Play within a play  

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metatheatre, Six Characters in Search of an Author

This dramatic device was probably first used by Thomas Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy around 1587, where the play is presented before an audience of two of the characters, who comment upon the action.

William Shakespeare used this device notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labours Lost, and Hamlet. In Hamlet the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet himself asks some strolling players to perform the Murder of Gonzago. The action and characters in the play mirror some of the events from the play Hamlet itself, and Prince Hamlet writes additional material to emphasize this. Hamlet wishes to provoke his uncle and sums this up by saying "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Hamlet calls this new play The Mouse-trap (a title which Agatha Christie later took for the long-running play The Mousetrap). In the Hamlet-based film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead the players even feature a third-level puppet theater version within their play. Almost the whole of The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play, presented to convince a drunken beggar that he is a nobleman watching a private performance, but the device has no relevance to the plot (unless Katharina's subservience to her "lord" in the last scene is intended to strengthen the deception against the beggar) and is often dropped in modern productions.

In Anton Chekhov's The Seagull there are specific allusions to Hamlet: in the first act a son stages a play to impress his mother, a professional actress, and her new lover; the mother responds by comparing her son to Hamlet. Later he tries to come between them, as Hamlet had done with his mother and her new husband. The tragic developments in the plot follow in part from the scorn the mother shows for her son's play.

When characters in a play perform on stage the action of another play, often with other characters forming an "audience", the audience in the theatre sometimes loses its privileged, omniscient position because it is suddenly not clear who is in the play and who is in the play within. The device, then, can also be an ironic comment on drama itself, with inversions and reversals of its basic elements: actors become authors. This form is exploited in Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, where a play is shown as a parable to villagers in the Soviet Union to justify the reallocation of their farmland: The tale describes how a child is awarded to a servant-girl rather than its natural mother, an aristocrat, as the woman most likely to care for it well. This kind of play-within-a-play, which appears at the beginning of the main play and acts as a 'frame' for it, is called an 'induction'. Brecht's one-act play The Elephant Calf (1926) is a play-within-a-play performed in the foyer of the theatre during his Man Equals Man.

The musical Kiss Me, Kate is about the production of a fictional musical, "The Taming of the Shrew", based on the Shakespeare play of the same name, and features several scenes from it. Alternatively, a play might be about the production of a play, and include the performance of all or part of the play, as in Noises Off, Les feluettes or The Producers.

Laurence Olivier sets the opening scene of his 1944 film of Henry V in the tiring room of the old Globe Theatre as the actors prepare for their roles on stage. The early part of the film follows the actors in these "stage" performances and only later does the action almost imperceptibly expand to the full realism of the Battle of Agincourt. By way of increasingly more artificial sets (based on mediaeval paintings) the film finally returns to The Globe.

The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams has a concurrent double plot with the convention of a play within a play. Felice and Clare are siblings and are both actor/producers touring the ‘The Two-Character Play.’ They have supposedly been abandoned by their crew and have been left to put on the play by themselves. The characters in the play are also brother and sister and are also named Clare and Felice.

The Mysteries, a modern reworking of the mediaeval mystery plays, remains faithful to its roots by having the modern actors play the sincere, naïve tradesmen and women as they take part in the original performances.

In most stagings of the musical Cats which include the song "Growltiger's Last Stand" — a recollection of an old play by Gus the Theatre Cat — the character of Lady Griddlebone sings "The Ballad of Billy McCaw". (However, many productions of the show omit "Growltiger's Last Stand", and "The Ballad of Billy McCaw" has at times been replaced with a mock aria, so this metastory isn't always seen.) Depending on the production, there is another musical scene called The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollices where the Jellicles put on a show for their leader.

The 2001 film Moulin Rouge! features a play within a film, called "Spectacular Spectacular", which itself may have been based on an ancient Sanskrit play, The Little Clay Cart.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Play within a play" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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