Drama is tension. In the context of a play in a theatre, tension often means that the audience is expecting something to happen between the characters on stage. Will they shoot each other? Will they finally confess their undying love for one another? Will Oedipus figure out that he was the one that caused the plague by killing his father and sleeping with his mother?
For instructors in academic departments, whether the classes are about theatrical literature, theater history, performance studies, acting, or technical aspects of a production, writing about drama often means finding reasons why and how the plays we watch are filled with tension and excitement. Of course, one particular production may not be as exciting as it's supposed to be. In fact, it may not be exciting at all. Writing about drama can also involve figuring out why and how a production went horribly, horribly wrong.
Two of our other handouts might be useful if you need to do research in the specialized field of Performance Studies (a branch of Communication Studies) or want to focus especially closely on poetic or powerful language in a play:
Talking about these three things can be difficult, especially since there's so much overlap in the uses of the terms. For the most part, plays are what's on the page. There are countless exceptions to this idea, but it's always worthwhile to keep an eye on what you mean by this term. A production of a play is a series of performances, each of which may have its own idiosyncratic features. For example, one production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night might set the play in 1940's Manhattan and another might set the play on an Alpaca farm in New Zealand. Furthermore, in a particular performance (say, Tuesday night) of that production, the actor playing Malvolio might get fed up with playing the role as an Alpaca herder, shout about the indignity of the whole thing, curse Shakespeare for ever writing the play, and stomp off the stage. See how that works?
Be aware that the above terms are sometimes used interchangeably—but the overlapping elements of each are often the most exciting things to talk about. For example, a series of particularly bad performances might distract from excellent production values: If the actor playing Falstaff repeatedly trips over a lance and falls off the stage, the audience may not notice the spectacular set design behind him. In the same way, a particularly dynamic and inventive script may so bedazzle an audience that they never notice the inept lighting scheme.
This brings us to the wonderful variety of things that you can gawk at, ponder, and write about when you go to see a play. Playwrights are called playwrights because, like cartwrights build carts and shipwrights build ships, playwrights build plays. The reason that the word still has that sense of "builder" or "maker" (even if the playwright actually only scribbles on pages in his or her garret) is because plays, whether considered as literary works or as cultural artifacts, rarely succeed on stage without a certain understanding of the concrete bits and pieces that end up on the planks, under the lights, and in front of an audience. To put it another way: the words of a play have a context.
For the play itself, some important contexts to consider are
- The time period in which the play was written
- The playwright's biography and other works
- Contemporaneous works of theater (plays written or produced by other artists)
- The language of the play
Depending on your assignment, you may want to focus on any one of these elements exclusively or compare and contrast two or more of them. Keep in mind that any one of these elements may be more than enough for a dissertation, let alone a short reaction paper. Since a number of academic assignments ask you to pay attention to the language of the play and since it might be the most complicated thing to work with, it's worth looking at a few of the ways you might be asked to deal with it in more detail.
There are countless ways that you can talk about how language works in a play, a production, or a particular performance. Given a choice, you should probably focus on words, phrases, lines, or scenes that really struck you, things that you still remember weeks after reading the play or seeing the performance. You'll have a much easier time writing about a bit of language that you feel strongly about (love it or hate it).
That said, here are two common ways to talk about the way language works in a play:
- How characters are constructed by their language
If you have a strong impression of a character, especially if you haven't seen it on stage, you probably remember one line or bit of dialogue that really captures who that character is. Playwrights often distinguish their characters with idiosyncratic or at least individualized manners of speaking. Take this example from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest:
ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
LANE: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.
ALGERNON: I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately—anyone can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.
LANE: Yes, sir.
ALGERNON: And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?
This early moment in the play contributes enormously to what the audience thinks about the aristocratic Algernon and his servant, Lane. If you were to talk about language in this scene, you could discuss Lane's reserved replies (Are they funny? Do they indicate familiarity or sarcasm? How do you think of a servant who replies in that way?) or Algernon's witty responses (Does Algernon really care what Lane thinks? Is he talking more to hear himself? What does that say about how the audience is supposed to see Algernon?). Algernon's manner of speech is part of who his character is. If you are analyzing a particular performance, you might want to comment on the actor's delivery of these lines: Was his vocal inflection appropriate? Did it show something about the character?
