Making a scene

8.6 The obligatory scene

This is a concept that both David Edgar and Lajos Egri write about. Edgar describes it as ‘The confrontation between two characters which we’ve been waiting for’ (p. 146), whilst Egri calls it ‘The scene which a play must have … the scene which has been promised throughout and which cannot be eliminated’ (p.247).

This is particularly relevant to genre, in which a story comes ‘fully equipped with expectation, and ready-primed to be blown apart’ (How Plays Work, p. 147). A simple example of this would be the showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a western, or the moment when James Bond is finally bought face to face with his arch nemesis. A great dramatist would play with that expectation, either by delaying it for as long as possible, or by presenting it in a different and original way. A good example of the first is in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s attempts to confront Oz are thwarted by his tasking her with eliminating the Wicked Witch of the West, only for her to return and discover that he is in fact a fraud. Comedy is always playing with the obligatory scene, using the device of mistaken identity to enable lovers to declare themselves without actually realising who they are talking to. Sometimes the desire for that obligatory scene can override other considerations – Schiller’s Mary Stuart (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008) imagines a scene between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots that never in fact took place. But in a play which is an examination of their relationship it is clear that the audience wants to see the two women battle it out.

Lajos Egri emphasises that the obligatory scene is but one chain on a link that encompasses the whole play. There is an accumulative power that drives the drama forward so that whilst the final conflict may mark the end of the story, it is on one level simply repeating in greater intensity what the audience has been experiencing throughout the drama.

Group activity: Working out the obligatory scene

Choose one of the following genres and write down what you consider to be five obligatory scenes.

  • Horror
  • Romantic comedy
  • Action adventure
  • Family drama
  • Children’s animation.

Then post your obligatory scenes to the Scenes forum, and respond to others’ posts.

Optional and further reading

  • The Art of Dramatic Writing, book IV, chapter 1, pp. 245–50.
  • How Plays Work, pp. 146–8. In particular, look at his description of formats.