Master Class: Girish Karnad on The Structure of the Play

Master Class: Girish Karnad on The Structure of the Play

“A play has to be like a well built house, where every corner – has a solid beam – or a door or a window – Why? Why? Why? You have to go on asking these questions”

Jnanapeeta Award winner Girish Karnad speaks about the struct I am so happy to have come across this video almost by chance. I have been re-reading Girish Karnad’s plays off late and to find this, video where he talks about The Structure of the play was indeed most precious~

Thank you to Sunil Khare who has made this available for all of us.

Karnad ji uses his play Yayati to talk about the straight forward narrative structure of the play.

On the whole, Karnad talks about

  • The differences between dialogue and conversation
  • Persuasion of characters
  • the live nature of play – without a chance to refer back
  • Character motivations

Here are parts of the talk that I found very important for my own study


Writing a play is a very individual activity, every playwright has his own method, different play wrights do it differently…..

We should be clear what a play is… what is a naatak –?

Usually we associate a play with dialogue. A dialogue is not a conversation. When you go in a train you hear two people talking… you hear, and it is interesting, they are talking, they are fighting, they are proposing or whatever ..and then they get down and go and you forget it.

That is just a conversation between, an exchange of ideas between two people that is … it does not give you an idea of where they came from and where they are going… and you are not interested, you are on your own way somewhere else…

The point of the dialogue is that the audience has come there to listen to dialogues being exchanged by the actors, so the dialogue has to tell the audience, who are these people.. the first thing that the dialogue has to tell people is the characters.

If it is A and B, what is A, what is B. Where does A come from, where does B come from? And because of this… play essentially has… although what happens in a play is what happens in front of you…a past and a future… each character brings a past and a future…. and a good playwright should be able to with each sentence bring out this past and future.


What does a dialogue do?

This is the second one.. .what are these characters trying to do? Of course they are trying to tell a story. Everyone is interested in a story but, what is actually happening there, in a play any play is .. .one character is trying to persuade the other character to do something. You know there has to be action… people say that there has to be action in a play… but an action doesn’t mean they have to run around on stage, beat each other and this…

The action is in the dialogue, and the action in the dialogue says, that one character should try to persuade, the other character. It may be Manthara trying to persuade Kaikeyi that her son should become a king. It may be someone trying to seduce another person. It may be Lady Mcbeth trying to tell McBeth kill the king, you know.. these are major, well known cases of persuasion, but even in smaller things, little suggestions, little gestures, the whole process of persuasion goes on..

Then there is a second degree of persuasion which happens which is that this dialogue must persuade the audience that it is worth listening to. Otherwise the audience will get bored. So, you know there are two levels of activity going on… the two actors or actresses are trying to persuade each other resisting the persuasion… that is the conflict there. ..the conflict arises because the other person may or may not agree to what persuasion is going on, but even more important is that these two or three characters on stage are trying to persuade the audience, that this scene is worth listening to, the play is worth listening to, and this is important.

That is a basic notion that every playwright has to bear in mind. Then there are other limitations which are typically theatrical limitations. A novel can go on for ever, I mean War and Peace is something – two and a half pages. But a play cant go on forever.

but a play cant go on forever

There was a time when people used to sit through the night to see a play, but then they were allowed to sleep, which is a great advantage which we don’t have, these days. So, today you have to have a play that can go at the most for two and a half hours. You see, because, ultimately what decides the length of a play is the capacity of our bottom muscles. After two and a half hours, the audience wants to go home, to their activity. And this physical thing cannot happen in a novel, or in a poem or in another thing else. You can read it tomorrow. Here (in theatre) it is one continuous activity. So, you have this limitation, that the play has to be two hours long.

Second limitation, is that the play can be seen ideally only by this kind. Say about five hundred and fifty people. It has been decided that after five hundred and fifty or six hundred people, the last man cannot see the facial expressions of the actors. Ultimately people have to be able to see what is going on stage. So what the play has to do is to keep the attention of five hundred people.

They may be children or adults, what ever it is, this concentration of everyone to listen to what is happening – it is not a poem, where you write a poem to one person and that person might like it or reject it or what ever it is.

Third point, if it has to attract someone is, everyone must be interested in – what is the play about?What is the play about.

About play structures he has said:

Structures do not come naturally, you have to work at them. When Bhim Sen Joshi sings an intricate aalap, he does not do it because inspiration comes to him, there has been hours and hours of riyaz… A playwright has to do it too.. read other plays, analyze them and when you write .. write.. question them and so on. 

