From The Library: Rhythm In Drama


For the second installment of From The Library, I take a look at Rhythm In Drama, Kathleen George’s 1980 study of rhythmic principals used by playwrights and directors.

Much like Backwards And Forwards  — the subject of my previous installment – Rhythm In Drama attempts a highly quantitative approach to play analysis.  George begins by furnishing a working definition of rhythm:

The pattern of mathematics of a play in motion, functioning to produce in audiences a completed progression of physical, emotional, and intellectual responses by which they arrive at meaning.  That pattern is recognizable through repetition and change of some elements.

Her definition is necessarily broad, as George treats rhythm not as a word synonymous with pace or tempo, but rather a term encompassing all aspects of a play subject to alternation across space or time.

The first chapter, for example, deals with rhythm in an open scene.  The open scene, a tool for directing students, is typically a short dialogue exchange in which the characters and context are left deliberately ambiguous such that the scene can be played in number of ways.  George studies the subtle patterns of dialogic alternation that suggest general truths about the scene, even if no other hard information is present.  By combing through the raw data of who speaks, how long, repeated words, positive versus negative responses, and so on, George is able to suggest a certain fundamental relationship between the two characters that will hold true across various contextual interpretations.  More significantly, she is able to pin down the likely crisis point, or climax, of the scene.

While the first chapter may seem at once abstract and painfully minute, George quickly applies the same principles to finding meaning in the kinds of patterning present in all good plays.  Chapter Two hunts down repetition of sounds, words, and phrases and reveals their use in understanding early scenes in plays by Ibsen, Pinter, Albee, and Beckett.

In Waiting For Godot she notes Estragon’s tendency during the music-hall exchanges to repeat lines verbatim, while Vladimir performs the changes around him.  This, coupled with other rhythmic observations (length of lines, positive vs. negative statements), draws her to the conclusion that Vladimir is the more active, hopeful of the two characters.

Regarding a late scene in Uncle Vanya, George identifies the same line – “they’ve gone” – repeated by five separate characters, each time with new meaning and new dramatic purpose.  She further argues that the structure of the five repetitions, taken as a body, contains a climax strained to the point of breaking followed by an anti-climax.  This, in George’s opinion, echoes Chekhov’s overall dramatic strategy (as well as his theme) in miniature.

Her observations are not confined, by any means, to word-for-word close-reading exercises.  Chapters on repetition of verbal strategy and patterning of attitude claim fairly ordinary methods of dramatic analysis under the standard of rhythm.  If Character A speaks this way to Character B in Scenes X and Y but takes the opposite approach in Scene Z, what may be concluded?

On a single scene basis, George takes what an actor or director might call a change of tactic and marks it as a rhythmic alternation.  Not for nothing, she implicitly argues, are the informal divisions of scenes commonly called “beats”.

This points to a potential criticism of Rhythm In Drama: has George stretched the definition of rhythm to the point that it no longer has any particular meaning?  When she identifies a pattern of reversal in The Importance Of Being Earnest – tying a connecting thread between the practical structure of Wilde’s comedic language and the ideal form of his social critique – George is evidently working on her own turf.  However, when she attempts to compare the styles of Ibsen and Strindberg in terms of rhythm or to tease out O’Casey’s artistic project on the basis of a few verbal tics, George’s study suddenly feels mysterious and insubstantial.

A later chapter, exploring rhythm in scenic design, serves as a useful illustration.

Adolph Appia’s designs, which he calls “Rhythmic Spaces,” are excellent examples of repetition, change, and progression in the visual arts…columns, levels, spaces repeat in design.  The spaces invite action.  Our eyes follow the lines formed by shadows, masses repeated, the linear form of steps.  There is alternation between mass and space, and we are forced to be aware of what is solid and what is free…

A skeptical reader might well note that, beneath all her language, George’s method is simply to analyze plays based on differentiation (this space is empty, while this space is full…this side has a column, this side has a chair), and this is not so novel since all analysis is based on differentiation.  One might point out that the only reason a spectator can see the actor is the alternation between shadow and light.

Yet the virtue of George’s approach is also visible in this passage.  An astute reader may see her description of Appia’s designs and recall her introductory comments on rhythm as a pattern of tension and release, inhalation and exhalation.  Now with that link established, further connections are only one step away: principles of scenic design feel intimately bound to dramaturgical comprehension of the entire script and to performance analysis of a single dialogue exchange.  Yes, George’s rhythm is so abstracted it begins to lose structural integrity, but it is also just expansive enough to reach the entire stage.

Rhythm In Drama is accessible (especially by academic standards), but it is not necessarily a work for the casual reader.  George’s writing is citation-heavy and counts on the reader for a basic knowledge of some major figures in theatre history.  It is ideal for students and theatre practitioners.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager