Category Archives: Plays

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