Reading Drama: GED Test Prep (page 3)
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.
The Dramatic Stage
Drama comes from the Greek word dran, which means to do or to act. Because dramas are performed, these elements of the performance are essential elements of drama:
- stage directions
- live audience
In fiction, the story is heard through the voice of a narrator; in poetry, through the voice of the speaker of the poem. In drama, as noted earlier, there is no narrator; instead, the characters speak directly to each other or to the audience. The story is driven forward by the words and actions of the characters, without the filter of a narrator. Through dialogue (two or more characters speaking to each other), monologue (a character speaking directly to the audience), and soliloquy (a character "thinking aloud" on stage), we learn what the characters think and feel about themselves, each other, and the things that are happening around them. Characters can also speak in an aside, which is like a blend between a monologue and a soliloquy. In an aside, the actor shares a quick thought with the audience but not with the other characters. This privileges the audience with knowledge that the other characters do not have.
The exchange between Nora and Helmer is an example of dialogue. Here is an excerpt from one of the most famous soliloquies of all time:
- HAMLET: To be, or not to be: that is the question:
- Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
- The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
- Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
- And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
- No more; and by a sleep to say we end
- The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
- That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
- Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
- To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
- For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
- When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
- Must give us pause:
- —William Shakespeare, from Hamlet
Stage directions are the playwright's instructions to the director and actors. They often include specific details about how the characters should look, the tone of voice they should use when they speak, significant gestures or actions they should take, and the setting, including costumes, props, and lighting. Stage directions can help us understand tone and reinforce the theme of the play. For example, the stage directions for Waiting for Godot, as we noted earlier, are intentionally few; the emptiness of the stage is meant to echo the play's exploration of the emptiness in our lives. Similarly, the stage directions in Susan Glaspell's 1916 play Trifles show us how uneasy the women feel when they begin to piece together the puzzle of Mr.Wright's murder. When Mrs. Peters finds the bird that Mr.Wright killed, she remembers how she felt in a similar situation and understands how Mrs.Wright could have killed her husband:
MRS. PETERS: [In a whisper] When I was a girl—my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—and before I could get there—[Covers her face an instant.] If they hadn't held me back I would have—[Catches herself, looks upstairs where steps are heard, falters weakly]—hurt him.
Audience, of course, is the third essential element of drama, for without an audience, a play cannot be fully brought to life. Of course, this does not mean one cannot find great meaning and enjoyment out of simply reading a play. While missing out on the visual effects and the energy of the theater, reading a play can often offer greater enjoyment because the reader has the option to reread lines and imagine the scenes in his or her own mind. To bring the play to life, however, one needs to pay extra attention to the stage directions to see how things are supposed to happen and how the actors are supposed to behave.
Types of Plays
The symbol of the theater is two masks, one with a great smile, the other with a frown and a tear.
For many years, drama, which originated in religious celebrations of the ancient Greeks, was either tragic or comic. Today, of course, plays can be tragedies, comedies, and everything in between. But you will better understand all those "in betweens" if you understand the extremes and the traditions from which they come.
In drama, a tragedy is a play that presents a noble character's fall from greatness. In Greek drama, the characters are all kings, queens, and other nobles. In the course of a typical Greek tragedy, the main character does something (or doesn't do something) that leads to a dramatic fall from grace. This fall usually happens because of the character's tragic flaw (though the character often tries to blame fate).
A tragic flaw is a characteristic that drives the character to make a poor decision or do something he or she shouldn't do. Often the flaw is also part of what makes the character great. Pride is often a tragic flaw, and so is absolutism. For example, in Sophocles' ancient play Antigone, Creon puts the welfare of the state before the welfare of any individual, and he is respected and revered for his powerful leadership and devotion to the state. But he refuses to make an exception when his niece Antigone breaks the law, and as a result Antigone, Creon's son (Antigone's fiancée), and Creon's wife all kill themselves by the end of the play. Only Creon is left to survey the destruction he brought upon his family.
While a tragedy will often move us to tears, it is not entirely depressing. A true tragedy is cathartic, allowing us to feel and release strong emotions by experiencing the pain and sadness of the characters, by watching human beings make mistakes and suffer—without actually making mistakes or suffering ourselves. The hope comes from how tragic heroes deal with that suffering and loss. A tragic hero like Creon, for example, accepts responsibility for those mistakes, and Antigone ends with the hope that Creon has learned from the tragedy and will therefore be a better (more flexible, more just, more compassionate) leader in the future.
On the other end of the spectrum is the comedy. As a rule, comedies have happy endings. Instead of ending in death, destruction, or separation, comedies end in happiness, reconciliation, and union (e.g., marriage).
The humor in comedies can come from many sources, such as miscommunications, missed timing, and mistaken identities (all things that can also be the source of tragedy). Humor may also arise from puns (plays on the meaning of words) and double meanings as well as overturned expectations. For example, in Woody Allen's 1968 one-act play Death Knocks, the Grim Reaper—normally portrayed as a somber, frightening, powerful character of few words and fearful actions—climbs through Nat Ackerman's window and asks for a glass of water. This Grim Reaper is no ominous character who unwillingly takes us from life. Rather, he is a hassled, clumsy, casual character who has to check whether he's got the right address. Instead of being afraid of death, we laugh at it, especially at Death's attempt to make a dramatic entrance:
DEATH: I climbed up the drainpipe. I was trying to make a dramatic entrance. I see the big windows and you're awake reading. I figure it's worth a shot. I'll climb up and enter with a little—you know… [Snaps fingers.] Meanwhile, I get my heel caught on some vines, the drainpipe breaks, and I'm hanging by a thread. Then my cape begins to tear. Look, let's just go. It's been a rough night.
A melodrama is a "tragedy" that has been given a happy ending, thus ruining the effect of a true tragedy. Tragicomedies are more common. These are true tragedies (with a tragic ending), but interspersed throughout are comic scenes that help alleviate the intensity of the emotion the tragedy arouses.
Unlike the Greek tragedies of long ago, today's dramas do not center around extraordinary people (kings and queens) and extraordinary events (wars, plagues, and other major historical events). Rather, most dramas focus on "normal" people and the everyday situations and challenges they face. For example, John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation is about our need to connect with others and the lengths we may go to alleviate loneliness and fit in.
Many of today's dramatists also believe that plays should acknowledge that they are plays and should not attempt to be realistic. At the same time, they attempt to portray human nature as realistically as possible. As a result, the antihero has emerged as a regular onstage presence. This character inspires pity more than admiration, for he or she often ruins more than he or she repairs. In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, for example, Willy Loman is a deluded salesman who believes that success means being liked by as many people as possible. When he loses his job and realizes that he has been living a lie—and that he has raised his sons to live the same kind of lie—he commits suicide. He is a pitiful character who does not redeem himself. But his son, Biff, will change his life as a result of what he has learned throughout the play. He is the true tragic hero.
As you encounter dramatic passages on the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam, keep in mind the following ideas that pertain to drama:
comedy: a play ending in resolution, or union
dialogue: conversations between characters
dramatic irony: the audience is aware of something the characters onstage are not aware of
monologue: a lengthy speech made by one character
soliloquy: a lengthy speech that reveals a character's thoughts
stage directions: written directions showing specific actions of characters
tragedy: a play ending in the tragic fall of a main character
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