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The Act for Regulating the Theatre promulgated by the British parliament in  1843 granted legitimate production right to the minor or ‘illegitimate’ theatres. This Act marked the end of the monopoly enjoyed by the two patent houses, the King’s Company and the Duke of York Company since the beginning of the Restoration period in 1660. The implication is that the minor theatres now have the opportunity to engage in the production of legitimate drama hitherto exclusively enjoyed by the patent theatres.

The dignity accorded to the minor theatres created in them a new sense of responsibility towards their art, and this enabled them to undertake innovations in diverse aspects of the theatre especially in production techniques and playwriting. According to Downer (1950):

The awakened consciousness of men and women of the theater to the relationship between art and the life of the time, their increasing attention to the minute details of production, soon created a demand for a new type of play, one to replace the loosely constructed rambling plots of melodrama and the unreal and antiquated language of the traditional repertory. For inspiration for models, and all too often – for plays, they turned to the French theater and its thriving innovation, the pièce – bien – faite

The well – made – play, which is what the above French phrase means in English, is adopted as a way of pushing aside the romantic melodrama, which deals more with fanciful ideas than relating the drama to social issues of the time.

The Concept of the Well-Made-Play

As the name indicates, well – made – play is the type of play built on clarity as a consequence of the logical arrangement of the play’s dramatic activities. It adheres strictly to Aristotle’s precept of plot construction in which new events grow out of what happened earlier, according to what is probable, or inevitable. The technique of foreshadowing enables future actions to be prepared far well in the past before they come to pass. The essence is to ensure that no improbable action occurs.

The well-made-play, in its “logical machine-like structure” replaced “the old jerry-built structure of romantic melodrama” (Downer 281) where imagination was allowed to run wild. The well-made-play made extensive use of suspense as usually “a piece of information was deliberately held back to make a thrilling curtain” (281).

The maximum use of suspense helped to keep the members of the audience glued to their seat. They waited in anticipation, eagerly wanting to know what would come next since the twists and turns in the fortune of the major character frequently make predictions very uncertain. The well-made-play is created to explain moral or ethical point of view. Originally, it dealt with the problematic of marriage and the thesis often embedded in it, is that it is unsafe for a bad woman, that is, a morally depraved woman, to marry into a good home.

Characteristics of the Well-Made-Play

Tom F. Driver (1970) examines the characteristics of the well-made-play, both formally and thematically. The main thrusts of his submission are as follows.

  • The plot is based on a secret known to the audience and withheld from the major characters so as to be revealed to them in a climactic scene. This secret is achieved through the technique of dramatic irony.
  • The plot usually describes the culmination of a long story, most of which happened before the start of the play. This late point of attack requires that the audience be informed of the antecedent material (action) through dialogue that is called “exposition”.
  • Action and suspense grow more intense as the play proceeds, and this rise in intensity is arranged in a pattern achieved by contrivance of entrances, exists, letters, revelations of identity and other such devices.
  • The hero (protagonist) in conflict with adversary, experiences alternately good and bad turns in his fortune. This creates an emotional rhythm for the play.
  • The lowest point of the hero’s fortune is followed soon after by the highest. The latter occurs in a scène à faire (“obligatory scene”) that characteristically hinges upon the disclosure of secrets.
  • The plot, or part of it is frequently knotted by a misunderstanding, a quiproquo (qui pro quo) in which a word or situation is understood in opposite ways by two or more characters.
  • The dénouement (literally, “the untying”, the resolution) is logical and hence clear. It is not supposed to have any “remainder” or unsolved quotient to puzzle the audience.
  • The overall action pattern of the play is reproduced on a small scale in each act. It is, in fact, the principle according to which each minor climax and scene is constructed.
  • The play is almost always topical, or at least appears to be, even when the setting is remote in time and space, and even when, on analysis, it turns out that time and place have little to do with the essence of the story and the characterisations.
  • The play avoids metaphysical issue especially those that cannot be reduced to logic.
  • The well-made-play always, invariably, includes a difficulty between the sexes especially on issues that concern social incompatibility.
  •  It is preoccupied with the issues of fallen women, money and other such middle-class values. (47 – 50).
  • However, the fundamental feature of the well-made-play is its logic of events. The clarity of the well-made-play is derived from the logical arrangement of the dramatic activities of the play.

It is important to state that the sense of economy inherent in the structure of the well-made-play, makes it an ideal model for introducing aspiring writers into playwriting. Downer (1950: 295) argues that working with the form the novice learns the “value of economy, preparation, and verisimilitude, and is instructed by precept and example that the play can and should support a theme of social or intellectual interests”. He also learns how to focus and concentrate dramatic action.

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