1. The Bone Structure
3. The Dialectical Approach
4. Character Growth
5. Strength of Will in a Character
6. Plot or Character -- Which?
7. Characters Plotting Their Own Play
8. Pivotal Character
9. The Antagonist
11. Unity of Opposites
1. Origin of Action
2. Cause and Effect
7. Foreshadowing Conflict
8. Point of Attack
10. Crisis, Climax, Resolution
1. Obligatory Scene
5. The Timeliness of a Play
6. Entrances and Exits
7. Why Are Some Bad Plays Successful?
9. On Genius
10. What Is Art? -- A Dialogue
11. When You Write a Play
12. How to Get Ideas
13. Writing for Television
APPENDIX A. Plays Analyzed
APPENDIX B. How to Market Your Play
APPENDIX C. Long Runs on Broadway
A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: "I really don't know."
Another man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps: "How should I know where I'm going? I am on my way."
Your reaction -- and ours, and the world's -- is that these two men are a little mad. Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination.
Yet, fantastic as it seems, this simple necessity has not made itself felt to any extent in the theater. Reams of paper bear miles of writing -- all of it without any point at all. There is much feverish activity, a great deal of get-up-and-go, but no one seems to know where he is going.
Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there.
We may not succeed in proving each tiny premise, but that in no way alters the fact that there was one we meant to prove. Our attempt to cross the room may be impeded by an unobserved footstool, but our premise existed nevertheless.
The premise of each second contributes to the premise of the minute of which it is part, just as each minute gives its bit of life to the hour, and the hour to the day. And so, at the end, there is a premise for every life.
Webster's International Dictionary says:
Premise: a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.
Others, especially men of the theater, have had different words for the same thing: theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot, basic emotion.
For our own use we choose the word "premise" because it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation.
Ferdinand Brunetière demands a "goal" in the play to start with. This is premise.
John Howard Lawson: "The root-idea is the beginning of the process." He means premise.
Professor Brander Matthews: "A play needs to have a theme." It must be the premise.
Professor George Pierce Baker, quoting Dumas the Younger: "How can you tell what road to take unless you know where you are going?" The premise will show you the road.
They all mean one thing: you must have a premise for your play.
Let us examine a few plays and see whether they have premises.
Romeo and Juliet
The play starts with a deadly feud between two families, the Capulets and the Montagues. The Montagues have a son, Romeo, and the Capulets a daughter, Juliet. The youngsters' love for each other is so great that they forget the traditional hate between their two families. Juliet's parents try to force her to marry Count Paris, and, unwilling to do this, she goes to the good friar, her friend, for advice. He tells her to take a strong sleeping draught on the eve of her wedding which will make her seemingly dead for forty-two hours. Juliet follows his advice. Everyone thinks her dead. This starts the onrushing tragedy for the two lovers. Romeo, believing Juliet really dead, drinks poison and dies beside her. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead, without hesitation she decides to unite with him in death.
This play obviously deals with love. But there are many kinds of love. No doubt this was agreatlove, since the two lovers not only defied family tradition and hate, but threw away life to unite in death. The premise, then, as we see it is:"Great love defies even death."
The King's trust in his two daughters is grievously misplaced. They strip him of all his authority, degrade him, and he dies insane, a broken, humiliated old man.
Lear trusts his oldest daughters implicitly. Because he believes their glittering words, he is destroyed.
A vain man believes flattery and trusts those who flatter him. But those who flatter cannot be trusted, and those who believe the flatterers are courting disaster.
It seems, then, that"Blind trust leads to destruction"is the premise of this play.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in their ruthless ambition to achieve their goal, decide to kill King Duncan. Then, to strengthen himself in his position, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo, whom he fears. Later, he is forced to commit still more murders in order to entrench himself more securely in the position he has reached through murder. Finally, the nobles and his own subjects become so aroused that they rise against him, and Macbeth perishes as he lived -- by the sword. Lady Macbeth dies of haunting fear.
