A play is a piece of literature that is written to be presented on a stage, so when studying drama the best advice is undoubtedly to see the play on the stage. Seeing a play live, with the interaction of the players and the audience, is an experience in itself. Failing this, you should at least attempt to see the play performed on film or video. For example, if you work with Hamlet make an effort to see one of the recent film versions of the play.
When we study drama in school we often read plays that were meant for the theatre when in fact most drama today is seen on television and film. Although the television experience is somewhat different, since you passively view the screen from the comfort of your sofa, the principles are basically the same. Whether it is a police drama, a psychological thriller or a story of love or adventure, what you are watching has been developed from a script which gives the actors their lines, describes the setting and sets out the action. Some drama critics claim that “soap operas” are classic theatre, and perhaps this is true. Indeed, in telling their stories of personal relationships and intrigue, soap operas are in many ways carrying on the tradition of Charles Dickens and other writers of the Victorian Age. So we should be aware that what we learn to help us study Shakespeare and other plays for the stage applies in much the same way to the drama we watch on television and at the cinema.
The play is based on a script that gives you the bare outline with dialogue and stage directions. The director, and you the reader, have to lift the words off the page and envisage the performance. Actors will also have a say in how the lines are to be spoken. That is why we may find so many versions of the same play – there is room for interpretation. So when we read a play we are really learning to understand its potential as theatre.
Now we will look at some of the devices of drama.
In a play the designer sets the scene, but when you are reading a play, you have to consider the stage directions carefully to envisage what the dramatist wants us to see. Sometimes this is rather easy. Here is the opening stage direction for the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches
That’s it! And over the years those three witches have had many appearances and been in very different surroundings from production to production. If you find the text of Shakespeare’s plays difficult to read, at least his stage directions are easy!
In a play there are only two sources of information: the dialogue and the stage directions. The stage directions tell us how the dramatist wants the characters to look and sound, where the action takes place, what time it is and whatever else he or she thinks is important to know. As we saw above, some dramatists give very brief stage directions, while others, for example George Bernard Shaw, give very detailed stage directions. Here are the stage directions from the start of Act I of Shaw’s Major Barbara:
It is after dinner on a January night, in the library in Lady Britomart Undershaft’s house in Wilton Crescent. A large and comfortable settee is in the middle of the room, upholstered in dark leather. A person sitting on it (it is vacant at present) would have, on his right, Lady Britomart’s writing-table, with the lady herself busy at it; a smaller writing-table behind him on his left; the door behind him on Lady Britomart’s side; and a window with a window-seat directly on his left. Near the window is an armchair.
Lady Britomart is a woman of fifty or thereabouts, well dressed and yet careless of her dress, well bred and quite reckless of her breeding, well mannered and yet appallingly outspoken and indifferent to the opinion of her interlocutors, amiable and yet peremptory, arbitrary, and high-tempered to the last bearable degree, and withal a very typical managing matron of the upper class, treated as a naughty child until she grew into a scolding mother, and finally settling down with plenty of practical ability and worldly experience, limited in the oddest way with domestic and class limitations, conceiving the universe exactly as if it were a large house in Wilton Crescent, though handling her corner of it very effectively on that assumption, and being quite enlightened and liberal as to the books in the library, the pictures on the walls, the music in the portfolios, and the articles in the papers.
Her son, Stephen, comes in. He is a gravely correct young man under 25, taking himself very seriously, but still in some awe of his mother, from childish habit and bachelor shyness rather than from any weakness of character.
Well, it would seem there is not much room for interpretation here. Shaw even gives full character sketches, but these should serve to inspire the good actor. So as we can see, while a dramatist like Shakespeare gives us very brief stage directions, others are much more detailed in their instructions.
Stage directions might be used:
- at the start of the scene, telling us where the action is taking place
- when a new character enters
- when a new character is introduced, perhaps telling us how he or she is dressed
- at the beginning of a speech, suggesting to the actor how it should be spoken
- to send actors off stage
- to suggest how one character is to react to the speech of another
When you read the opening scene of Hamlet in this book we meet some officers of the watch. The setting is:
A gun platform on the battlements of Elsinore castle
We do not learn much about the setting from that! But as readers we can envisage the setting, as the play opens with a dialogue between nervous officers on guard duty who talk about the cold.
