Freytag’s Pyramid – Technique of the Drama – some things to think about moving forward

In Technique of the Drama (1863), Gustav Freytag outlined what he considered to be the most successful structure for a play, based on the writings of Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the format of the well-made play (which we will discuss later in the semester). Briefly, Freytag believed the action of the play could be organized in the shape of a triangle, stressing that there should be five distinct parts:


  1. The introduction (or exposition) explains the place and time of the action, and briefly characterize the environment. Often, the exposition is a summary of what has happened before the play itself begins. In Oedipus the King, the introduction is where we find out that we are in Athens, there has been an ongoing plague, and that Oedipus is the man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx long ago to become king.
  2. The rising action begins when the events of the play are set in motion. They should produce a progressive intensity of interest, each building upon the last until you finally reach a climax of action. In Oedipus, rising actions include sending Creon to the oracle, which leads to hearing the cause of the plague; hearing the prophesies of Tiresias, who says Oedipus himself is the murderer; Jocasta making fun of the oracles; the Messenger from Corinth bringing news of the death of Oedipus’s “father”; the revelations of the Shepherd.
  3. The climax is the highest point of the action, the highest point of tension, after which the rest of the play becomes inevitable. Freytag says that this should be a “vividly conspicuous” point in the action, but sometimes we can find differing points of interpretation. In Oedipus, the climax occurs just after the Shepherd’s revelations, when Oedipus finally realizes that he himself is the murderer, and that he has actually fulfilled the oracle’s prophesies.
  4. The falling action occurs after the climax. It is usually shorter than the rising action, since there is necessarily less suspense. The falling action shows the result of the climax, and sometimes includes a calm before the storm: a moment when we believe that everything can still turn out all right. In Oedipus, the falling actions include Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s offstage blinding.
  5. The resolution (also known variously as the denouement or catastrophe) is the closing action, where the loose ends of the play are tied. It must be brief and simple, where the character’s downfall is relieved through a great deed. In Oedipus, this is where Oedipus begs for (and is granted) exile, and we understand that life will return to normal in Athens.


Some takeaways and some links to background material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Time flies and already I am half way through my first reading of Week 3’s Fences (I am finding I need to read through these plays at least two times to really “get” it). But before getting too far away, I want to put down on paper some reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I mentioned towards the end of the session a proposal that the star of the play is not Ma Rainey. I believe the star is Levee, even though his end at the play’s conclusion is not a pleasant nor a pleasing one. Levee is the modernist, he represents the avant-garde, the next wave in musical composition, while Ma represents the old, entrenched way, the “old jug band music” to which Levee repeatedly refers.

But Levee has his own issues. He was emotionally traumatized as a child, forced to watch the gang-rape of his mother, then physically traumatized when he tried to stop the rape with a knife and was slashed with the knife across his chest. He was further traumatized when his father, seeking to exact revenge against the rapists (and successful in killing four of them), was caught, hung and burned in the woods. Wilson describes Levee in the scene-setter as flamboyant and buffoonish, as playing the wrong notes frequently, and as often confusing his skill with his talent.

Still, he is the star of the play, the archetype for Louis Armstrong, who as a young man played trumpet in Ma Rainey’s band.  See Louis Armstrong, the First Great American Modernist here: Was Louis Armstrong the First Great American Modernist?. My question is, was Wilson gently leading us to this conclusion?

We also took note of Levee’s obsession with shoes, getting into arguments twice in the play when band members “stepped” on his shoes, the final act resulting in an enraged Levee committing the knifing murder of the band leader, Toledo. We discussed in class the possible symbolism of Levee’s fixation on his shoes, although the class did not all agree that shoes may have symbolized mobility, transportation, moving out of a bad situation and moving towards a good or better one. I personally thought the shoe symbolism concept was one with merit, and I found myself on YouTube listening to Robert Johnson’s original “Walkin’ Blues” and more recent covers of the Johnson masterpiece by Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) (videos below).

Levee has yet another thematic connection to Robert Johnson. It is said that Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the devil in exchange for his music talent. Levee mentions in two separate conversations his willingness to “sell” his soul to Satan in conjunction with his overall rejection of Christianity and more traditional beliefs. We saw that “skepticism” expressed by Becker in Jitney, and we’ll see it again with Troy in Fences. Maybe this is another conclusion Wilson himself is leading us to – skepticism as a humanist element of modern thought.