He ends the class with this crucial tip

Whether a play works or not, apart from the structure – it has to have genuine truth of experience. Fake emotions always show on stage.

……Do they convince you? That is what makes a great play




Play: Catch the Sun


Based on Eric Carle’s book Walter the Baker

September 2015


Walter the Baker, Anna, Walter Jr, Duke, Duchess, Cat, Mouse, Soldiers, Towns people, soldiers, narrators


Everyone loves Walter the Baker’s rolls and pastries, especially the Duke and Duchess. But one day an unfortunate accident forces Walter to substitute water for milk in his sweet rolls, and the incensed Duke and Duchess present Walter with a challenge – create from one piece of dough a tasty roll that the sun can shine through three times, or be banished from the kingdom. What will Walter make?


Stage empty of actors.  Left of Stage, a table with two chairs. Right of stage a sign board that has an image of a pie. Towns people hurry about with empty baskets speaking..

Music:                       French Music in French Cafe: Best of French Cafe Music (French Cafe Accordion Traditional Music)



Narrator 01:               Hello, Hello, Hello! Hello to everybody in this audience. Welcome to our little town of Duchy! Our story opens here…. In this city of Duchy, and in this little lane, at the back of the main street, an old street where once there lived…..

(Narrator 02 runs from the audience)

Narrator 02:               Oh, storyteller, oh story teller, something is happening… I don’t understand….

Narrator 01:               What don’t you understand?

Narrator 02:               Why is everyone running in the direction of that street? Something is happening

Narrator 01:               yes, yes, something did happened.. this happens every morning…

Narrator 02:               …, and they seem to be smiling… so… hmmmmmm what is that aroma….? It is mouth water….

(Walks in the direction of the aroma….)


Narrator 01:               our story is set in this beautiful town of Duchy, where there lived Walter the baker, his wife Anna and their son Walter Junior…

This is the bakery where Walter works… he works every morning when the people of this town are still asleep…

He makes ….

Narrator 02:               ohhhhh…. cakes, tarts, breads, rolls, cookies and pies…. yummmmmmmmmm

Narrator 01:               Anna sells the baked goods in the store… run before they get all sold… no one can resist the warm, sweet

Narrator 02:               the sweet sweet smell of bread, and pies….

Narrator 01:               Wait.. wait.. you were saying…. Hahahaha, another one takes a cake walk….

Narrator 01:               Walter Jr…. Hey Walter Jr… off to meet the Duke and Duchess?

(enters the stage eating a piece of pie)

Narrator 02:               Duke and Duchess? What? Where?

Walter Jr:                    Yes yes…. The Duke and the Duchess who rule over the Duchy loved Walter’s sweet rolls… Every morning I carry basketful of warm sweet rolls to the castle and deliver it to them…

Oh look at the time… It is there there are… I better hurry

(the duke and the duchess come by and sit on the chairs)

Music:                       George Frideric Handel – Music for the Royal Fireworks

Narrator 02:               The Duke and the Duchess…. (shakes himself off well) I would like to visit and pay my respects…(bows to the Duke and the Duchess as Walter enters the space and serves them jelly rolls)


Duke:                          Hmmmmm (bites into their rolls)

Duchess:                    Ahhhh (eats her roll)


Narrator 02:               This happens every morning?

Narrator 01:               Every morning like clock work!

Narrator 02:               Perfect… perfect…. So happy….

Walter:                       Life is happiness indeed

I have everthing I need

Thought I bake all day and night

Narrator 02:               Looks like everything is alright.. everything is great…. Nothing could go wrong….

Narrator 01:               You spoke tooo soon…..

Narrator 02:               What did I say…

Narrator 01:               Everything was great and the same for most mornings…. Until one early morning….

Narrator 02:               What happened? Let us see…

Walter:                       Spring rolls to make… to make to make…

Fresh bread to bake to bake to bake

I need milk and eggs….

Eggs… ? Where did I leave the eggs…?

Walter… you are surely becoming forgetful…

I will leave the milk here and go get the eggs from the pantry….

(Enter Mouse)

Mouse:                        Oh I smell cheese … can I have some please…

It is some where here… may be there….

Cat:                             I smell a mouse… in the house… where is it…

In the kitchen I think….

(Cat and mouse see each other – chase – MUSIC : Chase Music , and topple the milk… as Walter enters)


Music:                       -Yakety Sax- Music



Walter:                       What? What? What happened here?

The milk…. Ahhhh? The milk… the fresh milk ….