What can be the premise of this play? The question is, what is the motivating force? No doubt it is ambition. What kind of ambition? Ruthless, since it is drenched in blood. Macbeth's downfall was foreshadowed in the very method by which he achieved his ambition. So, as we see, the premise for Macbeth is:"Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."
Othello finds Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's lodging. It had been taken there by Iago for the very purpose of making him jealous. Othello therefore kills Desdemona and plunges a dagger into his own heart.
Here the leading motivation is jealousy. No matter what caused this green-eyed monster to raise its ugly head, the important thing is that jealousy is the motivating force in this play, and since Othello kills not only Desdemona but himself as well, the premise, as we see it, is:"Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love."
The basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which is the premise:"The sins of the fathers are visited on the children."Every word uttered, every move made, every conflict in the play, comes about because of this premise.
Dead End,BY SIDNEY KINGSLEY
Here the author obviously wants to show and prove that"Poverty encourages crime."He does.
Sweet Bird of Youth,BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
A ruthless young man who yearns for fame as an actor makes love to the daughter of a rich man; she contracts a venereal disease. The young man finds an aging actress who supports him in exchange for love-making. His downfall comes when he is castrated by a mob driven by the girl's father. For this play the premise is: "Ruthless ambition leads to destruction."
Juno and the Paycock,BY SEAN O'CASEY
Captain Boyle, a shiftless, boastful drinker, is told that a rich relative died and left him a large sum of money, which will shortly be paid to him. Immediately Boyle and his wife, Juno, prepare themselves for a life of ease: they borrow money from neighbors on the strength of the coming inheritance, buy gaudy furniture, and Boyle spends large sums on drink. It later develops that the inheritance will never come to them, because the will was worded vaguely. The angry creditors descend on them and strip the house. Woe piles on woe: Boyle's daughter, having been seduced, is about to have a baby; his son is killed, and his wife and daughter leave him. At the end, Boyle has nothing left; he has hit bottom.
Premise:"Shiftlessness leads to ruin."
Shadow and Substance,BY PAUL VINCENT CARROLL
Thomas Skeritt, canon in a small Irish community, refuses to admit that his servant, Bridget, has really seen visions of Saint Bridget, her patron saint. Thinking her mentally deranged, he tries to send her away on a vacation and, above all, refuses to perform a miracle which, according to the servant, Saint Bridget requests of him. In trying to rescue a school-master from an angry crowd, Bridget is killed, and the canon loses his pride before the girl's pure, simple faith.
Premise:"Faith conquers pride."
We are not sure that the author of Juno and the Paycock knew that his premise was"Shiftlessness leads to ruin."The son's death, for instance, has nothing to do with the main concept of the drama. Sean O'Casey has excellent character studies, but the second act stands still because he had only a nebulous idea to start his play with. That is why he missed writing a truly great play.
Shadow and Substance,on the other hand, has two premises. In the first two acts and the first three quarters of the last act, the premise is:"Intelligence conquers superstition."At the end, suddenly and without warning, "intelligence" of the premise changes to "faith," and "superstition" to "pride." The canon -- the pivotal character -- changes like a chameleon into something he was not a few moments before. The play becomes muddled in consequence.
Every good play must have a well-formulated premise. There may be more than one way to phrase the premise, but, however it is phrased, the thought must be the same.
Playwrights usually get an idea, or are struck by an unusual situation, and decide to write a play around it.
The question is whether that idea, or that situation, provides sufficient basis for a play. Our answer is no, although we are aware that out of a thousand playwrights, nine hundred and ninety-nine start this way.
No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusionwithout a clear-cut premise.
If you have no such premise, you may modify, elaborate, vary your original idea or situation, or even lead yourself into another situation, but you will not know where you are going. You will flounder, rack your brain to invent further situations to round out your play. You may find these situations -- and you will still be without a play.
You must have a premise-- a premise which will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach.
Moses L. Malevinsky says inThe Science of Playwrighting:
Emotion, or the elements in or of an emotion, constitute the basic things in life. Emotion is life. Life is emotion. Therefore emotion is drama. Drama is emotion.
