The one-act play, as the very name implies, is a play in only one act and differs, on this structural point, from a regular play. This is, however, a very important modern requirement, as it comes to suit the very necessity of the modern age of hurry and speed. It takes a short time for its performance. So it satisfies a modern man’s psychological need by offering entertainment within a short time. At the same time, his business is not at all affected. He works and he enjoys it. His duty and pleasure are rightly balanced. Consequently, the one-act play has become one of the most popular entertainments of the modern age.
It is, however, wrong to suppose that the one-act play is entirely an innovation of modern times. In the early days of the drama, there were short plays, with an artistic unity. Early Miracle and Morality plays, represented in cycles, were short and truly one-act plays. Everyman, an unforgettable specimen of medieval theatre, may well be regarded as one of the most effective one-act plays in the world. Interludes, less serious plays, rather farcical, are also found short and of one-act. Even some of the early English comedies and a few specific plays of the seventeenth century and the eighteenth are actually one-act plays. The one-act play is, then, by no means a product of the current century, although many admirers of this type of drama haye such a view. In fact, the one-act play of today is simply the revival of an old form of dramatic art in a changed situation.
A one-act play is, no doubt, a work of art and, like all true works of art, it, too, represents the grasp and transmission of life- life with all its ups and downs, hopes and fears, successes and failures. It is, as a regular play, surely mimesis, imitation, or representation of life, according to the dramatic necessity, and may have a happy or sad ending. It has, however, certain characteristics of its own.
First, the scope of the one-act play is much restricted, as its span is limited. Hence, it cannot deal with an entire life. merely seizes upon a fragment of this life and serves to focus the attention of all on that fragment, creating a mood. So the one-act play deals with a single dramatic situation and attempts to produce a single effect. This is a distinct feature in such a play.
Secondly, the one-act play has no elaborate plot, like a full-length play, as it is performed within a short span of time. It has a sub-plot, too. Its plot is simple and based on a single situation. The unity of the plot is the very core of a one-act play and forms another feature.
Thirdly, again, the canvas of the one-act play is also much circumscribed. Hence, paucity in the number of characters is one of its special features. However, every character of the one-act play has a living role to play. Though he or she has a very short time to stay, he or she must impress the spectators with real human interest.
Lastly, the dialogue of a good one-act play is necessarily precise and pointed. There cannot be any prolonged discussion or any rich soliloquy in it. Every word of a one-act play may develop a situation, reveal a character and create an atmosphere. Brevity and relevancy are always the very basis of such a play.
Of course, the one-act play has a structural aspect. It proceeds, too, through three important stages-exposition, development, and conclusion. But its movement from one stage to another is swift and spontaneous, and the spectator feels hardly conscious of the same. In this structural movement, a good one-act play does not differ much from a regular play except that the transition from one phase to another is smooth and swift.
The rise of the one-act play is a much-noted feature in the English drama of the present time. There is found a genuine interest in and a general popularity of the modern British one-act play. This is found to achieve the intensity of a high tragedy as well as the hilarity of a pleasant comedy. In fact, the one-act play, like a regular drama, has two distinct types- tragedy and comedy-, and it shows its proficiency equally in both types, or even in the broad farce or melodrama.
Of the tragedies in one act, J.M.Synge’s Riders to the Sea is to be mentioned first. This one-act play takes not more than half an hour for its performance. Yet, it possesses the immensity of a great tragedy. Modeled after great classical tragedies, it remains a minor masterpiece in modern theatre, with a rare universality that is the gift of any great play. The Monkey’s Paw, adopted from a story of W. W. Jacobs, is a touching tragedy in one act. The tragic appeal is intense here, too. J. A. Ferguson’s Campbell of Kilmhor is another effective tragedy, with a patriotic inspiration. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Waterloo, Hugh Stewart’s A Room in the Tower, and H. H. Munro’s The Death Trap are some successful one-act plays in this respect.
The English one-act plays are no less impressive in the sphere of comedies. The one-act comedies of the British theatre are, perhaps, more popular and numerous. The Dumb Wife of Cheapside by Ashley Dukes is a quite interesting comedy, with enough fun and foolery. Dramatic situations, dialogue and characters are well-conceived here to produce much comic delight. Stanley Houghton’s The Dear Departed is an amusing play, with some satiric slings. The play has the nature of the social comedy of the Restoration, without its vulgarity. A. À Milne’s The Boy Comes Home, Sir John Ervine’s She was no Lady, Thomas Hardy’s The Three Wayfarers, Oswald Francis’s Birds of a Feather, Arnold Bennett’s The Stepmother and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are some other successful comedies in one-act. In fact, as in tragedy the one-act play excels no less in comedy.
There are some other one-act plays, sufficiently appealing on the stage, which cannot be classed exactly as the tragedy or. comedy. They are serious plays, with some idealistic views and noble notions to propagate. One such one-act play is Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon. This is inspired by the Irish patriotic zeal and deemed as a part of the Irish freedom movement. J. J. Bell’s Thread O’ Scarlet, Lord Dunsany’s A Night at an Inn, John Ervine’s Progress, and The Bishop’s Candlesticks, the dramatization of an episode from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, are some other notable one-act plays. All such plays testify to the capability of the one-act play of handling different materials adequately on the stage.
Also read; What is novel of sensation and its examples