Drama: Understanding the Text
Many of the skills you have developed reading stories can be translated
to the experience of reading plays. This section introduces you to the elements
of drama and provides you with tips for analyzing and interpreting them.
- A character
is an imaginary person who takes part in the action of a play.
- Drama tends to
compress and simplify the personalities of characters, often relying on types
to quickly sketch out and draw contrasts between them.
- Unlike fiction,
plays do not usually have narrators who can provide the reader or viewer with
background information on characters. Consequently, the information we receive
about them is limited to the dialogue they themselves speak.
- The main
character, or leading role, of a dramatic text is called the
antagonist is the counterpart or opponent of the protagonist.
- In more
traditional or popular dramatic texts, the protagonist may be called a
hero or heroine, and the antagonist may be called the
- Dramatic texts
also include minor characters or supporting roles.
- Sometimes a
supporting role can be said to be a foil, a character designed to bring
out qualities in another character by contrast.
- All the characters
in a drama are interdependent and help to characterize each other.
- Because of time
constraints and the lack of narrators or room for exposition in dramatic
texts, playwrights use shortcuts like stereotypes to convey character.
Everyone involved, including the audience, consciously or unconsciously relies
on stereotypes, or assumptions about various social roles, to understand
- In the
States today, casting—or typecasting—usually
relies on an actor's social identity, from gender and race to occupation,
region, age, and values.
playwrights, directors, and actors overturn or modify expectations or
conventions of characterization in order to surprise the audience.
- In drama,
plot is the invention, selection, and arrangement of action, unified by
a sense of purpose that joins character, story line, and theme.
- Conflict shapes
the dramatic structure of a play. In dramatic conflict each of the opposing
forces must at some point seem likely to triumph or be worth of triumph.
- The typical
structure of a dramatic plot involves five stages in the progression of the
conflict: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion.
- Thematic concerns
can be a primary way of holding together expansive plot structures.
- Dramatic plots are
sometimes propelled by dramatic irony, or the fulfillment of a plan,
action, or expectation in a surprising way, often the opposite of what the
- Most plays have
formal divisions such as acts and scenes that emphasize the different phases
of the plot.
- Many "classic"
plays have five acts, but modern plays tend to have two or three acts.
- Most plays are
structured to leave time for a break, or intermission, in the performance.
STAGES, SETS, AND
- There are many
types of modern stages, including the traditional proscenium stage, the
thrust stage (where an audience sits around three sides of the major
acting area), and the arena stage (where an audience sits all the way
around the acting area). Most plays are performed on a proscenium stage.
- Older theatrical
traditions made use of other kinds of stages, including the
amphitheater of Greek theater which seated the audience in a raised
semicircle around a circular orchestra and recessed stage area, and the stage
of Shakespeare's age, which was something like a thrust stage.
- Before the modern
period, plays were performed outdoors in the daylight and involved few pieces
of scenery and little furniture or costume design.
- When watching a
play performance, audiences must imagine that the stage set is actually a
particular place or setting somewhere else.
- Sets consist of
the design, decoration, and scenery on stage during a play performance.
- Props are
articles or objects used on stage.
- In modern theater,
sets and props may be realistic or suggestive of abstract ideas.
- The conventions of
ancient Greek drama stipulated that playwrights adhere to the classical
unities, or the unity of time, unity of place, and unity of
action. Plays were supposed to represent a unified action that occurred
over a short span of time (sometimes as short as the actual performance time)
in a single location.
- Modern plays often
make use of multiple settings and jumps in time. Gaps in time and changes in
setting are often indicated by dialogue, scene breaks, changes in scenery, sound effects, stage directions, or
notes in the program.
TONE, STYLE, IMAGERY, AND
- A play's
tone is its style or manner of expression.
- Readers must infer
from the written language how a line should be read and what tone of voice it
- Tone can be
affected by dramatic irony, in which a character's knowledge or
expectation is contradicted by what the audience knows or by the outcome of
events, and verbal irony, in which speech and action don't match, or
the audience recognize meaning the speaker doesn't
- Monologues, or
extended speeches by one character, often contain important images and
- Character names
can hold symbolic significance.
- Effective plays
often use props as metaphors, allowing objects to carry symbolic weight and
convey key thematic points.
- Theme is
usually defined as a statement or assertion about the subject of a work and
about the comprehensive impact of an entire work.
- Since theme is not
part of a work but is abstracted from it through the interpretive work of the
reader or audience, people will disagree in their ideas about any particular
- To arrive at your
own statement of a theme, consider all the elements of a play together:
character, structure, setting, tone, and other aspects of style or potential
staging that create the entire effect.
PUTTING THE ELEMENTS
TOGETHER: THE WHOLE TEXT
- Once you have
reviewed and considered all the elements of a play you will be in a good
position to raise questions about what it all means.
- Remember to take
notes on your initial impressions and responses on your first reading of the
- When you've
finished reading the play, write down your observations and questions about
the development of characters, how the five stage of the plot progress, and
how specific scenes and lines contribute to the play's effects.
- Tastes and
preferences in drama can be placed in historical perspective. Your position as
a twenty-first century reader will influence your interpretation of and
reaction to a play.
- Readers generally
try to seek shared ground and "translate" a play to make sense of it in their
own culture and time.
- It can be useful
to place each work historically and to try to approach it in the spirit in
which it was first created.
- Writing about
drama can be a sustained, shared way of expressing your personal response to
reading or seeing a performance of a play.
Responding, and Writing
- Unlike most
fiction and poetry, drama is written primarily to be performed, and its
enactment on stage is a collaborative and public process. Thus, the text of a
play is not the final, complete work.
- Every performance
of a play is different, and each involves a unique interpretation of the play
text. Casting, set and costume design, the "blocking" or physical interaction
of the actors, and the timing, phrasing, and tone of every speech affects the
- The creation of a
play performance is a collaborative work, involving input from producers;
directors; actors; designers of lighting, set, sound, costume, makeup; and
even the audience.
- When we read a
play we have to do the imaginative work of envisioning its performance. In
some ways, the reader becomes a kind of director, drawing on cues in the text
to "cast" the characters, design the set, and imagine characters' intonations
and physical actions.
- The chief
difference between narrative fiction and drama on the page is the absence, in
drama, of a mediator or narrator.
- Description in
drama is usually limited to a few stage directions, the italicized
descriptions of the set, characters, and actions. Stage directions rarely
provide many details about lighting, costume design, or other important
- Exposition is
an explanation of the past and current dramatic situation. In drama on the
page, exposition generally emerges only through dialogue.
- As you read scene
by scene, make mental or written notes about your initial responses,
expectations, and questions about how the text could or should be enacted on
- When you write
about drama, you perform something like the work of a director or actor: you
offer your "reading" of the text, interpreting it in order to guide other
- You might focus an
essay on one character, or a comparison of two characters, describing their
function in the play.
- Essays on drama
may focus on many elements of a play: plot structure, the presence or absence
of characters or actions onstage, the different degrees of awareness of
characters and audience at different points in the action, titles, stage
directions, stylistic details, or themes.