No emotion ever made, or ever will make, a good play if we do not knowwhat kind of forcesset emotion going. Emotion, to be sure, is as necessary to a play as barking to a dog.
Mr. Malevinsky's contention is that if you accept his basic principle, emotion, your problem is solved. He gives you a list of basic emotions -- desire, fear, pity, love, hate -- any one of which, he says, is a sound base for your play. Perhaps. But it will never help you to write agoodplay, because it designates no goal. Love, hate, any basic emotion, is merely an emotion. It may revolve around itself, destroying, building -- and getting nowhere.
It may be that an emotion does find itself a goal and surprises even the author. But this is an accident and far too uncertain to offer the young playwright as a method. Our aim is to eliminate chance and accident. Our aim is to point a road on which anyone who can write may travel and eventually find himself with a sure approach to drama. So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.
The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialogue -- even action -- and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.
Let us suppose that we want to write a play about a frugal character. Shall we make fun of him? Shall we make him ridiculous, or tragic? We don't know, yet. We have only an idea, which is to depict a frugal man. Let us pursue the idea further. Is it wise to be frugal? To a degree, yes. But we do not want to write about a man who is moderate, who is prudent, who wisely saves for a rainy day. Such a man is not frugal; he is farsighted. We are looking for a man who is so frugal he denies himself bare necessities. His insane frugality is such that he loses more in the end than he gains. We now have the premise for our play:"Frugality leads to waste."
The above premise -- for that matter, every good premise -- is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine"Frugality leads to waste."The first part of this premise suggests character -- a frugal character. The second part,"leads to,"suggests conflict, and the third part,"waste,"suggests the end of the play.
Let us see if this is so."Frugality leads to waste."The premise suggests a frugal person who, in his eagerness to save his money, refuses to pay his taxes. This act necessarily evokes a counteraction -- conflict -- from the state, and the frugal person is forced to pay triple the original amount.
"Frugality,"then, suggests character;"leads to"suggests conflict;"waste"suggests the end of the play.
A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play.
Here are a few other premises:
Bitterness leads to false gaiety.
Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Heedlessness destroys friendship.
Ill-temper leads to isolation.
Materialism conquers mysticism.
Prudishness leads to frustration.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Confusion leads to frustration.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Dishonesty leads to exposure.
Dissipation leads to self-destruction.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Fickleness leads to loss of self-esteem.
Although these are only flat statements, they contain all that is required of a well-constructed premise: character, conflict, and conclusion. What is wrong, then? What is missing?
The author's conviction is missing. Until he takes sides, there is no play. Only when he champions one side of the issue does the premise spring to life.Doesegotism lead to loss of friends? Which side will you take? We, the readers or spectators of your play, do not necessarily agree with your conviction. Through your play you must therefore prove to us the validity of your contention.
QUESTION: I am a bit confused. Do you mean to tell me that without a clear-cut premise I can't start to write a play?
ANSWER: Of course you can. There are many ways to find your premise. Here is one.
If you notice enough peculiarities in your Aunt Clara or Uncle Joshua, for instance, you may feel they possess excellent material for a play, but you will probably not think of a premise immediately. They are exciting characters, so you study their behavior, watch every step they make. You decide that Aunt Clara, though a religious fanatic, is a busybody, a gossip. She butts into everybody's affairs. Perhaps you know of several couples who separated because of Aunt Clara's malicious interference. You still have no premise. You have no idea yet what makes this woman do what she does. Why does Aunt Clara take such devilish joy in making a lot of trouble for innocent people?
Since you intend to write a play about her because her character fascinates you, you'll try to discover as much as possible about her past and present. The moment you start on your fact-finding journey, whether you know it or not, you have taken the first step toward finding a premise.The premise is the motivating power behind everything we do.So you will ask questions of your relatives and of your parents about the past conduct of Aunt Clara. You may be shocked to learn that this religious fanatic in her youth was not exactly moral. She sowed her wild oats promiscuously. A woman committed suicide when Aunt Clara alienated her husband's affections and later married him. But, as usually happens in such cases, the shadow of the dead woman haunted them until the man disappeared. She loved this man madly and saw in this desertion the finger of God. She became a religious fanatic. She made a resolution to spend her remaining years doing penance. She started to reform everyone she came in contact with. She interfered with people's lives. She spied on innocent lovers who hid in dark corners whispering sweet nothings. She exhorted them for their sinful thoughts and actions. In short, she became a menace to the community.
