Not long ago, I chanced upon a Tweet from a woman—I’ll protect her reputation by keeping her anonymous—extensively deriding a piece of work as a “well-made play.” I realize that historically speaking, the term “well-made play” has been used pejoratively during certain periods… but the more I think about that, the more foolish and short-sighted that seems to me.

Before I go any further, let me set forth the definition of the term on which my argument relies: a well-made play is one that relies at least primarily on a traditional plot-driven dramatic structure: introduction, rising action, climax, etc. I’m not referring, to be extra-clear, to a play that has literally been made well—a play that has smoothed out its rough edges and feels, to its audiences, neat and tidy and wrapped-up… though I do think those qualities are typically true of well-made plays.

Okay: there’s the definition. Now, the question: what’s wrong with well-made plays?

When I inquired of the woman in question, she seemed to suggest that well-made plays were passé and that their time had come and gone. My theory is this: they may be passé for her, and perhaps for other theater practitioners, but you can be damn sure they’re still the best game in town for most of America.

In fact, I suspect that most Americans—the ones who aren’t going to theater, though we wish like hell they were—really LOVE traditional dramatic structure. That’s why they watch television and see movies, both of which serve up one well-made story after another. Audiences know how to “get” that format.

We Americans expect traditional structure, and when we don’t get it, and we have to adapt to the rules of a more non-traditional storytelling style, theater can often (but not always) begin to feel like work.

Theater should not be work… at least not most of the time.

The problem is this: we’re all clambering all over one another to try to make more and more inventive plays with more and more experimental styles, and all the while we’re getting farther and farther away from the audiences who might be seeing our work. We blame them for not taking an interest, but what’s really happening is that we’re not telling the kind of stories they want to hear. Sure, maybe they could stretch themselves further from time to time; couldn’t we all? But they don’t want to have to do that every time they walk into a theater.

What this means to me: most of the plays we make should still rely on traditional dramatic structure. When they don’t, we should have a good reason for deviating. We should meet our audiences where they are, then carry them forward into new territory from there. We should be making theater for the people who aren’t watching it at all, not simply for each other. If we do that, we’ll have a great many more well-made plays, not fewer.

Whatever your artistic impulses, though, one thing is clear: there’s no reason to deride other artists for the choices they’ve made. If you don’t care for well-made plays, fine; we do still need experimentation, so please, experiment and discover new territory for all of us. I do it myself from time to time, and it’s exhilarating and wonderful.  But I’m not “better” or morally superior for trying something new, and neither is anyone else.

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Comment by John Patrick Bray on May 6, 2011 at 2:06pm
I like the idea of "half measures!" Well said :)
Comment by Gwydion Suilebhan on April 26, 2011 at 7:52am
John, you have contributed a great deal to this discussion: thank you. I agree that realism (or, more accurately, pulling away from it) is an important way in which we can (should?) differentiate from television and film. I have long advocated for less realism (and detail) in set/costume/lighting/sound design for similar reasons. I also agree that there are gray areas between embracing conventional narrative structures and abandoning them completely. Half measures are a way to provide familiarity and strangeness in the same piece... which strikes me as precisely what we ought to be doing more of.
Comment by John Patrick Bray on April 25, 2011 at 3:37pm

Scribe's GLASS OF WATER was definitely a lot of fun; and yes, Ibsen's DOLL HOUSE (or DOLL'S HOUSE; there's a quarrel vis-a-vis translation), and most of Shaw's works are also well-made; and yes, most of the commercial material ("commercial" is not meant as pejorative) is also well-made. However, in theatre, most of the works that are produced regionally are not only well-made, but are also American realism (see Douglas Anderson's "A Dream Machine: Thirty Years of New Play Development in America," The Mellon "White Pages," or OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY by London, Pesner, and Voss). Again, as a playwright, I'm a fan of "the fable," but I am also a fan of aesthetic and/or narrative risk. But, the question is, and I think you hit on this, what is the risk we are taking, and for whose benefit? Who is the audience we are trying to reach with these deviations from the norm, and what are we trying to tell them? Why will a non-narrative structure (avant-garde? postdramatic?) serve this message (or lack-of) better than the well-made-play formula?


There were some great papers given at the MATC a couple of years ago in Chicago which championed the well-made, commercial play. I think you would have found a kinship with that group of excellent scholars.


I think the bottom line is: yes, Realism (which tends to imply "well-made") is one way of writing a drama. However, Realism had its heyday over one-hundred years ago on stage. Since, I argue (and have argued) the U.S. has no national theatre and therefore, should not compete with television and film, what can the theatre do to create its own viable form in the 21st Century?


I think authors such as Sarah Ruhl and Lucy Thurber have really shown us how we can incorporate elements of structure, with elements of the avant-garde in order to create works that are bold; furthermore, their writing implies that they remember their audience(s) by addressing their needs, and giving them something they did not realize they had wanted.


Just a last note: experimenting with form does not imply that someone thinks that he-or-she is better or morally superior to those who prefer Realism and the well-made-structure. My only concern is that Realism is still the dominant aesthetic (and a great one, yes) while there are so many other avenues that have been explored, and so many more that still wait for us to discover.



Comment by Jacob Coakley on April 20, 2011 at 12:59pm

I would be remiss if I didn't link to this article (Looking for Structure, by Tom Diggs) from the April Stage Directions, which gives a quick survey of some different schools of thought surrounding traditionally structured and non-traditionally structured playwriting programs.



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