The setting will often have a profound effect on the mood of the play and on how we view the characters. One of Macbeth’s main flaws is that he blindly believes the prophecies the witches tell him (in reality each of the prophecies misleads him), but the audience is much more sceptical after seeing the witches stirring a pot of trouble under the thunder and lighting at the start of the play.
We must ask ourselves:
- What mood does the setting create?
- What effect does the setting have?
- How is it meant to influence the way we understand and respond to the characters and action?
Of course the way the character dresses also contributes to the understanding of the play, as the costume will tell us something about the person who is wearing it. When, for example, we meet Hamlet for the first time, he is dressed in black, which contrasts starkly with the festive atmosphere of the court. In this case we receive this information in the dialogue, not in a stage direction, when Hamlet’s mother says: Good Hamlet cast thy nighted colour off.
In the very intricate stage directions for Shaw’s Major Barbara, Lady Britomart is described as “a woman of fifty, well dressed and yet careless of her dress”. While this gives us some ideas, the final choice of costume is still left to the reader’s imagination. The director of the play will decide how she is to look based on an overall assessment of her character and her part in the play.
When considering costume we should ask:
- Does the text suggest how a character should look?
- Are there any clues in the stage directions?
- What effect does the character’s costume have?
- How do you respond to the way the character looks?
Acts and scenes
A play is divided into acts and scenes which break up the action in the same way as chapters do in a novel, and also give the opportunity to change the props and scenery on stage. The convention in Shakespeare’s time was to divide the play into five acts. The convention later became three acts and modern plays are often divided into just two acts. We also find the one act play, a shorter piece of drama, often with a political message.
A scene generally has a piece of action which takes place in one setting, usually in one continuous stretch of time. In Hamlet, Scene 1 is on the battlements of the castle, then we move to the great hall of the castle for the next scene, then to a private room in the castle, and back to the battlements for scene 4, where we remain for scene 5, after which the first act comes to an end. In these five scenes there is a progression of time, while the location is always somewhere in the castle.
The dramatist has a dramatic purpose for his divisions into scenes and acts as this will affect the pace and tension of the play. Short scenes, for example, are often used by Shakespeare to present a battle, since they give a sense of rapidly advancing action.
We can read a play very quickly and perhaps forget the importance of time in the play. Dramatists will indicate the passage of time in various ways. We have to accept the convention that hours, days, months or even years may be artificially compressed to suit the two to three hours the dramatist has at his or her disposal. This is part of what is called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ – that is, that we accept what the playwright is pretending.
We learn about the characters from the way they dress, the way they behave, and through what they say, about themselves and others, and, as we saw above in Hamlet, from what others say about them. We must also think about the language they use. Is it formal or informal? When characters speak they reveal something about themselves in the language they use. Are they educated? Working class? What nationality are they? Are they kind? Devious? Courageous? Cowardly? The language used is a clue to the type of character involved.
Other questions we might ask are: Can we believe what the character says about him or herself? Do we find conflicting opinions about the character? Are some characters’ observations and words more trustworthy than others?
Sometimes we are given contrasting characters, as in the case of Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes also has a father’s, and a sister’s, death to avenge. One of the play’s subplots is Laertes’s revenge of the death of his father, and sister, a revenge whose swiftness contrasts strikingly with Hamlet’s plodding revenge.
Macbeth is full of references to darkness, blackness and night. Shakespeare uses these references to create an atmosphere of evil. There was no lighting on the Shakespearean stage so the imagery of the poetry in the dialogue had to create this effect. In modern plays, of course, lighting can be used to great effect.
Sound effects have always been used. Perhaps we hear the bubbling of the witches brew, or we hear the clank of chains as someone is arrested. Sound effects can enhance the overall dramatic effect. And of course today, lots of other special effects are available to enhance the performance on stage.
When we watch a drama on television or on film, we should also be aware of camera position, or angle. We may at first think that a scene is presented quite objectively, but we must ask ourselves what the effect of the camera angle is. For example, directors often have the camera look down on negative characters, while characters we are meant to like are filmed from a more sympathetic angle. So what first appears to be very objective might in fact be quite subjective.
