by Lajos Egri
The following is an excerpt from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.
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A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: "I really don't know."
Another man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps: "How should I know where I'm going? I am on my way."
Your reaction -- and ours, and the world's -- is that these two men are a little mad. Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination.
Yet, fantastic as it seems, this simple necessity has not made itself felt to any extent in the theater. Reams of paper bear miles of writing -- all of it without any point at all. There is much feverish activity, a great deal of get-up-and-go, but no one seems to know where he is going.
Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there.
We may not succeed in proving each tiny premise, but that in no way alters the fact that there was one we meant to prove. Our attempt to cross the room may be impeded by an unobserved footstool, but our premise existed nevertheless.
The premise of each second contributes to the premise of the minute of which it is part, just as each minute gives its bit of life to the hour, and the hour to the day. And so, at the end, there is a premise for every life.
Webster's International Dictionary says:
Premise: a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.
Others, especially men of the theater, have had different words for the same thing: theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot, basic emotion.
For our own use we choose the word "premise" because it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation.
Ferdinand Brunetière demands a "goal" in the play to start with. This is premise.
John Howard Lawson: "The root-idea is the beginning of the process." He means premise.
Professor Brander Matthews: "A play needs to have a theme." It must be the premise.
Professor George Pierce Baker, quoting Dumas the Younger: "How can you tell what road to take unless you know where you are going?" The premise will show you the road.
They all mean one thing: you must have a premise for your play.
Let us examine a few plays and see whether they have premises.
Romeo and Juliet
The play starts with a deadly feud between two families, the Capulets and the Montagues. The Montagues have a son, Romeo, and the Capulets a daughter, Juliet. The youngsters' love for each other is so great that they forget the traditional hate between their two families. Juliet's parents try to force her to marry Count Paris, and, unwilling to do this, she goes to the good friar, her friend, for advice. He tells her to take a strong sleeping draught on the eve of her wedding which will make her seemingly dead for forty-two hours. Juliet follows his advice. Everyone thinks her dead. This starts the onrushing tragedy for the two lovers. Romeo, believing Juliet really dead, drinks poison and dies beside her. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead, without hesitation she decides to unite with him in death.
This play obviously deals with love. But there are many kinds of love. No doubt this was a great love, since the two lovers not only defied family tradition and hate, but threw away life to unite in death. The premise, then, as we see it is: "Great love defies even death."
The King's trust in his two daughters is grievously misplaced. They strip him of all his authority, degrade him, and he dies insane, a broken, humiliated old man.
Lear trusts his oldest daughters implicitly. Because he believes their glittering words, he is destroyed.
A vain man believes flattery and trusts those who flatter him. But those who flatter cannot be trusted, and those who believe the flatterers are courting disaster.
It seems, then, that "Blind trust leads to destruction" is the premise of this play.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in their ruthless ambition to achieve their goal, decide to kill King Duncan. Then, to strengthen himself in his position, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo, whom he fears. Later, he is forced to commit still more murders in order to entrench himself more securely in the position he has reached through murder. Finally, the nobles and his own subjects become so aroused that they rise against him, and Macbeth perishes as he lived -- by the sword. Lady Macbeth dies of haunting fear.
What can be the premise of this play? The question is, what is the motivating force? No doubt it is ambition. What kind of ambition? Ruthless, since it is drenched in blood. Macbeth's downfall was foreshadowed in the very method by which he achieved his ambition. So, as we see, the premise for Macbeth is: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."
Othello finds Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's lodging. It had been taken there by Iago for the very purpose of making him jealous. Othello therefore kills Desdemona and plunges a dagger into his own heart.
Here the leading motivation is jealousy. No matter what caused this green-eyed monster to raise its ugly head, the important thing is that jealousy is the motivating force in this play, and since Othello kills not only Desdemona but himself as well, the premise, as we see it, is: "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love."
Ghosts, BY IBSEN
The basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which is the premise: "The sins of the fathers are visited on the children." Every word uttered, every move made, every conflict in the play, comes about because of this premise.
Dead End, BY SIDNEY KINGSLEY
Here the author obviously wants to show and prove that "Poverty encourages crime." He does.
Sweet Bird of Youth, BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
A ruthless young man who yearns for fame as an actor makes love to the daughter of a rich man; she contracts a venereal disease. The young man finds an aging actress who supports him in exchange for love-making. His downfall comes when he is castrated by a mob driven by the girl's father. For this play the premise is: "Ruthless ambition leads to destruction."
Juno and the Paycock, BY SEAN O'CASEY
Captain Boyle, a shiftless, boastful drinker, is told that a rich relative died and left him a large sum of money, which will shortly be paid to him. Immediately Boyle and his wife, Juno, prepare themselves for a life of ease: they borrow money from neighbors on the strength of the coming inheritance, buy gaudy furniture, and Boyle spends large sums on drink. It later develops that the inheritance will never come to them, because the will was worded vaguely. The angry creditors descend on them and strip the house. Woe piles on woe: Boyle's daughter, having been seduced, is about to have a baby; his son is killed, and his wife and daughter leave him. At the end, Boyle has nothing left; he has hit bottom.
Premise: "Shiftlessness leads to ruin."
Shadow and Substance, BY PAUL VINCENT CARROLL
Thomas Skeritt, canon in a small Irish community, refuses to admit that his servant, Bridget, has really seen visions of Saint Bridget, her patron saint. Thinking her mentally deranged, he tries to send her away on a vacation and, above all, refuses to perform a miracle which, according to the servant, Saint Bridget requests of him. In trying to rescue a school-master from an angry crowd, Bridget is killed, and the canon loses his pride before the girl's pure, simple faith.
Premise: "Faith conquers pride."
We are not sure that the author of Juno and the Paycock knew that his premise was "Shiftlessness leads to ruin." The son's death, for instance, has nothing to do with the main concept of the drama. Sean O'Casey has excellent character studies, but the second act stands still because he had only a nebulous idea to start his play with. That is why he missed writing a truly great play.
Shadow and Substance, on the other hand, has two premises. In the first two acts and the first three quarters of the last act, the premise is: "Intelligence conquers superstition." At the end, suddenly and without warning, "intelligence" of the premise changes to "faith," and "superstition" to "pride." The canon -- the pivotal character -- changes like a chameleon into something he was not a few moments before. The play becomes muddled in consequence.
Every good play must have a well-formulated premise. There may be more than one way to phrase the premise, but, however it is phrased, the thought must be the same.
Playwrights usually get an idea, or are struck by an unusual situation, and decide to write a play around it.
The question is whether that idea, or that situation, provides sufficient basis for a play. Our answer is no, although we are aware that out of a thousand playwrights, nine hundred and ninety-nine start this way.
No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.
If you have no such premise, you may modify, elaborate, vary your original idea or situation, or even lead yourself into another situation, but you will not know where you are going. You will flounder, rack your brain to invent further situations to round out your play. You may find these situations -- and you will still be without a play.
You must have a premise -- a premise which will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach.
Moses L. Malevinsky says in The Science of Playwrighting:
Emotion, or the elements in or of an emotion, constitute the basic things in life. Emotion is life. Life is emotion. Therefore emotion is drama. Drama is emotion.
No emotion ever made, or ever will make, a good play if we do not know what kind of forces set emotion going. Emotion, to be sure, is as necessary to a play as barking to a dog.
Mr. Malevinsky's contention is that if you accept his basic principle, emotion, your problem is solved. He gives you a list of basic emotions -- desire, fear, pity, love, hate -- any one of which, he says, is a sound base for your play. Perhaps. But it will never help you to write a good play, because it designates no goal. Love, hate, any basic emotion, is merely an emotion. It may revolve around itself, destroying, building -- and getting nowhere.
It may be that an emotion does find itself a goal and surprises even the author. But this is an accident and far too uncertain to offer the young playwright as a method. Our aim is to eliminate chance and accident. Our aim is to point a road on which anyone who can write may travel and eventually find himself with a sure approach to drama. So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.
The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialogue -- even action -- and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.
Let us suppose that we want to write a play about a frugal character. Shall we make fun of him? Shall we make him ridiculous, or tragic? We don't know, yet. We have only an idea, which is to depict a frugal man. Let us pursue the idea further. Is it wise to be frugal? To a degree, yes. But we do not want to write about a man who is moderate, who is prudent, who wisely saves for a rainy day. Such a man is not frugal; he is farsighted. We are looking for a man who is so frugal he denies himself bare necessities. His insane frugality is such that he loses more in the end than he gains. We now have the premise for our play: "Frugality leads to waste."
The above premise -- for that matter, every good premise -- is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine "Frugality leads to waste." The first part of this premise suggests character -- a frugal character. The second part, "leads to," suggests conflict, and the third part, "waste," suggests the end of the play.
Let us see if this is so. "Frugality leads to waste." The premise suggests a frugal person who, in his eagerness to save his money, refuses to pay his taxes. This act necessarily evokes a counteraction -- conflict -- from the state, and the frugal person is forced to pay triple the original amount.
"Frugality," then, suggests character; "leads to" suggests conflict; "waste" suggests the end of the play.
A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play.
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Copyright © 1946, 1960 by Lajos Egri. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Lajos Egri was born some sixty years ago in the city of Eger, Hungary, and wrote his first three-act play at the age of ten. For more than thirty-five years he has written and directed plays in Europe and the United States. He was director of the Egri School of Writing in New York City for many years. He now resides in Los Angeles, California, where he is teaching and working with members of the film industry.