“Write about what you know.” Do playwrights stage plays within plays, and novelists write about the writing life or embed layers of fictional books within books because that’s all we know? Maybe, but it can also be an extremely useful tool for creating drama (sorry for the pun), and addressing deep themes. One of the advantages of made-up stories over exposition is that the author can address big questions of relationships, philosophy, history, human nature, spirituality--all the “deep thoughts” that separate us from the beasts-- through characters and a story the reader cares about. Nobody wants to be clubbed in the head with Enlightenment 101 lessons, but build a theme into the plot, and you’ve got good writing. Layering fiction or scripts with internal creative works creates infinite opportunities, like the optical illusion of two facing mirrors. A writer can explore various themes without having to stick to “realism.”
I have to mention Hamlet right up front as the most famous play within a play, at least in English. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, commissions a group of players to perform a script of his father’s murder to “out” the murderer, his stepfather. Was this all Hamlet was about, producing a play? No, but the play within the play allowed Shakespeare to expose human nature at its foulest.
In some scripts, the internal play production does occupy center state (can’t help myself!). 1983’s To Be or Not to Be by Mel Brooks takes place in Nazi Poland with actors as Resistance fighters, and somehow, it’s hilarious. The Last Metro, a François Truffaut classic starring Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, beautifully realizes the anguish and danger of Nazi occupied Paris through the characters of a stage actress and her Jewish husband. In the novel Atonement, Ian McEwan manipulates the line between his authorial voice and the voice of his author-heroine, tricking the reader (spoiler alert) with alternatives to the “reality” of his own fictional plot.
Okay, backgrounding of the already famous of plots within plots over, now to the mechanics of plays within plays. Up front, decide whether you are going to write the internal play or are you going to use a famous one, say, of Shakespeare. Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, sure they’ve been spoofed but there’s always a fresh take of Coriolanus waiting to be written, isn’t there? Comedic possibilities abound when bumbling troupes try to stage elaborate productions. Modernizations of Shakespeare are especially sought after by school theatre groups. The good news is Shakespeare, dead more than 70 years, is in public domain.
Or, you can write your own internal drama, giving you freedom to experiment. Romance or jealousy can bloom between actors, murder and mayhem can ravage a theatre company, the show must go on true grit can triumph over adversity (see above World War II movies). You don’t even actually have to write the internal play, it can all take place “off-stage” if your main action takes behind the scenes. Crossing the third wall is a neat trick, too. Go for it, after all, all the world’s a stage.
Pen Woman Magazine Poetry Editor