The Art of Theatre: 4 Plants and payoffs: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

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ANYONE who's ever told a joke knows the basic theory of plants and payoffs. If it's about a talking dog, you need to say so (plant) and the dog must talk (payoff). In plays, as in jokes, they go in pairs: without a plant, a payoff will dangle forlorn, and vice versa. Major plants in plays - theme, character, plot - come early. Major payoffs come late. Between them lies 'development': a rich terrain, filled in turn with plants and payoffs of a related nature.

The Ayckbourn example is a plant which is also a sophisticated joke about plants. The warning about Sven's health is repeated so often and so emphatically that we know it's a plant. The match begins: we wait for him to collapse gasping on the court. In fact he wins. What, no payoff? Wait and see. His partner - who habitually patronises him - turns out to have been playing left-handed, just to give him a chance. Sven is terminally humiliated and has the threatened heart attack during the next scene-break.

Framed between multiple plants and payoffs, The Cherry Orchard is a pattern of inversions: early arrival is mirrored by final departure, ownership by loss, hope by nothing so crude as despair: rather a human, dynamic response to trauma.

It's planted seven pages in that Lopakhin might propose to Varya. But he hasn't got round to suggesting it, seems too preoccupied to bother and she's fed up: the prospect is placed on hold. By Act Four the marriage is her family's only chance of escape from ruin: it's now or never. She's shunted into the room where Lopakhin stands waiting, while giggles and whispers are heard from behind the door.

She pretends to look for something. He emphasises her need for help. A ploy? Or is he trying to be polite? A bad move either way; the abyss of her life is laid open. It's at this point that Chekhov spins out the moment: 'Have you?' Lopakhin panics and talks about snow. A vehement 'zoom' leaves them (and us) focused on something ludicrously small and concrete: a broken thermometer. Rescue arrives with a call from outside - the embarrassing voice (we assume) of one of the workmen Lopakhin has hired to cut down her family orchard. He escapes. She is devastated.

All in 12 short speeches. Given the plant, this is one of the best scenes ever written. Without it, it would be mere sentimental comedy. It's also worth noting that if Lopakhin were the slave of the plant - if he proposed, as we so long for him to do - we'd feel profoundly cheated. Good payoffs don't merely reflect what happened before: they transform it.

OLIVE: I don't know what's got into you, I really don't.

ANTHEA: Sorry?

OLIVE: Encouraging Sven to play tennis.

ANTHEA: Me?

OLIVE: He's in no condition. He's in no fit state.

ANTHEA: I haven't said a thing.

OLIVE: He'd never have agreed to it without encouragement.

ANTHEA: Well, I don't see how I . . .

OLIVE: He hasn't taken any exercise for ten years. What'll this do to him?

ANTHEA: Well, I'll try and stop it then if you like.

OLIVE: You'd better. It'll kill him.

JOKING APART by Alan Ayckbourn: Act Two, Scene One

VARYA: (carefully examining the baggage) That's funny. I can't find it anywhere.

LOPAKHIN: What are you looking for?

VARYA: I packed it myself but I don't remember where.

LOPAKHIN: Where will you go now, Varvara Mikhailovna?

VARYA: Me? To the Ragoulines. I agreed I'd go there and look after the house . . . to be a housekeeper or something.

LOPAKHIN: At Yashnevo? That's about 70 miles from here. (Pause). Well, life in this house seems to be over.

VARYA: (examining her baggage) Where did I put it? Unless it's in a trunk . . . Yes, life in this house is over . . . LOPAKHIN: And me. I'm off to Kharkov in a little while . . . taking the same train. I've got a lot to do. I'm leaving Yopikhdov here. I've hired him.

VARYA: Have you?

LOPAKHIN: Last year at this time it was already snowing, if you remember, and now it's quiet and sunny . . . but there's frost; it's three degrees out . . .

VARYA: I haven't looked at the thermometer. (Pause) Anyway, ours is broken. (Pause) (A voice from the courtyard is heard calling ''Yermolay Alexeyevich]')

LOPAKHIN: (as if he'd been expecting this call for a long time) Coming] (He goes out quickly)

VARYA, sitting on the floor, her head on a bundle, sobs . . .

THE CHERRY ORCHARD by Anton Chekhov, Act Four

Next week: Dialogue

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