When I invented “The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change” for my Playwriting students, they were not happy with that indoctrination because my doctrine conflicted with their simpler wishes and wants to flatly relate the stories of their lives.

Many amateur Playwrights just want to retell something that happened to them and have it immortalized on stage.

While that is fine, you must make your play idea subservient to the the greater requirements of Aristotle.

Every play must end obeying The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change — and that means things can never be the same as they were when the play started.  There is no harsher criticism for a play than: “Nothing happened.”  When “nothing happens” that means “nothing changed” and that means, “The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change was not honored.”

Crafting Irrevocable Change is a big task for any Playwright because the stakes are so high and hard to reach.  The simplest form of Irrevocable Change is a death.

Creating Irrevocable Change that is more subtle, but still as torturous, is the difference between a master Playwright and all the rest.

Irrevocable Change is found throughout the conflict of the choices characters make in any dramatic presentation.

Every character in a play must be made to make a choice that conflicts with something or someone else in the play.  It is through that conflict that the drama lives and the characters become real.

If nothing is at stake — happiness, home, money, art, life — then there cannot be Irrevocable Change.

Sometimes things change, but they can always be fixed and put back right.  That’s what happens in real life.  Things change.  We change.  We move on.

On the stage — in the hyperrealistic frame of time the context of heightened place — that change must be Irrevocable… meaning once a choice is made, that decision can never be undone, reversed, apologized for, or in any other way put back to the way it was before that Irrevocable Change decision was made.

One example of an immaculately crafted Doctrine of Irrevocable Change moment can be found in the ending of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, “A Doll House.”

Nora, a childlike and immature wife to the disinterested and controlling Torvald, decides at the end of the play, to leave him and her children.  The play ends with her walking out of the house and slamming the door behind her.

Modern audiences cheer Nora’s decision to leave her family and live her own life — but that is a fatal and conveniently self-centered notion of conflict and The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change.

Audiences in 1879 fully knew that for a woman of Nora’s age and stature to leave her children and her husband — she had no right to property or money of her own — meant she wasn’t just leaving her family for freedom.

Nora was leaping into her death.

When Nora slammed the door behind her in 1879, she had no place to go, she had no one to turn to, and while she had irrevocably reclaimed the scent of momentary freedom, the immediate reality was a crushing homelessness, prostitution and societal degradation that would quickly pummel her into an empty, but rancid, death.

The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change of a woman leaving her husband and children in 1879 was so real and devastating to audiences that Germany refused to stage the play unless Ibsen, a Norwegian, rewrote the the ending and Nora came back into the house and recanted her want to leave and she had to express her new devotion to home, hearth, husband and her young children.

Ibsen hated the new ending Germany required, but he wrote the ending they wanted in order to get the play staged — Ibsen needed the money and the publicity — and then later, as society and social mores changed, Ibsen was able to restore his original ending for German audiences.

As you struggle with the requirement of “The Doctrine of Irrevocable Change” — you must always brutally ask yourself for honesty while writing by wondering aloud to the world, “Can they go back?  Can this be fixed?”

If the answer to either of those questions is ever “Yes” … then you must stop the writing process and track back to a moment — existing or newly crafted — where an irrevocable change decision must be made.  You will recognize that instant because it is always shrouded in heartbreak, anger and sorrow.


  1. I am enamored by this doctrine, David. There’s a vast difference between a good play and, say, the Doctor Seuss story “…and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!” Great stories are more than just, “Oh, interesting thing happened to me the other day.” 🙂

  2. The doctrine does have crosscurrents as you have pointed out, Gordon. I watched an HBO documentary the other night on Heidi Fleiss’ new stud ranch for women — Gay men, really — and she was telling the story of her favorite book, “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. She was so affected by the story that she choked up and couldn’t continue. Now that’s power. That’s Irrevocable Change in action. The dramatic effect is everlasting!

  3. I absolutely froze when I saw the “King Oedipus” to be staged…talk about “doctrine of irrevocable change”…I avoided reading the play for long…

  4. That is the classic example of conflict and tension and irrevocable change. So few modern dramas can even come near matching its perfection. Aristotle called it, “The Perfect Play.”

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