Playwriting

First Lines

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. A Tale of Two Cities
  • It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984.
  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn”?t know what I was doing in New York. The Bell Jar
  • The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. Necromancer.
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina.

First lines. We often talk about the first line of books as being incredibly important and I think it’s true – when I was looking for a few first lines to start this post with, my choices seemed to be endless. But what about the first lines of plays? This article from the New York Times interviews playwrights on the beginning of plays and shares some first lines.

I pay more attention to the first moments, the first scenes of plays rather than the first line. The first scene as a whole is an introduction to the world of the play. I think it takes a scene to hook an audience (rather than a single line) but knowing that if the audience isn’t hooked they’ll be thinking about their laundry before long. I also pay attention to the first line each character says, (which of course is going to be the first line of the play for one of them). That first line has to make an impression, has to say something about the character so that an audience knows who the players are and where they come from, personality wise.

But even as I write this, even if I think that the first line of a play doesn’t have a lot of impact, I flash back to recently watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf where the first line had a ton of impact. Martha walks into her house, pauses and crows: “What a dump!” And then I think about the first lines of Shakespeare – “Two Households both alike in Dignity….” “Now is the winter of our discontent….” “Who’s there?”

What is your favourite first line and why?

About the author

Lindsay Price