- How language contributes to scene and mood
Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance plays often use verbal tricks and nuances to convey the setting and time of the play because they didn't have elaborate special-effects technology to create theatrical illusions. For example, most scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth take place at night. The play was originally performed in an open-air theatre in the bright and sunny afternoon. How did Shakespeare communicate the fact that it was night-time in the play? Mainly by starting scenes like this:
BANQUO: How goes the night, boy?
FLEANCE: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
BANQUO: And she goes down at twelve.
FLEANCE: I take't, 'tis later, sir.
BANQUO: Hold, take my sword. There's husbandry in heaven; Their candles are all out. Take thee that too. A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers, Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature Gives way to in repose!
Enter MACBETH, and a Servant with a torch
Give me my sword.
Characters entering with torches is a pretty big clue, as is having a character say, "It's night." Later in the play, the question, "Who's there?" recurs a number of times, establishing the illusion that the characters can't see each other. The sense of encroaching darkness and the general mysteriousness of night contributes to a number of other themes and motifs in the play.
For productions as a whole, some important elements to consider are:
- Venue: How big is the theatre? Is this a professional or amateur acting company? What kind of resources do they have? How does this affect the show?
- Costumes: What is everyone wearing? Is it appropriate to the historical period? Modern? Trendy? Old-fashioned? Does it fit the character? What does the costume make you think about the character? How does this affect the show?
- Set design: What does the set look like? Does it try to create a sense of "realism"? Does it set the play in a particular historical period? What impressions does the set create? How does this affect the show?
- Lighting design: Are characters ever in the dark? Are there spotlights? Does light come through windows? From above? From below? Is any tinted or colored light projected? How does this affect the show?
- "Idea" or "concept": Do the set and lighting designs seem to work together to produce a certain interpretation? Do costumes and other elements seem coordinated? How does this affect the show?
You've probably noticed that each of these ends with the question, "How does this affect the show?" That's because you should be connecting everything, every detail that you analyze back to this question. If a particularly weird costume (King Henry in scuba gear) suggests something about the character (King Henry has gone off the deep end, literally and figuratively), then you can ask yourself, "Does this add or detract from the show?" (King Henry having an interest in aquatic mammalia may not have been what Shakespeare had in mind.)
For individual performances, you can analyze all the items considered above (for plays and performances) in the light of how they might have been different the night before. For example, some important elements to consider are:
- Individual acting performances: Not how brilliant Hamlet was, but how brilliant, say, John Gielgud's Hamlet was? What did the actor playing the part bring to the performance? Was there anything particularly moving about the performance that night that surprised you, that you didn't imagine from reading the play beforehand (if you did so)?
- Mishaps, flubs, and fire alarms: Did the actors mess up? Did the performance grind to a halt or did it continue?
- Audience reactions: Was there applause? At inappropriate points? Did someone fall asleep and snore loudly in the second act? Did anyone cry? Did anyone walk out in utter outrage?
Instructors in drama classes often want to know what you really think. This can have its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, you may find it easier to express yourself without the pressure of specific guidelines or restrictions. On the other hand, it may be frustrating not to have anything specific to write about. Hopefully, the elements and topics listed above can also provide you with a jumping-off point for more open-ended responses, ie. How did the lighting make you feel? Nervous? Bored? Distracted?
Most of the time, responses are directed toward individual performances that you go see, so you should feel free to be as specific as possible. One the easiest ways to do this is to remember that most of the time, you can say more about less. You'll have a much more difficult time if you start out writing about "imagery" or "language" in a play than if you start by writing about that ridiculous face Helena made when she found out Lysander didn't love her anymore.
If you're really having trouble getting started, here's a three point plan for responding to a piece of theater.
- Make a list of five or six specific words, images, or moments that caught your attention while you were sitting in your seat.
- Answer one of the following questions: Did any of those moments contribute to your enjoyment or loathing of the play? Did any of these moments seem to contribute or detract from any overall theme that the play may have had? Did any of these moments make you think of something completely different and wholly irrelevant to the play?
- Write a few sentences about how each of the moments you picked out for the second question worked.