One-Act & Multi-Act Plays: Elements & Examples

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Classic theater is known for it's multiple acts and long length, but there are also one act plays, each have their own place in the world of theater. In this lesson, we will discuss the differences between the two types of plays as well as some examples.

Differences in One-Act & Multi-Act Plays

There are a few reasons why plays have multiple acts versus one act. But first we must address what an act in a play is? An act of a play is a major section of a play that contains the standard elements of action, climax, and resolution, though not all acts are standard.

Most plays range from one act to five acts, though they usually average around three. One of the main reasons for having multiple acts in a play is to have a large change in plot, whether that is time or setting, or even the characters. If a play moves forward ten years, this is a great time to switch acts, since the pause between provides more of the feeling of time change.The acts make the change more poignant and provides more emphasis than a standard scene change.

Another reason for a smaller act play or one act play is for competition. Shorter acts usually means shorter plays, which is required for professional competitions, so some plays are specifically made shorter, and some plays are shortened from multi act to single to fit within this requirement.

Examples of One Acts

Although one-act plays are not usually the standard and they are not the plays we may see in New York or the West End of London, there are still some poignant plays done in only one act.

And Jack Fell Down is one such play that manages to have a very full story within a single act and a short period of time. This story is about Jack and Jill, two puppets that are being controlled by a single puppeteer. There are only three characters and the setting is just on the puppet stage. Jack believes they should be free and has grown frustrated with being controlled, whereas Jill believes they need control to be happy and to live. Although both characters are different they are also deeply in love. By the end of the play Jack's strings are cut and he is free, but when he cuts Jill's strings, so she can runaway with him, she dies, because she was never alive in the first place.

Another one act play is Endgame by the famous playwright Samuel Beckett. This play only has four characters, and they are the only four left in the world after a apocalyptic event. Hamm is blind and cannot stand or walk, Clov cannot sit, and Nagg and Nell, who are legless, live in a trashcan together. The whole play shows the interactions of these people, at the end of all things, and their incessant bickering at each other.

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