The well-made play (French: la pièce bien faite, pronounced [pjɛs bjɛ̃ fɛt]) is a dramatic genre from the nineteenth-century theatre that Eugène Scribe first codified and that Victorien Sardou developed. By the mid-19th century, it had already entered into common use as a derogatory term. This did not prevent Henrik Ibsen and the other realistic dramatists of the later 19th century (August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Émile Zola, Anton Chekhov) from employing its technique of careful construction and preparation of effects. "Through their example", Marvin Carlson explains, "the well-made play became and still remains the traditional model of play construction."
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).
The form has a strong neoclassical flavour, involving a very tight plot and a climax that takes place very close to the end of the action, with most of the story taking place before the action of the play; much of the information regarding such previous action would be revealed through thinly veiled exposition. Following that would be a series of causally-related plot complications.
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. Following the recommendations found in Aristotle's Poetics, the letters must bring about an unexpected reversal of fortune, in which it is often revealed that someone is not who they pretend to be. The 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.
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.
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. 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.
- Banham (1998), 964, 972–3, 1191–2.
- Carlson (1993, 216).
- J L Styan, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice I, quoted by Innes (2000, 7).
- Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge, 1976, p. 40.
- Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge, 1976, p. 43.
- 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.
- 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.
- Innes, Christopher, ed. 2000. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15229-1.