

The well-made play can be broken down into a specific set of criteria.[5]First, the story depends upon a key piece of information kept from some characters, but known to others (and to the audience). Most of the story takes place before the action of the play begins. Exposition in act one explains the backstory which leads to the play's inciting incident. Rising action paces the reveal of information causing a series of minor reversals of fortune. The plot is fashioned to generate the audience's sympathy for the hero over his or her rival. The pace builds towards a climactic obligatory scene, in which the hero triumphs. This scene contains a climactic reversal of fortune, or peripeteia. A dénouement follows, in which all remaining plot points are tied up in a logical way.

A recurrent device that the well-made play employs is the use of letters or papers falling into unintended hands, in order to bring about plot twists and climaxes. The letters bring about an unexpected and climactic reversal of fortune, in which it is often revealed that someone is not who they pretend to be. Mistaken identity as a basis for plot complications is referred to as qui pro quo.[6] The climactic fortune reversal will allow for a quick dénouement, and a return to order, at which point the curtain falls.

The techniques of well-made plays also lend themselves to comedies of situation, often farce. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Bernard Shaw proposed that Ibsen converted this formula for use in "serious" plays by substituting discussion for the plausible dénouement or conclusion. Thus, plays become open-ended, as if there were life for the protagonists beyond the last act curtain.


French Neoclassicism[edit]

The French Academy's verdict on Le Cid (see Pierre Corneille section, Querelle du Cid) in 1638 is considered to be the point at which Neo-Classical Ideal became the standard for drama in France. The monarchy enforced the standard with a system of censorship under which funding and practice permits were issued to a limited number of theater companies. This system underwent small modifications, but remained essentially the same up until the French Revolution. Until then, restrictive laws inhibited the growth of new practices with the exception of those advocated by intrepid dramatists such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Beaumarchais who attempted to stretch boundaries.

Boulevarde theatres[edit]

In order to work around the formal monopoly of the Comédie Française in the middle of the 18th century, theater troupes began to spring up on the Boulevarde du Temple. These boulevard theatres experimented with new dramatic forms designed to escape the censors and please the public. Opéra comique and Comédies-vaudevilles incorporated music and pantomime. Aside from paving the way for popular new forms such as Melodrama, popular reception of the boulevard theatres' explorations helped to crack the edifice of Neo-Classic form.[7] After the French Revolution, French theater opened to the influence of practices that had meanwhile developed in other places around Europe.

New forms[edit]

Romanticism and its associated forms included literary dramatists' Goethe and Schiller's Sturm and Drang movement from which Weimar Classicism developed, as well as the more popular Melodrama genre spearheaded by Kotzebue. The rise of a theater-going middle class, advances in technology and medicine, socio-political upheaval, and new philosophical ideas were reflected in a proliferation of different theater companies and practices.


Scribe's influence on theater, according to Marvin J. Carlson, "cannot be overestimated".[8] Carlson observes that, unlike other influential theater thinkers, Scribe did not write prefaces or manifestos declaiming his ideas. Scribe influenced theater, instead, with craftsmanship. He honed a dramatic form into a reliable mold that could be applied not only to different content, but to different content from a variety of playwrights. Carlson identifies a single instance of Scribe's critical commentary from a speech Scribe gave to the Académie Française in 1836. Scribe expressed his view of what draws the audiences to theater:

"not for instruction or improvement, but for diversion and distraction, and that which diverts them [audience] most is not truth, but fiction. To see again what you have before your eyes daily will not please you, but that which is not available to you in every day life - the extraordinary and the romantic."[8]

Nine years earlier in 1927, in his Preface to Cromwell, Victor Hugo expressed a desire for a new type of drama that called for juxtaposing the grotesque against the beautiful for a more balanced picture of Nature and humanity.[9] Art would be more able to shed light on truth if artists embraced Nature's inherent opposites such as ugliness within the sublime. In an effort to depart from the rigid external form of Neo-Classicism, "God preserve us from our systems!",[9] Hugo articulated an artistic movement that spun the compass towards valuing spiritually transformative content over the art of formal rules. In his preface, common need for plurality of ideas. Scribe's new formula could serve as a framework for the variety of dramatists who answered the need for new dramatic content going forward, resulting in Carlson's high marks for influence.