OK. As promised, the Walkin’ Blues videos:

Robert Johnson original

Eric Clapton cover

Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) cover

Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom before opening night

This first link provides a speech August Wilson gave in Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: 
Here is the playbill from the Yale Repertory Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: 

Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom production

Week One of the August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

First, and before I misplace it, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood. Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him was a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss today was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might overcome his great disappointment and be able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood.  Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

We will see more of this relationship dynamic in Ma Rainey next week.

updated syllabus – August Wilson Century Cycle – 1/8/2018

August Wilson’s Century Cycle – Study Group #685 Link

Syllabus – Spring 2018

Course Description

The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be require to read the week’s assigned play at home, select a passage they find significant, then be prepared to read the passage and discuss why that passage is significant to them. After class, each student will post to a blog a few paragraphs about the play. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to present to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods

The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading for a passage selected by each group member. Group members will post their reflections to a blog and these reflections will be peer-reviewed by all other group members.

Recommended Texts

The only required text for the course is the text for each play. Many are available online for educational purposes only and a link will be posted, along with other articles and related resources at the Google Group here:!forum/august-wilson-century-cycle-study-group .

As soon as you know you want to join the study group email me at with your email address so I can invite you to the Google Group.

The following Alan Nadel books (available at local public and university libraries) are collections of critical essays about the Century Series (read them for ideas that will emerge in our discussions, but don’t let them take time away from reading the actual plays. Reading the actual play is the thing! ):

Nadel, Alan. May All Your Fences Have Gates. University of Iowa Press, 1994 (covers the first five plays).

Nadel, Alan. August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. University of Iowa Press, 2010. (covers the second five plays).

Course Requirements

Class participation. Each group member will be expected to present his/her passage each week for discussion. Each group member will post his weekly reflections after the discussion to a blog or online forum, either the Google Group or whatever location we decide upon.

Synopses of the plays (These all come from the PBS American masters website here:

Week 1:  Jitney (1979)

Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.

Week 2:  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Week 3:  Fences (1984)

Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete. 

Week 4:  Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)

Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 5:  The Piano Lesson (1986)

Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Week 6:  Two Trains Running (1990)

Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.

Week 7: Seven Guitars (1995)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it. 

Week 8:  King Hedley II (1991)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.

Week 9: Gem of the Ocean (2003)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.

Week 10:  Radio Golf (2005)

Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.


Assignments. Each week, each group member will reflect on the group discussion and produce a short (can be very short!) composition and post to a forum or a blog (yet to be determined).

Final assignment: Collaborative peer-review and discussion of each student’s aggregated blog (or forum) posts.

Materials: Group leader will provide links to background information online, and where available, links to the actual text of each play. Where not available, students will need to check the play out from the library or actually purchase the play from a book store or from Amazon. Students should have access to an internet-enabled computer.

Journey to the 20th Century

I am repurposing this blog.

Henceforward, I’ll be keeping notes here as I prepare for my August Wilson Century Series study group which begins in March, 2018.

As the study group leader, I don’t plan to do long boring lectures. Besides, what do I know?  I anticipate something more akin to a long and winding conversation. So the goal will be to keep the conversation going. What do I know about conversations? Well, I have been having them with all kinds of people for a long time. Even did a paper once on conversation theory and posted it to a blog here.  Turns out it was a short paper, but at least I have something to start with.

And I have three ideas from the MOOC world I hope to apply. From ModPo, I want to utilize the idea of the collaborative close read. A play is not poetry, but then again, perhaps it is. Our particular writer certainly considered himself a poet BEFORE he turned to drama. I have come across some extremely poetic passages in plays. Now, most studies of close reading paired with conversation theory apply to education of children, but that’s ok, we are going to try it with adults.

The next two ideas come from a MOOC course I took, Rhizo15. They are (1) learning subjectives (versus “objectives”) and, related, (2) the idea of the community as the curriculum. The learning objective of the course is simple: to plow through ten plays in ten weeks, reading and discussing each. But the learning subjectives may and will vary from person to person. One person may be planning to write a play and is looking for some ideas and inspiration. Someone else may be lonely and looking for company.  If we spend a bit of time discussing what each person wants out of the course, I think we will come up with a much better list than what I could come up with by myself. Similarly, each person brings his/her background/expertise/talents/networks to the study group community. I think it will be fascinating to see what those resources are and how they overlap and intersect.

OK. Here is a link to the Goggle Group where we will all deposit some of our thoughts each week.