Traditionally the climax of a play has been thought of as a matter of plot. A plot usually has a central dramatic question that the audience wants answered, their curiosity keeping them awake and attentive during the play. When the big plot question is answered in the climax, the play seems over and the audience just needs a little time to settle down.
The end as a matter of plot
The dramatic question is traditionally a variant of will the protagonist achieve her goal? In traditional romantic comedy and some other plays, that answer is obvious from the beginning, so the suspense is about how will the two main characters overcome obstacles, misunderstandings, and complications to get to their happy ending? In mysteries the primary question is who committed the crime?
Most plays have plenty of secondary plot questions to maintain audience interest. Most of those questions are answered one by one, and then are superseded by other suspenseful questions. In a film, we are curious about how the protagonist will enter a building despite the guard, and once that entrance has been accomplished we are curious about how the protagonist will avoid being noticed by the surveillance cameras inside.
Playwrights writing edgy, experimental, works might lead audiences to wonder what the heck is going on? But that potential confusion and annoyance can be a risk worth taking, and might actually be part of the playwright’s intended effect.
When the primary dramatic question of plot has been resolved, (perhaps with a short, sharp shocking surprise) tension and suspense deflate, the audience begins to relax, and the denouement begins.
The end as a matter of character
A character climax often occurs in the same scene as the plot climax. Most narratives have an emotional plot that parallels the event plot. Imagine a Hallmark television drama in which a mother heroically rescues her kidnapped son from a Saudi terrorist cell, an oft told story line that might be enriched if her success not only rescues the son, but atones for some maternal lapse, or proves her worth to her skeptical parents and to herself.
What David Mamet says about when a play ends
In a New York Times opinion piece, David Mamet wrote that “All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.” Except for the restabilization and soft landing provided by the denouement, of course. Mamet went on to write that ordinary plays might ask what is true, but that the best plays deal instead with the lies that we cannot easily face, the lies we repress.
What David Ives says about when a play ends
At a 2010 Barnes & Noble panel in New York City, David Ives said that all plays are about self-knowledge, that when the central character achieves some self-knowledge, the play is over.
That certainly works for tragedy, whose recognition scenes are the most intense emotionally. We all enjoy seeing other people confront unpleasantries about themselves, even though we mostly avoid confronting our own.
David Ives understandably admires plays whose central characters gain self-knowledge. I would go one step further, and perhaps he would, too. I believe that while the characters in a play gain self-knowledge, however uncomfortably, the audience should gain self-knowledge, too.
Both endings are important
Even though the last line of your play isn’t the emotional ending, that last line is very important.
Like the last line in a poem, the last line of your play is what the audience will hear echoing inside their heads as the lights go down. It can help them understand your theme and give a sense of closure. The emotional end of your play, though, happened a few moments earlier.