How come this one-act play has three acts?

Radio presenter, artist, actor, musician and playwright George Douglas Lee sent me a copy George Douglas Leeof the presentation he made to The American Association of Community Theatre’s AACTFest.  George (the multi-media extravaganza) is far too much of an improviser for me to be able to précis the contents of his talk on character-driven plot and his writing process, but one point struck me: according to George, every story has three acts.  He illustrated it from the TV Series I Love Lucy.  (Recording of the show finished in 1957.  This may suggest something about George’s age or the expected age of his audience.)
–     Act 1: Lucy has an idea.
–     Act 2: Lucy implements her idea and gets into trouble.
–     Act 3: Lucy gets out of trouble.
I Love Lucy image from Wikimedia CommonsWhether or not every play is like this is arguable, but every story can be represented in this way: there is an introduction (because the audience has to be given a frame of reference), there is a development and there is a resolution.  This highlights the difference between a story and a joke: in a joke there is no development; it goes straight from set-up to punch-line.

So far, so good, but why did Shakespeare write in five acts, and can there be such a thing as a one-act play?

In the Shakespearian model, the first and last acts are the same as George’s model (exposition and denouement).  It is the development that is different, breaking into rising action, climax and falling action.  The content is the same, but is made more visible in the structure.

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we have categories of “short plays”, “one-act plays” and “full-length plays”.  The one-act play is a good illustration of a looser definition of the word act.  Shakespeare and George Douglas Lee use act to mean “a phase of the action”.  Act is also used to mean a “temporal unit”, where, commonly, a play occupying a whole evening is in two acts separated by an interval.  This may or may not have anything to do with the phases of the action.  For example, there is a common device in Ray Cooney’s farces where the end of Act One comes in the middle of a scene and in Act Two, the action resumes exactly where it left off.  (I think Alan Bennett took this to the logical extreme in Habeas Corpus, where, as the curtain falls at the end of the first act, one of the characters is literally left hanging.)  By this definition, a one-act play is something that will typically fit into half of an evening’s entertainment.  That’s the sort of definition used by one-act play festivals, where, typically, there is an upper limit of 50 minutes.  However, there is also a lower limit – generally around 20 minutes.

Given that it is possible to have a complete story told in less than 20 minutes, some one-act plays are too short to be one-act plays, and, by George Douglas Lee’s definition, most of those are in three acts.

5 thoughts on “How come this one-act play has three acts?

  1. On a related point, you might like to read Film Crit Hulk on the topic of three act structure as it applies to screenwriting. Hulk has an extremely idiosyncratic approach to his topic which takes some getting used to, and obviously cinema is not the stage, but it’s worth ploughing through it.

    Hollywood screenwriting is a law unto itself; commercial pressures make “formula” movies easier to sell to studios as low-risk, and that the suits tend to only understand structures that have been shown to work before.

    Also – and I am happy to be proved wrong on this – Shakespeare probably didn’t write in 5 formally defined acts, especially at the start of his career. The 5 act structure is, if I recall correctly, a neoclassical structure imposed by later editors in during the “long 18th century”. Asking why he wrote apparently everything in 5 acts is like asking why so many famous Americans were born on public holidays.

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the Campellian “Hero’s Journey” model. Which I think has some fascinating insights into some kinds of story telling, but is stupid when applied as a universal “monomyth”.

    1. I think you might have some fun applying the “Hero’s Journey” model to some pantomime themes! (Try it with “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Puss in Boots” or “Aladdin”.) It’s easiest to fit in those stories where there is a major supernatural element.

      1. Aladdin fits really well. One of the problems with the monomyth is that because there are so many items which are part of the myth and yet optional it fits everything if you squint enough.
        Winnie the Pooh, less so. Waiting for Godot? Not sure…

        My own monomyth which fits every stage play “people show up. something happens. some more things happen. words are often said. at least one person is changed by the experience unless he isnt” The only exception is “love changes everything” where all the characters bleat on about how love changes everything while demonstrating that love change absolutely nothing.

        I like Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin Of Our Teeth” which is explicitly cyclical.

  2. Oh, I don’t know. You could probably fit some of the individual Winnie the Pooh stories into the Hero’s Journey model – The Heffalump Trap, for example, provided that you take Pooh’s viewpoint that Chrisopher Robin is a supernatural being.

    As for Waiting for Godot, it gets as far as the second step – supernatural aid – but since that aid is to come from Godot, the rest of the cycle never happens.

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