The Three Unities
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.