-- Wakako Yamauchi
This section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and e-book editions of Playwriting Seminars.
A play's point of view is determined at the moment you decide who your primary character will be. It's through this character that you'll be telling the story and it's through this character that the audience will be watching the story unfold. That decision is critical.
Tennessee Williams tells his story in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (at least in his original version of the script) from the point of view of the character he’s most interested in: Brick. To enhance this, he establishes the setting as Brick (and Maggie’s) bedroom for all three acts, forcing all of the other characters (and conflict) to come to Brick’s lair.
If you decide to use a narrator to lead us through the play, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this guide establishes your point of view. A narrator may have a point of view that is different from yours. Arthur Miller uses the lawyer as the narrator of A View From the Bridge, but Miller’s point of view is through the longshoreman, Eddie. Even though the lawyer is telling us the story, Miller doesn’t accept his narrator’s attitude that “It’s better to settle for half.” Eddie’s refusal to settle for half is why the playwright wants us to see the story through Eddie’s eyes, not the narrator’s point of view.
Once having established this point of view through the selection of a major character, it’s important to stay with that character as the major focus. If as Act I goes forward this character begins to recede from the action, in effect being displaced from that central role by another character, it’s time to rethink your point of view. There may not be anything wrong with allowing your point of view to transfer to another character, or to several other characters, but if this begins to happen you may be moving toward a “group” point of view.
It’s not necessary to limit a point of view to a single character. If a group of characters are your primary interest, they'll collectively set your point of view. This is what Beth Henley did with the three sisters in Crimes of the Heart and what Chekhov did long before her in The Three Sisters.
These group characters usually develop in plays where the writer is more interested – or at least equally interested – in what happens to the group as compared to the outcome for one member of that group.
Henley goes to the extreme with this approach in Crimes of the Heart where she halts development of the play’s suspense plot just short of a climax, thus never resolving for us what will happen to the sister who tried to murder her husband. Despite short circuiting the suspense plot, Henley’s emotional plot does end in a kind of climax when the sisters as a group finally achieve what they've wanted in their relationship among themselves.For Henley, that outcome was of far more importance than the practical matter of what would happen to her would-be murderess. Audiences would have liked knowing what happened to this near-murderess, but plays – even successful plays – don’t always give audiences everything they want.