What will I do? I cannot make sweet rolls without fresh milk…. Oh no…

Narrator:                    At that moment, he decided to try something new

Walter:                       Let me try something new… how about making (hesitantly) the same pie today… (hesitating)  a new recipe… life is always about experimenting … yes? Where better to experiement than in the kitchen… so I will experiment too today…

Since it is too late and too expensive to get all that milk..again… I will make the sweet role with water instead….

Anna + Walter Jr:      Water? Water?

Anna:                          Will it taste the same?

Walter Jr:                    Will the Duke and the Duchess like it?

Narrator 02:               Did the Duke and Duchess like it?

(Walter and N 1 + 2) turn towards the Duke and Duchess table…


D + D:                         Yuck!!! What…

Ugh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Tasteless..

What is this?

Where is the baker? Bring Walter here soon!

(Walter went to the Duke, shaking in fright, as Anna and Walter Jr stood behind him)


Narrator 02:                           Oh no, the Duke does not look pleased

The Duchess seems to be fuming

Narrator 01:                           Shhhhhh!

Duke:                                      What do you call this?

Duchess:                                this this?

Duke:                                      this is not a roll,

Duchess:                                this feels like a stone….

Walter:                                   I….. I….

Duke:                                      I.. I… What?

Walter:                                   I was experimenting, with water instead of milk….

Duchess:                                Pack your things and leave this town

Leave Duchy forever!

I never want to see you again!

Walter:                                   I am so sorry.. but where will I go… this is my home… my home…Where will I go?

Please, Please, please give me one more chance….

Duke:                                      I must banish you…

I must, I must…

But I will give you another chance…

You did say you were experimenting, Inventing…

Now invent this:

A roll. With a piece of dough. It must taste good …

Walter:                                   Ok….

Duke:                                      I am not done…

Walter:                                   go on… your highness..

Duke:                                      The sun… the rising sun must shine three times through this roll.

Narrator:                                Look at them… they look so sad, dejected… what will Walter do?

Narrator 01:                           Walter did not take a break, a rest, even for a minute…

He made

Walter:                                   Long rolls, short rolls, sweet rolls, twisted rolls, fat rolls even salty rolls….

N1 + N2, A+ WJ:                    But alas! Nothing worked….

Walter:                                   Idea!

N1:                                          Then the had another idea,…

Walter:                                   I’ll beat, push and pound the dough.. oh no!!!

All in vain… let me try something new….

N2:                                          is it going to work? Yawwwwnnnn! I am going to sleep….

N1:                                          Wait for me….

(N1 and N2 EXIT yawning)

Walter:                                   its hopeless….

WJ:                                          What is he doing? He is throwing it to the ceiling…

Anna:                                      Oh no, it dropped …

WJ:                                          Father stop…. Motehr look….

Anna:                                      What?

WJ:                                          Look at how the dough….

Look at the shape father….

Anna:                                      It looks like the dough is praying too… for a miracle…

Walter:                                   Pop it into the oven….

Anna:                                      Into the oven it goes…

Walter Jr:                                now wait…


Anna:                                      Perfect, it is brown and crisp….

Walter Jr:                                its not risen very high, and made from one piece of dough

Walter:                                   What is more….

Anna:                                      Hold it up… hold it up…. Hold the twisted roll up…

Walter Jr:                                Look papa, mamma, we can see the sun shining through it three times…..

Walter:                                   (silence)

Anna:                                      Let me see…. Three big suns….

Walter:                                   (Silence… takes the pretzel) YIPPIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

(All the three dance and sing… yippie…)


Walter:                                   Life is happiness indeed….

I have everhting I need…

N1 and N2:                             Walter, Walter… the Duke and Duchess are arriving here….

What will you tell them?

I am getting so tensed….

(Enter Duke and Duchess – Walter smiles and hands the Duke the pretzel)


Duke:                                      Well Done Walter!

Duchess:                                Perfect!

Duke:                                      We have decided not to send you away!

Duchess:                                Now pray tell Walter, What do you call this?

Walter:                                   um… yes… Pray… Pray…

Duchess:                                Pray what? Pray…. Pretzel…..Pretzel it shall be….

(Duke holds up the pretzel…)


Duke:                                      From now on….this sweet roll shall be served in the morning,

Duchess:                                …and in the afternoon too…

Narrator 01:                           From that day on… Walter made Pretzels for everyone , day and night in his bakery.

The whole town got to taste the pretzels….

Walter Jr:                                A special basket of pretzels went everyday for the duke and the duchess…

Narrator 01:                           And everyone cheered Walter the Pretzel Maker!

Narrator 02:                           What a story!