Greater Clements, by Samuel D. Hunter, is a play in three acts. During rehearsals, Hunter told me of his interest in the tripartite structure, especially with regard to American drama. Several of what are generally regarded as the greatest of our plays are three-act stories: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Our Town, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Why did this structure prove enduring?
For one thing, many 20th-century writers were schooled to think like Aristotle. He wrote famously that plays need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even though most classic Greek dramas observe this principle not in three acts but in one.
For another, the Hollywood screenwriting factories of mid-century drilled a framework of Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution into mass culture, and many dramatists imbibed that formula. They may have written plays to express themselves with more freedom than they found in the movies, but they nonetheless often used the set-up.
Another explanation: a three-act play can allow dramatists to tell their stories in more depth than two acts can. Of course, the exponents of the two part-er could reply that an evening with one intermission can last just as long as that with two breaks. So let me rephrase: a drama that delves into intense emotions may benefit from having two respites, so that audience members can absorb the impact, as opposed to a single stand-and-stretch. What’s more, a three-act play can sometimes feel as if moves more fleetly than a two-acter because each act usually lasts only an hour.
A fourth factor: having two intermissions allows theater owners to do a brisker business in concessions. Noel Coward, whose aesthetic is almost unthinkable without the buoyant effects of a martini, even wrote plays with four acts: three chances to visit the bar!
New media may be hastening a revival of three-act evenings, or at least the possibility that audiences will spring for longer dramas. Who needs to rush home to watch TV reruns when they are available 24/7 for streaming? In addition, the binge mentality brought on by Netflix has reminded us that, when characters are engaging and stories well-plotted, people will sit absorbed for hours.
Which, I am observing, is the experience of audiences who are deeply moved night after night by the sad, funny, stimulating characters and stories on display in Greater Clements.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com