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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.