The author who wants to write this play still has no premise. No matter. The story of Aunt Clara's life slowly takes shape nevertheless. There are still many loose ends to which the playwright can return later, when he has found his premise. The question to ask right now is: what will be the end of this woman? Can she go on the rest of her life interfering with and actually crippling people's lives? Of course not. But since Aunt Clara is still alive and going strong on her self-appointed crusade, the author has to determine what will be the end of her,not in reality,but in the play.
Actually, Aunt Clara might live to be a hundred and die in an accident or in bed, peacefully. Will that help the play? Positively not. Accident would be an outside factor which is not inherent in the play. Sickness and peaceful death, ditto. Her death -- if death it will be -- must spring from her actions. A man or woman whose life she wrecked might take vengeance on her and send her back to her Maker. In her overzealousness she might overstep all bounds, go against the Church itself, and be excommunicated. Or she might find herself in such compromising circumstances that only suicide could extricate her.
Whichever of these three possible ends is chosen, the premise will suggest itself:"Extremity(whichever it is)leads to destruction."Now you know the beginning and the end of your play. She was promiscuous to start with, this promiscuity caused a suicide, and she lost the one person she ever really loved. This tragedy brought about her slow but persistent transformation into a religious fanatic. Her fanaticism wrecked lives, and in turn her life was taken.
No, you don't have to start your play with a premise. You can start with a character or an incident, or even a simple thought. This thought or incident grows, and the story slowly unfolds itself. You have time to find your premise in the mass of your material later. The important thing is to find it.
QUESTION: Can I use a premise, let us say,"Great love defies even death,"without being accused of plagiarism?
ANSWER: You can use it with safety. Although the seed is the same as that ofRomeo and Juliet,the play will be different. You never have seen, and never will see, two exactly similar oak trees. The shape of a tree, its height and strength, will be determined by the place and the surroundings where the seeds happen to fall and germinate. No two dramatists think or write alike. Ten thousand playwrights can take the same premise, as they have done since Shakespeare, and not one play will resemble the other except in the premise. Your knowledge, your understanding of human nature, and your imagination will take care of that.
QUESTION; IS it possible to write one play on two premises?
ANSWER: It is possible, but it will not be a good play. Can you go in two different directions at the same time? The dramatist has a big enough job on his hands to prove one premise, let alone two or three. A play with more than one premise is necessarily confused.
The Philadelphia Story,by Philip Barry, is one of this type. The first premise in this play is:"Sacrifice on both sides is necessary for a successful marriage."The second premise is:"Money, or the lack of it, is not solely responsible for a man's character."
Another play of this kind isSkylark,by Samson Raphaelson. The premises are:"A wealthy woman needs an anchor in life"and"A man who loves his wile will make sacrifices for her."
Not only do these plays have two premises, but the premises are inactive and badly stated.
Good acting, excellent production, and clever dialogue may spell success sometimes, but they alone will never make a good play.
Don't think that every produced play has a clear-cut premise, although there is an idea behind every play. InNight Music,by Clifford Odets, for instance, the premise is:"Young people must face the world with courage."It has an idea, but not an active premise.
Another play with an idea, but a confused one, is William Saroyan'sThe Time of Your Life.The premise,"Life is wonderful,"is a sprawling, formless thing, as good as no premise at all.
QUESTION: It is hard to determine just what is the basic emotion in a play. TakeRomeo and Juliet,for instance. Without hate of the two families, the lovers could have lived happily. Instead of love, it seems to me that hate is the basic emotion in this play.