Although Scribe advocated for a theater of amusement over didacticism, other writers, beginning with Alexandre Dumas, fils, adopted Scribe's structure to create didactic plays. In a letter to a critic, Doumas fils states,"... if I can find some means to force people to discuss the problem, and the lawmaker to revise the law, I shall have done more than my duty as a writer, I shall have done my duty as a man.".[10] Doumas' thesis plays are plays written in the well-made style that take clear moral positions on social issues of the day. Emile Augier also used Scribe's formula to write plays addressing contemporary social issues, although he declares his moral position less strongly.


Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest exaggerates many of the conventions of the well-made play, such as the missing papers conceit (the hero, as an infant, was confused with the manuscript of a novel) and a final revelation (which, in this play, occurs about thirty seconds before the final curtain).

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House follows most of the conceits of the well-made play, but transcends the genre when, after incriminating papers are recovered, Nora (rather shockingly) rejects the expected return to normality. Several of Ibsen's subsequent plays seem to build on the general construction principles of the well-made play. The Wild Duck (1884) can be seen as a deliberate, meta-theatrical deconstruction of the Scribean formula. Ibsen sought a compromise between Naturalism and the well-made play which was fraught with difficulties since life does not fall easily into the syllogistic of either form.[11]

Sardou's successful La Tosca (1887), the basis for Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca (1900), typifies the well-made play in that it compresses its action into an eighteen-hour period, follows a credible unfolding of plot twists, with a shocking dénouement at the final curtain.

Although George Bernard Shaw scorned the "well-made play", he accepted them and even thrived by them for by necessity they concentrated his skills on the conversation between characters, his greatest asset as a dramatist.[12] Other classic twists on the well-made play can be seen in his use of the General's coat and the hidden photograph in Arms and the Man.

Also, J. B. Priestley's 1946 An Inspector Calls may in some ways be considered a "well-made play" in that its action happens before the play starts, and in the case of the older Birlings no moral change takes place. The similarity between Priestley's play and this rather conservative genre might strike some readers/audiences as surprising because Priestley was a socialist. However, his play, like Ibsen's A Doll's House transcends this genre by providing another plunge into chaos after the return to normality. He replaced the dramatic full stop with a question mark by revealing in the last scene that the 'inspector' who has exposed the complicity of a prosperous industrial family in the murder or suicide of a working-class girl, is not an inspector at all (perhaps a practical joker, an emanation of the world to come, or a manifestation of the world to come), and the curtain falls on the news that a real girl has died and a real inspector is on the way.[13]


Ibsen, Shaw, Theatrical realism, August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Émile Zola, Anton Chekhov


  1. ^ Banham (1998), 964, 972–3, 1191–2.
  2. ^ Carlson (1993, 216).
  3. ^ J L Styan, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice I, quoted by Innes (2000, 7).
  4. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica Editors. "well-made play". Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Scribe, Eugene; ed. introd. Stanton, Stephen (1956). Camille and Other Plays. Hill and Wang. ISBN 0809007061. 
  6. ^ Holmgren, Beth. "Acting Out: Qui pro Quo in the Context of Interwar Warsaw." East European Politics & Societies (2012): 0888325412467053.
  7. ^ Hildy, Oscar G. Brockett ; Franklin J. (2007). History of the theatre (Foundation ed. ed.). Boston, Mass. [u.a.]: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-47360-1. 
  8. ^ a b Carlson, Marvin (1984). Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP. 
  9. ^ a b Gerould, edited with introductions by Daniel (2000). Theatre, theory, theatre : the major critical texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. New York: Applause. pp. 298–313. ISBN 1-55783-309-5. 
  10. ^ Hildy, Oscar G. Brockett ; Franklin J. (2007). History of the theatre (Foundation ed. ed.). Boston, Mass. [u.a.]: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-47360-1. 
  11. ^ Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge, 1976, p. 40.
  12. ^ Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge, 1976, p. 43.
  13. ^ Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge, 1976, p. 45.


  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Cardwell, Douglas. "The Well-Made Play of Eugène Scribe," French Review (1983): 876-884. JSTOR. Web.10 Feb. 2015.
  • Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8154-3.
  • Elsom, John. 1976. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-0168-1.
  • "problem play". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2015
  • "well-made play". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2015
  • Innes, Christopher, ed. 2000. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15229-1.
  • Stanton, Stephen S. "Shaw's Debt to Scribe", PMLA 76.5 (1961): 575-585. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
  • Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play, Great Britain: Routledge, Cox and Wyman, Ltd.,1967. Print.

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