A television drama may also be structured into acts and scenes, but it also has the advantage of post-production editing – that is, putting in pictures at a later point. The director might edit in close-ups of a character’s reactions, or direct our attention to a particular action while a character is speaking. The creative choices are so endless when putting a film together that some critics have called editing the true art of film.
Film and television also have endless creative opportunities when it comes to special effects, but one drawback is that films that use a lot of special effects often do not use enough time and effort to develop good characters and a good storyline.
Reading the play
What captures our attention in a play? The dramatist will create suspense, not just about what is going to happen next, but as an interest in what is taking place and why. In Hamlet, for example, one of the elements of suspense is whether Hamlet will do what his father’s ghost asks him to do.
Every drama also includes conflict, in Hamlet there are physical fights and duels, in Macbeth, there are full-scale battles and murder scenes. But the conflict may also be of a psychological nature, as is the case in Hamlet. Is the Prince mad? What should he do? What is he doing? When reading a play, we must look for the points of conflict, not just the most obvious ones, but the more subtle ones as well.
Suspense and conflict lead to tension. In Macbeth, the tension escalates as Macbeth prepares to kill the king, goaded on by his wife, of course. This tension is unrelenting as he is drawn step by fateful step up to the king’s chamber by the image of a dagger before his eyes.
A dramatist has major decisions to make when opening the play. How should it open? Hamlet, for example, opens quite suddenly. The dramatist will have to give us information along the way in the dialogue and will also have to develop his plot and action.
Shakespeare is a typical example of a dramatist who in addition to the main plot also gives us subplots. In other words, the play tells us more than one story. The main plot is Hamlet’s revenge, but then there is his relationship with women (his mother and Ophelia), the comparison of him to Laertes and more.
One common feature of plays is the climax, the point towards which all the action moves. While there may be many highpoints in a play, there is usually one major climax. The climax in Hamlet comes right at the end, and is one that will keep gravediggers well employed. Macbeth is an example of a play with more than one climax. The first climax is when Macbeth takes those fateful steps up to the king’s bedchamber and murders him. The murder of Macduff’s wife and children is another climax. But the end of the play, when Macbeth gets his just deserts, is the true climax.
Other features to consider
Verse/prose: Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse, or a mixture of verse and prose, with verse reserved for the serious and noble characters (which in itself may reveal something about the characters). Modern drama that strives for a sense of realism will use prose. The language used will help to convey mood, theme and action.
Irony: An example of irony is when the character says one thing while meaning another. Sometimes the character’s words carry a different meaning for the audience because the audience knows more about the situation than the character. This is what we call dramatic irony. Irony may also develop from the way things turn out. Macbeth has been assured by the witches that he cannot be killed until “Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane”. Macbeth feels safe. Who has ever heard of a forest walking from one place to another? But the advancing army camouflages itself with branches from the trees of Birnam wood so that the forest indeed appears to move. Some might consider this camouflage rather hopeless, but the point is that the prophecy has turned on Macbeth. The main lesson, one must suppose, is never trust witches.
The soliloquy: This is a convention of the Shakespearean theatre where the audience learns about what a character is thinking as the actor speaks his thoughts out loud (not unlike the voice-over in films). Hamlet has many soliloquies where we learn what the main character is thinking and also learn something about his state of mind.
The aside:This is a means of communicating directly with the audience, giving insight into a brief thought of the character speaking the lines. The convention is that other characters on the stage do not hear the aside; it is for the audience’s ears only.
Themes: The plot, the characters and the way they talk and behave, and the action of the play will all reveal the dramatist’s themes. Sometimes the dramatist’s own views are placed directly in the mouths of characters so that we feel they are merely mouthpieces, as is often the case in a political play. Perhaps the most effective play is one where the themes evolve in the action and within the characters.
Most drama that we watch today is on television or at the cinema, but in whatever media a play is performed, the basic principles are much the same. When we go to the theatre we should consider:
- How the stage is set – the setting
- How the characters dress
- How we learn about the characters
- The language of the play and of the characters
- Character development
- Special effects
- The structure of the play, for example how many acts and scenes there are, the progression of the action and so on
- The effect of dramatic features and your response to them