ANSWER: Did hate subdue these youngsters' love for each other? It did not. It spurred them to greater effort. Their love deepened with each adversity. They were willing to give up their name, they dared their family's hatred, and, at the end, gave their life for love. Hatred was vanquished at the end, not their love. Love was on trial by hatred, and love won with flying colors. Love did not grow out of hatred, but despite hatred love flourished. As we see it, the basic emotion ofRomeo and Julietis still love.
QUESTION: I still don't know how to determine which is the basic trend or emotion in a play.
ANSWER: Let us take another example, then:Ghosts,by Ibsen. The premise of this play is:"The sins of the fathers are visited on the children."Let us see if it is so. Captain Alving sowed his wild oats both before and after his marriage. He died of syphilis contracted during his escapades. He left a son, who inherited this disease from him. Oswald, the son, grew to be imbecilic, and was doomed to die with the merciful help of his own mother. All the other issues of the play, including the love affair with the maid, grew out of the above premise. The premise of the play obviously deals with heredity.
Lillian Hellman started work on an idea drawn from one of William Roughead's reports of old Scottish trials. In 1830 or thereabouts, a little Indian girl succeeded in disrupting a British school. Lillian Hellman's first success,The Children's Hour,was based on this situation, reports Robert van Gelder inThe New York Times,April 21st, 1941. The interview goes on:
"The evolution ofWatch on the Rhine,"said Miss Hellman, "is quite involved and, I'm afraid, not very interesting. When I was working onThe Little FoxesI hit on the idea -- well, there's a small Midwestern American town, average or perhaps a little more isolated than average, and into that town Europe walks in the form of a titled couple -- a pair of titled Europeans -- pausing on their way to the West Coast. I was quite excited, thought of shelving the foxes to work on it. But when I did get to it I couldn't get it moving. It started all right -- and then stuck.
"Later I had another idea. What would be the reactions of some sensitive people who had spent much of their lives starving in Europe and found themselves as house guests in the home of some very wealthy Americans? What would they make of all the furious rushing around, the sleeping tablets taken when there is no time to sleep them off, the wonderful dinners ordered and never eaten, and so on and so on....That play didn't work either. I kept worrying at it, and the earlier people, the titled couple, returned continually. It would take all afternoon and probably a lot of tomorrow to trail all the steps that made those two plays intoWatch on the Rhine.The titled couple are still in, but as minor characters. The Americans are nice people, and so on. All is changed, but the new play grew out of the other two."
A playwright might work on a story for weeks before discovering that he really needs a premise, which will show the destination of his play. Let us trace an idea which will slowly arrive at a premise. Let us assume that you want to write a play about love.
What kind of love? Well, it must be a great love, you decide, one that will overcome prejudice, hatred, adversity, one that cannot be bought or bargained with. The audience should be moved to tears at the sacrifice the lovers make for each other, at the sight of love triumphant. This is the idea, and it is not a bad one. But you have no premise, and until you choose one you cannot write your fine play.
There is a fairly obvious premise implicit in your idea:"Love defies all."But this is an ambiguous statement. It says too much and therefore says nothing. What is this "all"? You might answer that it is obstacles, but we can still ask: "What obstacles?" And if you say that "Love can move mountains," we are justified in asking what good will that do?
In your premise you must designate exactly how great this love is, show exactly what its destination is, and how far it will go.
Let us go all the way and show a love so great that it conquers even death. Our premise is clear-cut: "Does love defy even death?" The answer in this case is "Yes." It designates the road the lovers will travel. They will die for love. It is an active premise, so that when you ask what love will defy, it is possible to answer "death," categorically. As a result, you not only know how far your lovers are willing to go; you also have an inkling as to the kind of characters they are, the characters they must be to carry the premise to its logical conclusion.
Can this girl be silly, unemotional, scheming? Hardly. Can the boy, or man, be superficial, flighty? Hardly -- unless they are shallow only until they meet. Then the battle would begin, first, against the trivial lives they had been living, then against their families, religions, and all the other motivating factors aligned against them. As they go along they will grow in stature, strength, determination, and, at the end, despite even death --indeath -- they will be united.
