Acts are created by the playwright and should divide the play as if they are chapters in a novel. Sometimes, the scenes jump between times and places and the acts and divide the play into larger sections and span longer periods of time. Usually, the first act of the play is going to include the bulk of the exposition: the basic information such as who the characters are, when and where they are, as well as the most central facts about the plot. As the acts progress, the information gets more complex and the narrative starts to play itself out. Readers can find the rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement, and conclusion.
Definition of Act
The word “act” is most commonly used to refer to division in a play. But, it can also refer to the way that operas and other stage performances are divided. Acts separate the play into large chunks. These can take the reader or audience member to different places and times and help them understand the playwright’s world more broadly. The acts are usually divided into several scenes. For example, Act I of “Macbeth” contains seven scenes of varying lengths.
Examples of Acts
“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare
“Macbeth” is one of William Shakespeare’s best-known plays. It contains five acts, as do most of Shakespeare’s plays. In the first act, the reader hears from the three witches and their plan to meet Macbeth. Readers are also taken to King Duncan’s camp and hear about Macbeth’s deeds. Ross brings news of more victories and that the Thane of Cawdor has been captured. He’s sentenced to death and Macbeth is given his title. The act contains four scenes. The witches meet again and Macbeth and Banquo encounter them. Macbeth is referred to as “king hereafter!” He starts to contemplate what would have to happen for that prediction to come true.
Next, Macbeth and Banquo meet up with Duncan’s party and Macbeth goes ahead to his castle to tell his wife the King is coming to visit. She hears about his promotion to Thane of Cawdor and worries that he’s too weak to take advantage of it. She asks the spirits to make her capable of murder and plants the seed in Macbeth’s mind that they should kill Duncan.
In the final scene, Macbeth considers killing the king and decides not to. Lady Macbeth insults him and tries to put a new plan into action. They decide Macbeth will kill Duncan after getting his guards drunk. Here are a few famous lines from Act V, spoken by Lady Macbeth:
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.
Throughout this act, a great deal happens. Readers are given predictions about the future of Macbeth and the king, meaning that the outcome of these early events is not entirely unknown. There is a great deal of foreshadowing and plot development in this section of the play.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett
“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett is a two-act play that details the meaningless waiting and conversation Vladimir and Estragon engage in. The play is one of the best-known examples of the theatre of the absurd. In Act I, the play opens with the two main characters speaking to one another. They’re waiting for Godot to arrive. During their wait, Pozzo and Lucky, his slave, arrive. They speak to one another and Pozzo says he’s going to sell Lucky at a market. A boy arrives, saying that Godot isn’t going to come tonight. They decide to leave but don’t make any movements to when the curtain closes on Act I.
When the second act opens, they are still on stage, waiting near a tree. They’ve been waiting for a while. Lucky and Pozzo come back. The latter can no longer see and the former can’t speak. Nor do they remember meeting Vladimir and Estragon the night before. The boy comes back, saying again that Godot is not coming and suggest that he has never met Vladimir and Estragon before. This angers the two, and they contemplate suicide but don’t have any way to go through with it. This act ends in the same way that the previous did, with the two deciding to leave but not going anywhere.
“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller
“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller is a four-act play. It is a fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials that took place in the 1690s in the United States. The first act opens with Reverend Parris pleading with God to wake up his daughter, Betty. She’s comatose and nothing can help her. Abigail reveals that the girls have been spending time in the forest but haven’t done anything wrong.
There are a few events that suggest that the “dancing” in the forest is going to turn into much more. The suspicion of witchcraft in the town spreads quickly. This takes the form of various residents blaming events on magic, like Thomas Putnam’s wife saying that witches murdered her children while they were infants. This first act sets the stage for the three which follow. The use of foreshadowing and the bits of information readers learn about the townspeople’s willingness to gossip makes it clear that things are going to go wrong quickly.
Why Do Writers Use Acts?
Acts in plays are the way that the stories are arranged. They play the same role as chapters in novels. Without them, the play would have no pauses nor any chances for the actors to rest. Often, between acts, the set changes dramatically. A great deal of time can pass and sometimes even the actors change. Acts also provide an easy way for readers and audience members to break down the play into parts. This can make it easier to understand.
Plays usually contain between two and six acts but it is up to the playwright how many they want to use.
An act is a unit of division in a play.
A one-act play is a play that only has one act. That act may be divided into scenes or not. Sometimes, these plays do not change location and play out with one set.
The best way to go about writing a one-act play is to construct one’s narrative and figure out all the plot points and then focus on what’s the most important.
An act can be as long as the playwright wants. They usually change lengths as the play or other performance goes along. They’re usually around thirty-sixty mins each.
Related Literary Terms
- Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts.
- Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.
- Soliloquy: a dramatic literary device that is used when a character gives a speech that reveals something about their thought process.
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Style: the way a writer writes. An individual writer’s style is original and unlike any other.