Writing Actions

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“[Drama] is an imitation of an action.” --- Aristotle, Poetics Part VI


            One of my first jobs in theatre was to run a summer camp.  My purpose was to teach theatre skills to children as I led them in creating a play for public performance.  Because I felt uncomfortable with the act of casting---which necessarily involves telling some children that they are talented whereas others are not---I chose to have the children develop their own plays, tailored to their individual skills and interests.  While I knew that I would have to use a lot of improv, I intended to make writers of my preteen pupils.  I bought them notebooks and pencils and, at the end of our practices, I would ask them to write down the scenes that they had developed through their performance exercises. I found out, though, that they wrote nothing.  Because writing seemed such a chore, I stopped asking for it and, in so doing, found that their work suffered in no way:  they still created dramatic scenes with strong characters and conflict.  Their speeches were never the same from run to run, but the plots stayed consistent.  From this experience, I learned what Aristotle meant when he called drama the imitation of an action.

            Given Aristotle’s bias for plot, when he writes about action, we can take him to be describing the enacted events of a play---which, in his view, should work together to form a coherent whole.  However, in drawing our attention first to actions instead of words, Aristotle suggests how drama differs substantially from what we might today call poetry or prose fiction.  Consider the relationship of words to actions implicit in the following quote: 

The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.  (Aristotle, Poetics Part XIV)

Aristotle suggests that a good plot will move its listeners even if not witnessed, even in summary.  In other words, actions are not the same thing as language: the same actions can occur with different words.  Aristotle, then, suggests that words themselves are very much secondary in playwriting.  Instead, language is merely one way to accomplish action.  While some speeches have more finesse than others, as long as the action is accomplished, we still have drama.

            The lesson that I draw is that, if we fully consider what it means to write actions and not words, then we radically change what writing is.  As my grade-school playwrights taught me, the act of choosing words is far less important than choosing what those words are meant to accomplish.  To use Aristotelian terms, perhaps we sometimes muddy drama’s essential manner of imitation by focusing on words in playwriting classes. Actions should also be part of the writer’s toolbox.  Choosing and ordering actions are key to dramatic writing.  From this perspective, acting itself can also be a form of writing.

About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.