Three Unities


The Three Unities
Wednesday Workshop
19 April 2017

The Three Unities

The Three Classical Unities are those of Time, Place, and Action. They are usually associated with classical theatre. It is worth remembering that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when poetry and theatre ruled the artistic world of the west, the novel was relatively undeveloped and narrative form was concentrated in epic poetry. In fact, one of Cervantes’s greatest innovations was to draw a parallel between the modern narrative, as he developed it, and epic poetry. “También la épica puede escribirse en prosa,” he wrote in Don Quixote, I, 47. ‘Epic poetry may also be written in prose.’ Lyric and epic poetry had a different construct to the theatre, so it is really the classic theatre that we are discussing here, rather than poetry and prose, though all forms of creativity benefit from a knowledge and understanding of the three unities. Let us look at these unities one by one.

Unity of Time: The play should take place within a time frame of a day, twenty-four hours. This concentrates the action at the moment of maximum impact, or crisis, when the major decisions are being taken. In order to fill in the background details of what happened before, a confidant is often used, especially in French theatre, and this confidential person, or adviser, assists the main characters in coming to their decisions by providing missing background information.

Unity of Place: The play should take place in the same house, as a minimum, and preferably in the same room of the house. This limits travel, and the wanderings of Odysseus, for example, would be impossible in the classical theatre. This is a restriction that was blown away by epic poetry. The narrative forms also rejected this type of unity as they developed, and contemporary film, with its total mobility really reduces Unity of Place to the realms of history and the Absurd.

Unity of Action: All action within the play should be subordinated to the main plot and the main characters. There should be only one plot, but a minor plot is permitted provided it echoes, mirrors, and reflects upon the main plot. Unity of action is interesting in that, to a certain extent, it has remained with us. Television shows, especially police and crime shows, may have multiple actions, but they all link together to form a pattern of events that are linked within a series of unified patterns. It is these patterns of unified action that so often reveal the criminal.

Unity of Theme: Spanish classical theatre, under the watchful eye of Lope de Vega, broke all the unities as established above, but created a new unity: unity of theme. This, too, has demonstrated its longevity and is still with us. Thematic unity is common to all forms of literature and is a binding thread in poetry and prose, theatre, film, and novel. Unity of theme suggests that beneath the surface movement of the art work, there is a thematic unity, a set of deeper ideas, if you like, that provides links to all the action and thought.

Closely linked to these four unities is what I call Unity of Language. Unity of Language is consistent within characters, the way they speak, the way they use language. It is also consistent within a poem or a book. Sometimes it is based on the concept of Associative Fields according to which each word is surrounded by a series of associations (the Associative Field) that links words to each other at one level and to a central theme at another level. The use of Associative Fields is greatest in poetry and those forms of writing that base themselves on poetical repetition. In fact, the Associative Field may be looked upon as a form of repetition that provides emphasis by repeating a theme while avoiding the repetition of the same word within that theme.

I look on the development of art and culture as akin to the movement of a pendulum on a grandfather clock. On one side, let’s call it the right, the pendulum demands rules, immutable rules, and writers that stick to those rules. On the other side, let’s call it the left, there are no rules and chaos reigns in a creative land where the broken rule is the law of the day.

Classicism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was followed by Neo-Classicism, in the Eighteenth Century, and this was an even more stultified form than classicism itself. The Romantic Movement, on the other hand, broke the rules of Classicism and brought energy and freedom to all forms of art. As Victor Hugo said: “J’ai mis un bonnet rouge sur le vieux dictionnaire.” ‘I have place a red [French revolutionary] bonnet on the old dictionary.”  Romanticism is Revolution. In art, we need regular revolutions. The next major revolution is always just around the corner. Or, as the pendulum theory suggests, maybe the next revolution, waiting just around the corner, is a swing of the pendulum back from freedom (Romanticism) to restraint  (Classicism).

Certainly we modern authors may exercise our choices in a way that older authors could not. We can and should be aware of all that has gone before us. Knowing the traditions from which we write allows us to write better and to choose better, taking or rejecting that which we want and that which suits us best in our own artistic endeavours.

Skeleton in the Cupboard: Flash Fiction



Skeleton in the Cupboard

Spring sunshine and I pull out my old summer coat, the one with its pockets stuffed full of memories and dreams. It hides all winter in the clothes cupboard and I free it each spring with the melting snow and the tiny tongues of grass that push through the winter debris that covers the lawn in early April.

Battered and bruised, its elbows discolored where the dry cleaner’s chemicals left disfiguring splodges, it has served me for twelve long summers. It is my constant warm-weather companion, hanging on my arm, my shoulders, gracing me with its comforting presence. Everywhere I travelled for the last twelve years, it has accompanied me.

