Reading Drama: GED Test Prep (page 2)
Like fiction and poetry, drama has its own conventions and forms. Understanding these conventions and forms can help you understand the drama excerpts you will find on the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam. This article reviews the elements of drama and strategies for understanding this genre.
Before books and movies, even before language, people were acting out their experiences. Drama is the oldest form of storytelling and one of the oldest ways of making sense of the human experience.
How Drama Is Different
Drama has the same elements of fiction: plot, character, setting, point of view, tone, language and style, symbolism, and theme. However, drama differs from poetry and prose in a number of significant ways. The most obvious and important difference is that drama is meant to be performed; it is literature that is designed for a live audience. (The exception is a small minority of plays called closet dramas, which are plays meant only to be read, not performed.) This makes plays the most immediate and energetic genre of literature, because there is an active exchange of energy and emotion during the performance.
In drama, action is the driving force of the plot. "The essence of a play is action," said Aristotle, the first literary critic of the Western world. Because of the immediacy of a play and the short time span in which the action must occur, things happen more quickly than they might in a novel. There is less time for digressions; everything must be related to the unfolding of events on the stage.
Drama also presents us with a unique point of view. Because there is no narrator, the story isn't filtered through someone's point of view. Even if there is a narrator on stage telling us the story, we still see the action for ourselves. This dramatic point of view allows us to come to our own conclusions about the characters and their actions.
The action of a play takes place in a real physical space, so setting is particularly important in drama. The setting might be realistic, minimalist, or symbolic; the play can occur in "real time" or take place over several years in the characters' lives. For example, in Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot, the stage is intentionally bare. The stage directions call only for a tree and a low mound on which one of the characters sits. The emptiness on stage reflects the emptiness that echoes throughout the play: the characters wait, and wait, and do nothing; they wait for someone who does not come.
In a play, we must listen carefully for the tone that characters use when they speak. But the controlling tone of a play is often dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when a character's speech or actions have an unintended meaning known to the audience but not to the character. For example, in Henrik Ibsen's classic 1879 play A Doll's House, we find Torvald Helmer lecturing his wife about the evils of lying. He uses Krogstad, whom Helmer had just fired for committing forgery, as an example. But he doesn't know what we know. Several years before, Nora had forged her father's signature to borrow money she needed to help Helmer through a serious illness. Because Helmer hates the idea of borrowing money, she kept the forgery and the loan a secret. But now Krogstad has threatened to reveal the secret if he does not get his job back. Notice how powerful the irony is in the passage below, especially when Helmer takes Nora's hand:
NORA: But tell me, was it really such a crime that this Krogstad committed?
HELMER: Forgery. Do you have any idea what that means?
NORA: Couldn't he have done it out of need?
HELMER: Yes, or thoughtlessness, like so many others. I'm not so heartless that I'd condemn a man categorically for just one mistake.
NORA: No, of course not, Torvald!
HELMER: Plenty of men have redeemed themselves by openly confessing their crimes and taking their punishment.
HELMER: But now Krogstad didn't go that way. He got himself out by sharp practices, and that's the real cause of his moral breakdown.
NORA: Do you really think that would—?
HELMER: Just imagine how a man with that sort of guilt in him has to lie and cheat and deceive on all sides, has to wear a mask even with the nearest and dearest he has, even with his own wife and children. And with the children, Nora—that's where it's most horrible.
HELMER: Because that kind of atmosphere of lies infects the whole life of a home. Every breath the children take in is filled with the germs of something degenerate.
NORA: [coming closer behind him] Are you sure of that?
HELMER: Oh, I've seen it often enough as a lawyer. Almost everyone who goes bad early in life has a mother who's a chronic liar.
NORA: Why just—the mother?
HELMER: It's usually the mother's influence that's dominant, but the father's works in the same way, of course. Every lawyer is quite familiar with it. And still this Krogstad's been going home year in, year out, poisoning his own children with lies and pretense; that's why I call him morally lost. [Reaching his hands out toward her.] So my sweet little Nora must promise me never to plead his cause. Your hand on it. Come, come, what's this? Give me your hand. There, now. All settled. I can tell it'd be impossible for me to work alongside of him. I literally feel physically revolted when I'm anywhere near such a person.
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