If you have a clear-cut premise, almost automatically a synopsis unrolls itself. You elaborate on it, providing the minute details, the personal touches.
We are taking it for granted that if you choose the above premise,"Great love defies even death,"you believe in it. You should believe in it, since you are to prove it. You must show conclusively that life is worthless without the loved one. And if you do not sincerely believe that this is so, you will have a very hard time trying to provide the emotional intensity of Nora, inA Doll's House,or of Juliet, inRomeo and Juliet.
Did Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen believe in their own premises? Almost certainly. But if they did not, their genius was strong enough to feel what they described, to relive their heroes' lives so intensely that they convinced the audience of their sincerity.
You, however, should not write anything you do not believe. The premise should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is a preposterous premise to me -- it must not be so to you.
Although you should never mention your premise in the dialogue of your play, the audience must know what the message is. And whatever it is, you must prove it.
We have seen how anidea-- the usual preliminary to a play -- may come to you at any time. And we have seen why it must be turned into a premise. The process of changing an idea into a premise is not a difficult one. You can start to write your play any way -- even haphazardly -- if, at the end, all the necessary parts are in place.
It may be that the story is complete in your mind, but you still have no premise. Can you proceed to write your play? You had better not, however finished it seems to you. If jealousy predicated the sad ending, obviously you might have written a play about jealousy. But have you considered where this jealousy sprang from? Was the woman flirtatious? The man inferior? Did a friend of the family force his attentions upon the woman? Was she bored with her husband? Did the husband have mistresses? Did she sell herself to help out her sick husband? Was it just a misunderstanding? And so forth.
Every one of these possibilities needs a different premise. For instance:"Promiscuity during marriage leads to jealousy and murder."If you take this as your premise, you'll know what caused jealousy in this particular instance, and that it leads the promiscuous person to kill or be killed. The premise will suggest the one and only road that you must take. Many premises can deal with jealousy, but in your case there will beonly onemotivating power which will drive your play to its inevitable conclusion. A promiscuous person will act differently from one who is not promiscuous, or from a woman who sells herself to help keep her husband alive. Although you may have the story set in your mind or even on paper, you cannot necessarily dispense with a clear-cut premise.
It is idiotic to go about hunting for a premise, since, as we have pointed out, it should be a conviction of yours. You know what your own convictions are. Look them over. Perhaps you are interested in man and his idiosyncrasies. Take just one of those peculiarities, and you have material for several premises.
Remember the fable about the elusive bluebird? A man searched all over the world for the bluebird of happiness, and when he returned home he found it had been there all the time. It is unnecessary to torture your brain, to weary yourself by searching for a premise, when there are so many ready to hand. Anyone who has a few strong convictions is a mine of premises.
Suppose you do find a premise in your wanderings. At best it is alien to you. It did not grow from you; it is not part of you. A good premise represents the author.
We are taking it for granted that you want to write a fine play, something which will endure. The strange thing is that all plays,including farces,are better when the author feels he has something important to say.
Does this hold for so light a form as the crime play? Let us see. You have a brilliant idea for a drama in which someone commits the "perfect crime." You work it out in minutest detail, until you are sure it is thrilling and will hold any audience spellbound. You tell it to your friend, and he is -- bored. You are shocked. What's wrong? Perhaps you'd better get the opinion of others. You do, and receive polite encouragement. But you feel in your marrow that they do not like it. Are they all morons? You begin to doubt your play. You rework it, fixing a little here, a little there -- and go back to your friends. They've heard the darned thing before, so they're honestly bored now. A few go so far as to tell you so. Your heart sinks. You still do not know what is wrong, but you do know that the play is bad. You hate it and try to forget it.
Without seeing your play we can tell you what was wrong with it: it had no clear-cut premise. And if there is no clear-cut, active premise, it is more than possible that the characters were not alive. How could they be? They do not know, for instance, why they should commit a perfect crime. Their only reason is your command, and as a result all their performance and all their dialogue are artificial. No
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