It is shabby now and grubby. Wine from the bars in El Rincón, El Rastro, El Portalón, Casa Guillermo and many other landmarks have fallen upon it. Octopus, squid rings, mussels, clams, shrimp, goose barnacles, and various types of omelet have left their marks upon it. The English language, with its fish and chips, its bangers and mash, and its sosi, jegg and chips, all bourgeois meals, can never do justice to the pure poetry of Spanish tapas whose names roll off the tongue: pulpo, calamares, mejillones, almejas a la marinera, gambas a la plancha, percebes, tortillas españolas y vegetales. Here I spot a golden stain from riñones al jerez and there a black one from calamares en su tinta.

Weathered by wind and rain, this coat has climbed El Zapatero and walked with the transhumance herds up and down the old Roman road of the Puerto del Pico. It has followed the Ruta de la Plata, the silver trail that led from South America to Sevilla and up the Silver Road past Ávila to Madrid. It has walked through the house in El Barco de Ávila and seen the kitchen where they tore down a wall and found a walled up library, just like the one described by Miguel de Cervantes in the Quixote. It held books proscribed by the Spanish Inquisition that had been hidden away since 1556. It has walked through Piedrahita, San Miguel de Corneja, and Villatoro. It has walked the streets and squares of St. Teresa’s walled city of Ávila on multiple occasions and knelt with me, in prayer, before many a saint on many an altar.

It kept me warm in the hills around Gredos when the mists dropped suddenly down and turned warm day into freezing night. It accompanied me to the Monasterio de Yuste, where the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth, retired to live out his days in prayer. It visited the spice towns of La Vera, and ventured into Garganta de Olla, to walk those ancient streets with me. It walked with me in the birthplace of St. John of the Cross and entered with me the depths of the earth where the verdejo is stored in huge oak barrels deep below the town of La Seca.

This old coat keeps its secrets. It remembers the moon hanging its lantern above the battlements on the Paseo del Rastro. We wandered there, she and I, arm in arm, entranced by the shadows that danced on the Medieval walls. When she shivered, I wrapped her in that coat and still it holds the perfumes of her body, the warm touch of her skin, the enchantment of those magic nights when the world stood still and we lay alone at its centre. Oh, and that green stain, there, at the back: that’s where I lay my coat on the grass in the little park under the walls by El Puerto de San Vicente, the one where the lovers go, late at night, beneath the trees, to be together in their loneliness …

Comment: A long time after posting this story, enlightenment knocked at my door. The new cartoon that I had used to illustrate My Old Coat was called Skeleton. Surely, I thought to myself, given the story’s ending, Skeleton in the Cupboard would make a better title. And it would. And I have changed it. A little bit of serendipity at a time (+3C outside the week after Easter) when I need some sunshine in my life. Any comments on the use (or overuse) of Spanish in this story would be very welcome. Best wishes to all my faithful (and unfaithful) readers.




Words and thoughts
and symbols and images and
metaphors and myths
and all things missing and
some present in-between sheets
lined and unlined as a line of ants
crosses the kitchen floor
in search of sugar so sweet
these dreams where truth
and lies and smiles and
sighs seize highs and lows
and the light and
dark of a life as it might
have been and was perhaps
on another planet
in my darkest dreams
and my sharpest awakenings and
if I am dreaming then let me sleep
on and on and never wake up
to what passes as reality





 Just one leaf
dropping from the tree
and the fall
a call of nature
and no freak chance of fate.

What throw of the dice
Lady Luck?

None at all,
or so the poet says,
lying there,
his ribs cracked
hard against
the wooden boards
and his right foot
caught in such a way
that the hip slips
slightly from its socket
and try as he may
he cannot stand
but lies there
in the chill evening wind,
a lone leaf,
getting on in age,
plucked from his tree
and cast to the ground.

Comment: In light of my last fall, last Tuesday, this is a re-organization of an earlier poem also called Fall, available here. That particular fall took place in 2014. I stumbled and fell off a step on the back porch while I was trying to photograph a black bear that had wandered into our garden and was guzzling bird seed at the bird feeder. We saw this particular bear on half a dozen occasions. The poem was published in my poetry chapbook Triage (2015).




What the left hand does
when the right hand doesn’t
know what it’s doing
is an attempt to re-pattern
the brain, to slow it down,
as the pencil spider-walks
its wandering way over the page
like my father’s did when,
stroke-stricken in the right hand,
he transferred his pencil to the left
and sought to-re-establish control
over tiny, manageable things,
and yes, he often cut himself
shaving, but he didn’t like beards
so he never gave in and shaved
every day, died fighting,
and did not go gentle,
and neither will I.

