Alex David Wright

On complete reversals

Recently read Mamet's 'Three Uses of the Knife', in which he discusses among many other things (being Mamet) the nature of endings. This stuck with me:

“At the end of the drama THE TRUTH—which has been overlooked, disregarded, scorned, and denied—prevails. And that is how we know the Drama is done.”1

Writing my play John Rambo's Nipples, I realised that I didn't fully know what the truth was. How could I, with the play not yet fully written? But I also — perhaps paradoxically — needed to know what truth — or, perhaps, what kind of truth — I was striving for, if I was to be able to get to that end in the first place. Mament acknowledges just how difficult this — and by extension the whole act of writing drama — is, because one lives in a paradoxical state while one writes. One strives for truth, but striving means that the thing for which one is striving is not yet attained. The truth arises from the paradox, from the struggle, I think, because the only way to break it is reversal.

In Aristotelian tragedy, the reversal is called peripeteia: the reversal of fortune that makes tragedy inevitable2. But perhaps this goes beyond what we might call tragic; instead, perhaps we can think of all drama as containing such a reversal towards an inevitable end. Mark Ravenhill tweeted 100 lessons for playwrights based on his years of experience: one of his most popular was the following:

There’s a three part structure : establish, intensify, subvert. This can be used to shape of everything from a gesture or sentence through to the structure of a play. Eg 1. They ice the cake 2. They furiously ice the cake 3. They throw the cake out the window. I’ve found thinking in these three beats helpful in everything from a line to an entire play.3

This last, subvert, is the key. Coming back to this today, I realised that this might apply to some issues I was having with structuring my play, so I took something I thought I knew about a character and asked myself: what if I completely reversed this? That is: what if, in fact, the opposite were true? And, just like that, I felt the whole play click into place.

Now I've just got to finish writing the bloody thing.


  1. Mamet, David. 2013. Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama. New York: Vintage Books.

  2. For a compelling case of "inevitability" as vital tragic component, see Snyder, Susan. 1979. The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. Princeton University Press.

  3. Mark Ravenhill 101 Notes on Playwriting - The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting — I recommend reading them all.