Plays (and Players) Within Plays

Posted on: December 11th, 2014 by Roundabout

IMG_20140927_141732The Real Thing can be seen within a tradition of plays about theatre artists, and it uses the device of the “play-within-a-play" to raise questions about the nature of "reality." What better way to explore the relationships between a playwright and the two actresses with whom he shares his life?

Perhaps the first use of the play-within-a-play device was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, performed in the 1580s. An enraged nobleman takes revenge against his enemies by casting them in a play and, during that play’s climax, he kills them with real swords while the onstage “audience” watches, unaware of what is really happening. Kyd used multiple levels of theatricality and challenges his audience to question what is “real” onstage.

Anton Chekhov based the characters of The Seagull (1895) on people he knew in Moscow theatre. A young playwright, Konstantin, struggles under the shadow of his actress mother and loses his love, also an aspiring actress, to his mother’s lover. These characters worry about work and success, but the plot focuses on the four interlocking romances and unrequited love. We see only a few minutes from Konstantin's play, and its symbolic style differs from Chekhov's realism. Still, Chekhov suggests the conflation of art and life through the novelist character Trigorin, who incorporates events and details from the play we see into the stories he is "writing."

Noel Coward's 1942 farce Present Laughter centers on the antics of philandering actor Gary Essendine in the midst of a midlife crisis. The action takes place in Gary's home, and we never see him "onstage,” but his offstage life resembles a French farce. Many of the characters are theatre professionals, most notably a sycophantic playwright who tries to win Gary's attention. Coward drew upon his own friends and relationships for this semi-autobiographical comedy of (bad) manners amongst theatre people.

Jean Anouilh's 1950 drama The Rehearsal examines the power of artifice in 20th-century society. A jaded group of aristocratic friends sets out to hurt an idealistic young woman who comes into their circle. These relationships unfold around rehearsals for an amateur production of Marivaux's The Double Inconstancy. Marivaux's 1723 play features a Prince who kidnaps a bourgeois maiden and reflects on the behavior of Anouilh’s characters. By having his modern characters rehearse in 18th century costumes, Anouilh suggests that aristocrats of his own time still treat each other as viciously as those who lived centuries before.


Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Real Thing. Photo by Joan Marcus.


In the course of The Real Thing, Annie plays two demanding roles. First, we see her rehearsing the title role in August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Julie is a headstrong, sexually curious young woman who seduces her father’s manservant and then commits suicide. Next, Annie plays Annabella in John Ford’s 1763 tragedy Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Writing about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, Ford sought new ways to shock Renaissance audiences. Here, he depicted an incestuous brother-sister love story that culminates in one of the goriest death scenes of its day, with Annabella’s bloody heart displayed on stage!

The Real Thing plays on Broadway through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


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2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage

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