Comment: This is a very raw poem, in more senses than one. I fell over on Tuesday, on the back porch. One of the porch nails, forced up by the winter ice, caught in my open-toed sandal and over I went. My head had hit the deck before I even knew I was falling. It wasn’t as bad as the tumble I had when chasing the black bear and trying to photograph it, but this fall left me quite stunned. You can read about the fall HERE. The actual bruising, not the fictional ones, can be found in #3 of that sequence. I wrote the above poem, on Thursday evening, with my left hand, while my right hand was being iced. Funny how we think of one thing while doing another: I had visions of my father, stroke-stricken as I say, trying to write with his left hand. He fought so hard to do just the smallest things. Oh yes, I have a nice bump on my head, too, and as I told the chiropractor when I visited her later that Tuesday afternoon: “I think I have already had my back adjusted once today.” The other thought that comes to me: how slow we are to heal, once we pass a certain age, or, as my good friend Jan the Stoneist says, “an uncertain age.” With that latest fall, I have indeed entered into The Age of Uncertainty.





 “Your head’s bleeding.”
“I know.
“What did you do?”
“What do you mean, nothing? How did you get that cut on your head? Did you fall?”
“What happened then?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“You have to talk about it. Tell me, or I can’t help you.”
The old man looks at the social worker.
“It was my wife. She hit me with the frying pan.”
“She wanted bacon and eggs and I wouldn’t cook them. So she hit me.”
“What! And what did you do?”
“Nothing. I couldn’t hit her back.
“I should hope not. Where is she now?”
“In hospital.”
“What on earth …. why is she in hospital”
“I wouldn’t hit her. So she stuck her hand in the door jamb and closed the door on her fingers. There was blood everywhere. I called the ambulance and they came and took her in.”
“You didn’t go with her? To get your head seen to?”
“Obviously not.”
“Why not?”
“I knew you were coming. I couldn’t leave the house empty. It was funny though …”
“What was?”
“The crow. He must have heard her scream. He came and perched on that windowsill, right there, and just sat, and looked through the window as she lay on the floor. Then, when the ambulance came, he flapped his wings and flew away.”


He moves in closer then he tries to head butt me. I sense it coming, but I’m not quick enough to avoid the blow. It glances off the side of my head and I feel skin break, blood flow.
I step back.
He moves in again and this time throws a punch, a roundhouse swing with his right hand. I catch his wrist, pull him off balance, turn my body, spin on my heel, drag him across my outstretched leg: Tai Otoshi. He doesn’t know how to break fall, and I throw him down heavily, rather than lowering him. Then, I drop with him and, as his head rebounds off the floor, I slam my elbow into his nose and mouth.
He is now bleeding worse than me.
I leave him lying there.
As I walk away, two crows fly into a nearby tree and, heads cocked to one side, stare at him as he lies there.


My open-toed sandal catches on one of the nails that the ice forces up through the wood and I hit my head heavily on the back porch even before I realize I am falling.
I put my hand to my head and my fingers come back sticky and wet.
I lie there, stunned, groaning.
A crow flies in, perches in the nearest tree, and sits there, watching me. He caws. Two other crows join him. And then two more. A family of five. I watch them watching me.
Everything hurts. I try to roll over, but cannot.
The first crow flies towards the porch and lands on the balustrade where he sits, head cocked to one side, staring at me.
I slide slowly across the wood. The splinters are sharp. The nails stick up and catch in my clothes.
The crow on the balustrade caws and a second one flaps in and lands feet first, claws outstretched, to join him.
This spurs me into renewed action. I slither awkward across the boards, roll over on to my tummy by the picnic table, and force myself to do a push up. Then I grasp the seat of the picnic table and haul my aching body to the Hail Mary praying position.
I shriek, once, as my body returns to the almost vertical.
The crows flap their wings and fly away.


My father once told me how, during police training, a man burst into the classroom, grabbed the lecturer by the lapels of his coat, and tried to head butt him. The lecturer struggled with his assailant. Curses and blasphemies rose high as the two men rocked back and forth locked in combat.
“Stay there. Don’t move,” the lecturer screamed at the class. “I’ll handle this.”
The young recruits froze in their seats.
The intruder left as quickly as he came, cursing, and leaving the lecturer seething. The lecturer took a deep breath, regained his composure, and turned to the class.
“Write down what you have just seen,” he said. “I’ll need you all as witnesses. Use your own words. Don’t talk to anyone.”
There were thirty young recruits in the room and twenty-four different versions of the event.

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos


Bakhtin’s Chronotopos
Thursday Thoughts
13 April 2017

This note is an adjunct to Dr. Margaret Sorick’s piece, The Novelist’s Pen, that I re-blogged yesterday. The author, Dr. Sorick, raises some important issues, upon which I would like to elaborate further. Dr. Sorick begins her article with a quote from the Marquis de Sade in which de Sade states that “The novel … is the ‘picture of the manners of every age.’” Dr. Sorick then adds her own comment to this: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.”

