Introduction to Drama
The Writing and Reading Program
At Western New England College
Unlike short stories or novels, plays are
written for the express purpose of performance.
Actors play roles and present the storyline
through dialogue, action, and gestures.
For the most part, plays have no narrators.
(There are a few notable exceptions to this rule.) The audience must glean critical information from the action on stage.
Dealing with Details
Unlike novels or short stories, plays have
– Plays are divided into acts and scenes. – Scripts feature lists of characters and stage directions which require the reader to pause and visualize the set up. – Readers and actors must pay close attention to the dialogue in order to understand the characters and action.
Monologue – an extended speech by one character.
Soliloquy – an extended speech by one character, alone on stage. Soliloquies are used to express the private thoughts of one character. Aside – a character’s direct address to the audience, which is not heard by the other
Monologues, soliloquies, and asides are dramatic techniques that provide direct insight into motives, attitudes, and overall tone. These techniques function like a fictional narrator.
Two Basic “Flavors”
Comedies are dramatic works which use humor to explore various themes and characters. Comedies usually end on a happy note. Tragedy Tragedies treat serious subjects and often focus on the tragic hero’s character. Tragedies usually end with death.
– Playwrights use dramatic irony when they allow the audience to know more than the characters do about a specific situation or incident. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience hears the fiendish plot of Claudius and Laërtes. Both are determined to see Hamlet dead. Moments later, Hamlet responds to news of the King’s great wager and his own impending duel with Laërtes by saying, “[…] how ill all’s here about my heart” (V.ii. 186).
– This nineteenth century view of drama appeals to the emotions. Based on stock characters who are either villainous or virtuous, these sensational plays have happy endings. – Like many contemporary television shows, melodramas feature static characters who deal with the world but fail to experience real growth, development, or insight.
– Realistic drama deals frankly with social issues and contemporary life. Instead of focusing on the lives of kings or great heroes, these dramas present a look at ordinary people and everyday problems.
Effects of Realism
– Realism requires a shift away from painted backdrops and scenery. – The result is the “box set” which utilizes three, more or less, solid walls. The fourth “wall” remains open to the audience. – Sets are decorated with real furniture. – New methods make changing scenery faster.
– Like realism, naturalism developed in response to the sentimental and sensational melodramas that were popular in the nineteenth century. – Using realistic plots, naturalism explores the forces that influence the human condition.
– The term satire refers to social criticism that is cloaked in comedy and used to ridicule social institutions and figureheads.
– The term farce refers to comedy that lapses into ludicrous, improbable plots, mockery, and even slapstick.
The overall storyline and sequence of
events is known as the plot.
Elements of Plot
Exposition – introduces the characters,
setting and basic situation. Rising action – presents the central conflict, complications, suspense and crisis. Climax – the point of greatest tension.
Elements of Plot
Falling action – subsiding intensity.
Denouement – the resolution which ties up
loose ends and concludes the action.
Pay particular attention to the overall plot.
– What are the major conflicts or issues? – When does the climax occur? – What force or forces seem to be at work in the play, moving the action along?
Pay close attention to
Photo credit: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Cornell Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
characters. – Who are the central characters? – What do you know about their personalities? How do you know this information? – What are the characters’ strengths and weaknesses?
Recognizing the Theme
Most written works have a central theme
and several additional themes.
–Try to identify the central theme. –Back up your interpretation with examples from the text.
If possible, watch a production of the play you’ve been reading.
How does the production correspond to your reading? How does it differ?
The Theater, Enjoy!
From The Shakespeare Review An English Music Hall look at Shakespeare