-- Keith Glover
This section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and e-book editions of Playwriting Seminars.
Script format (see Part Four of the new paperback & e-book edition) may be the first message literary managers get about the professionalism of a dramatist, but the title is the first message you send them about the worth of the play and its content – and also your voice as a playwright. The best titles often come as flashes of insight in the process of writing or even before you put that opening stage direction on page I-1. When a title really catches fire, it’s often an intuitive response to the play you're creating.
Titles come in two basic flavors, either descriptive or metaphoric. Most playwrights opt for the metaphoric kind because of the added messages they can send through them to readers and audiences, but a good descriptive title can still carry a lot of interest.
The downside of descriptive titles is that they can be a bore, lacking any additional resonance. They're the kind of thing much of commercial television still thrives on. TV audiences like to know what they're getting before they get it, and who can blame them given the huge number of options pouring out of their cable systems.
As always, most rules are meant to be broken in this game of dramatic writing and some great classics of the theatre have used descriptive titles.
1. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Bad things happen to this Danish prince. No mystery about that.
2. Death of A Salesman. A salesman dies. But it's still a grand and powerful play over six decades later. And there is a metaphoric meaning lurking beneath what seems to be pure description: The questioning of America’s belief in selling yourself as the ticket to success.
3. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat Portrayed by the Acting Company of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of Mr. de Sade. Still the ultimate descriptive title in the Western theatre. It's a great, crazy, brilliant play by Peter Weiss, even though you'd never need to see it to know what happens. It won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play.
4. Other Desert Cities. Partly a hybrid title from Jon Robin Baitz, capturing the description of the play’s Palm Springs setting, but also a glancing metaphoric reference to the relationships among the family members.
5. August: Osage County. An absolutely descriptive title of the time and place of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning play. But it has a great sound.
Metaphoric titles have excitement built into them. They resonate through symbolism, double meanings, and general cleverness, what a play might be about and often focus on the play's theme. Most playwrights prefer these over their descriptive cousins. That's why it takes a bit of work to find examples of those straightforward descriptive titles in the contemporary theatre. Partly this is because theatre audiences seem to have a great tolerance for ambiguity and symbolism in their dramatic fare.
Each of these titles has a resonance with the story of the play and its theme, encouraging us to think about issues beyond the script itself.
1. Death and the Maiden. Ariel Dorfman's brilliant examination of a political torture victim's chance for vengeance uses as its title a piece of music critical to the play's action: Franz Shubert's string quartet, “Death and the Maiden.” The victim is a woman who finally gets to decide if death is the vengeance she'll deliver to the man who may have been her torturer many years ago. It won London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play.
2. The Mountaintop. Katori Hall’s intriguing play about the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, set at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. If we didn’t know the subject of the play, the title is unassuming. But once we connect it to the central character, the metaphor gains considerable power: It’s from the famous sentence King used in his last civil rights speech earlier that evening in Memphis (“Because I have been to the mountaintop.”). And the title’s metaphoric meanings multiply as we read the script or see the play in production. It won London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play.
3. Crimes of the Heart. Beth Henley's comedy about three alienated sisters learning to be supportive of each other uses a play-on-words, or rather a play-on-a-cliché (a crime of passion). And there is an actual crime at the heart of the play, though it's more a crime of dis-passion. We also discover all three sisters have committed crimes of the heart by ignoring their emotional desires. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
4. As Is. William Hoffman's wrenching comedy about a man who finally accepts his AIDS-afflicted companion as is – as they say on used car lots when there's no guarantee that comes with that heap of your dreams. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
5. ‘night, Mother. That’s 'night, as in "Good night." Marsha Norman's portrait of a daughter's decision to commit suicide in her mother's home, a plan she does not keep secret for long. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
6. M. Butterfly. David Henry Hwang's darkly humorous chronicle of a French diplomat who claims never to have realized in twenty years that his Chinese bride is a man, played against the plot of Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly. His first version of the title was “Monsieur Butterfly,” but his wife thought it was too obvious so he shortened it in the French style to “M. Butterfly” which he felt was “far more mysterious and ambiguous.” That is, metaphoric. And it won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play.
Then there are those really good titles that seem not to fall comfortably into either category.
These hybrid titles work exceptionally well in drawing in audiences because they sound so good and curious to our ears, even if we don’t know what they mean. Or more to the point, we may not know what these titles mean, but we want to find out.
Typically, hybrid titles combine both descriptive and metaphoric aspects of the play.
1. Farragut North. Beau Willimon’s inspired title for his presidential campaign play is obscure to say the least unless you know the metro system in the nation’s Capitol (it’s a good stop for the folks who work DC’s K Street lobbying firms). If you know what it is and where it is, it sends off a suggestion of the political sleaze lying at the center of the play’s plot. For those who don’t know DC, the playwright provides a glancing reference in the script to the title as a transit stop favored by political consultants. The stop is actually named for the captain of that Union Civil War ship who cried, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” If you push that metaphor into a pretzel, it captures a life-changing decision made by the main character at the climax of the play. George Clooney’s subsequent film – a distant version, but with Willimon still involved as one of three screenwriters – changed the title to The Ides of March, a reference instead to the date Julius Caesar was assassinated in Ancient Rome (the logic of that new title is obscure, to say the least).
2. The Fifth of July. One of Lanford Wilson’s most compelling plays, set well into the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the radical opposition to it. If he’d called it “The Fourth of July” (it takes place over that weekend), it wouldn’t resonate with us because our American ears are so accustomed to hearing that phrase. Adding one day makes it strange and intriguing.
3. 4000 Miles. Amy Herzog’s title captures both the journey a grandson makes across the country to visit his grandmother and the metaphoric distance initially between their generations and social and political attitudes. If she’d called it “3000 Miles,” odds are we’d just take it to be a play about crossing the country since that number is associated so closely with the width of the United States. That extra thousand makes it sound odd – and interesting.
Because these hybrid titles sound so good and unusual to our ears, they create their own suspense. We want to know what they mean as we pick up a script or sit in the theatre waiting for the curtain to go up.
Giving a formal title to each act of a three-act play is a good way to focus your energies and intentions as you’re writing each of these movements of the script (doing this informally for a two-act play may also be helpful). Whether you use these titles purely for your own guidance as you write and then remove them from the final draft is up to you, but if they have been useful to you as a guide, odds are they will be helpful to your readers as well.
In each of these three-act plays, the act titles telegraph what happens in each act, sometimes directly (“Exorcism”) and sometimes metaphorically (“In Vitro”).
1. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee's three acts are titled: I. Fun and Games – II. Walpurgesnacht – III. Exorcism
2. In Three Hotels, Jon Robin Baitz's three acts (each composed of a single long monologue) are titled: I. The Halt & The Lame – II. Be Careful – III. The Day of the Dead
3. In Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner's three acts are titled: I. Bad News – II. In Vitro – III. Not-Yet-Conscious, Forward Dawning
Playwrights who work in three acts tend to use act titles while those who work in two acts seldom do. As with play titles, act titles are generally more effective – and useful to in writing – if they are metaphoric rather than purely descriptive.