Bakhtin’s Chronotopos may be summarized as “man’s dialog with his time (chronos) and place (topos).” Clearly, man, in this instance, stands for human being / writer / author, and it should be understood in this fashion. By extension, an author’s time and place is clearly the time and place in which an author lives. For me, my time is the early 21st Century and my place is Island View, New Brunswick. Dr. Sorick presents the reader with the question, rephrased in my own words, ‘are we doomed to write from our own time and place or can we insert ourselves into another time and place to write, for example, a historical novel of, let us say, the First World War’? Clearly, we can study ‘another time, another place’ and when we do so our dialog extends from our time and place into another’s time and place, and this second time and place will become one that we will in some way make our own. The exact historical resonance of that time and place and its substantial links with our own, will depend upon the skill and ability of the artist.

However, if I read the New Criticism correctly, we read and understand only from our own time and place. We must eliminate the author, eliminate the historical time, and read only the text that we have before us. There is no time and place other than our own time and place. I could be wrong about this, but it is my understanding that, for the New Critics of the Chicago School, we must not look beyond the text for the text is everything. In creating a text, we create a world, and that world is the only world. There is nothing beyond it.

I was educated in a rather different fashion. While in Graduate School, at the University of Toronto, there were in the department where I was studying, two opposing sets of ideas. One followed the New Criticism and concentrated on the text, the text, and nothing but the text. The other followed the more traditional idea of the text in context. According to this school of thought, it was necessary to understand the time and place from which the original author was writing. Without that knowledge, the reader or critic was in grave danger of misinterpreting the text by approaching it from a single point of view: that of the modern reader.

Theory is one thing; practice is another. While both points of view stand up in theory, what happens when we see them working in practice? I will, with apologies, take a single example, that of the Adventure with The Galley Slaves, that occurs in Don Quixote, Part One (1605).

If we read this from the point of view of a 21st Century reader, then we see a gentleman adventurer, dressed in out-of-date, old-fashioned armour, meeting a chain gang of criminals walking towards imprisonment in the infamous galleys of the Spanish navy, where they will row for a number of years as part of their prison sentences. Don Quixote stops and politely requests each galley slave to explain why he is going to the galleys. He receives a series of answers that allow him to observe that the slaves are being forced against their will and, in an act of charity, he helps free them. From a 21st century point of view, this episode had been read as an act of social justice, the freeing of the innocent. This act of social justice resonates across the centuries and is a call for more understanding and a better sense of social justice and freedom in our own times.

When we immerse ourselves in Cervantes and the Golden Age of Spain, a very different picture emerges. Cervantes, the author, was always interested in the Spanish picaresque novel and he imitated it on several occasions. One of his artistic experiments in the Don Quixote, was an attempt at writing a picaresque adventure. Cervantes’s chronos is the junction between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His topos is the countryside of Spain where the chain gangs were a relatively common sight. In this instance, the language of the galley slaves is the double talk of thieves’ slang. They are all, in their own minds, innocent and the double meaning of their language shows that this is so. Don Quixote accepts their innocence, as proven by his interpretation of their double-speak, and contributes to freeing them. His act is not, in the mind of the times, an act of social justice, but a crime against the laws of the land. He is pursued by the Santa Hermandad, the equivalent of the country’s police, for a crime against the state. Only his own state of total madness saves him from arrest.

Can we hold both pictures, that of the twenty-first century reader and that of the seventeenth century reader in our minds at one and the same time? I think we can. BUT, and it is a big BUT, hence the capitals, I also think that we must be aware of these two radically different points of view: (1) what we read and understand and (2) what ‘they’ would have read and probably understood. That said, throughout the seventeenth century, with a few notable exceptions, the great playwright Calderón de la Barca being one of them, the Quixote was seen as a work of humor in which a madman created comedy while doing crazy things and breaking all the laws of the land.

Let us return now to Dr. Sorick’s original statement: “What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach.” To seek to find comfort and understanding in another age, on the terms of that age, is a very great and difficult undertaking. That said, an event that is re-created in such a way that the event stands out and on its own is an artistic achievement. We are then entitled, as readers, to interpret that event in whatever way we please, social justice or criminal act, in the case of the Galley Slaves. However, we must also be aware of the biases and distortions that accompany us as we travel back in time and look at their lives through our own eyes. The world has changed, will change, and we will continue to evolve. We must always be aware of that.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. Meg Sorick, as both readers and artists we bear a great and heavy responsibility indeed. As artists and critics, we must do our research. As readers, we must understand the limitations imposed upon us by our own time and place.