I will use my play Rats! as a case study to bring together many of the points I have been discussing on this website regarding play writing. Below I will consider its plot, theme, style, characterization, dramatic structure and dialogue to show how all these elements work together to create an effective play.
The play is set in a cage in a school science lab. Three white rats live in the cage. The rats are Daddy Rat, Mummy Rat and Sonny Rat. The school keeps the rats for the biology class. The teacher uses the rats to teach his students about the “facts of life”.
One day a new rat is dumped in the cage by students who captured her in the playground. This grey rat is named Rebel Rat. She is a freedom fighter, who is at war with humans. At first the white rats are frightened of Rebel Rat because of her physical toughness and combative attitude. Rebel Rat dislikes the white rats for their conventional attitudes, soft lifestyle and dependence on humans.
We then learn that a new science teacher is at the school. This new teacher wants to dissect the rats. The rats now need to escape the cage. Rebel Rat tries to think of a plan, but to no avail.
Finally a student, a boy with bad eyesight, helps them to escape. All escape, except Daddy Rat who refuses to believe that humans will really kill them. He also forbids his wife, who recently gave birth to a new litter, from going. However, she disobeys him for the sake of her babies. Eventually, Daddy Rat too understands the plan of the new science teacher and wants to escape. The other three rats return to help him escape. They manage to get him out of the cage, but then become involved in a fight with Mauler, the school cat. Rebel Rat, Sonny Rat and Daddy Rat fight the cat and eventually win. Sonny Rat though is badly hurt. At first Daddy Rat and Rebel Rat think he is dead. However, he recovers.
One of the most important themes in the play is to do with the idea of freedom. The rats that live in the cage have an easy life but they are not free. Humans completely determine their fate. The old science teacher, for example, keeps the rats for use in his biology classes to show how reproduction works. When Mummy Rats gives birth most of her litter are taken away against her wishes. The new science teacher wants to kill and dissect the rats as part of his biology lesson.
The rats in the cage are not free in other ways. Daddy Rat is a chauvinist and bully who rules his wife and son. He treats them as servants and inferiors. They accept Daddy’s treatment because they know no better. However, after Rebel Rat arrives all this changes. Rebel Rat is a freedom fighter. She is a confident and fearless female rat. She believes that all rats are free and equal regardless of their gender. Through her contrasting attitudes and actions she offers us an alternative view of the lab rat family. She shows us what little freedom they really have.
Rats! is a play for young people. It is a satire. It uses the main literary devices of satire such as parody, exaggeration, incongruity and reversal. Its performance style is knockabout, slapstick and energetic, echoing the traditions of Moliere comedies and the Italian comedy style, commedia dell’Arte.
Character arcs and through-line of action
Each character has an arc in the story that relates to an overall through-line, which in the play is “to break free”. The character arcs also provide conflict.
- Daddy Rat’s arc is to maintain authority and power. He does not want to change his situation because it works to his advantage. Thus, he bullies his family to get what he wants and to keep his position. He is the boss and he will remain so. His dramatic purpose is to block, to prevent progress. Eventually though, he understands the situation and changes.
- Mummy Rat is subservient to her husband. Her strategy in life is to propitiate her husband and to seek the quiet life. Her arc is to preserve herself and her children the best way she can.
Ultimately, Mummy Rat must escape the tyranny of her husband. In the end she gains in strength and confidence.
- Sonny Rat is a thinker. He is bookish, physically weak and frightened of his father. He seeks the truth, always challenging his father. His favourite expression is, “But, dad.” His dramatic function is to question assumed “truth”.
Ultimately, Sonny Rat stands up to his father and achieves self-acceptance.
- Rebel Rat is a revolutionary. Her objective in the play is to challenge and overthrow the status quo, represented in the play by the white rat family, especially the figure of Daddy Rat, whom she criticizes for his bad treatment of his family.
Despite her revolutionary zeal, she is not without compassion, which she displays at the end of the play.
- Tension in the play is achieved by creating external threats. Early in the play the unseen character, Mauler the cat, is introduced. The new science teacher is also introduced, although at first we do not know of his intentions to kill and dissect the rats. Gradually however, in the course of the play he becomes a menacing figure, at least to some; Daddy Rat remains in a state of denial.
- The arrival of Rebel Rat is another source of tension/conflict. She is an agent of change and her presence will have consequences.
- Daddy Rat’s stubbornness and his desire to cling to power is also a source of tension because it blinds him from seeing the reality of their new and dangerous situation.
- The cage itself becomes a source of tension; it is a physical, insurmountable barrier that prevents them from escaping and thus surviving.
The rat cage is the chief symbol of the play. In the beginning of the play it is a place of safety. It protects the white rat family from the hostile world outside represented by the cat, Mauler. Later in the play, with the arrival of the new science teacher, the cage becomes a prison from which they must escape or die. From a psychological perspective, the cage is about choice and tough decision-making.
The following dialogue in which the rats debate the meaning of the word “dissect” demonstrates how the dialogue of the play supports the through-line and the individual character arcs. It is also an example of dramatic irony as we (as humans) know the true meaning of “dissect”. I have annotated the extract to show how actors might approach the dialogue in order to bring out their character objectives.