Reading Drama Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
The word drama refers to a story that is specifically intended to be performed, whether on a stage in a Broadway playhouse or on a screen in a movie theater or on the television in your living room. By performed we mean that the story is acted out by real people—actors—who portray characters within the story and speak the words that are written by the playwright or author of the play.
Drama shares many of the same elements as fiction, as does poetry. You will remember that one large difference between fiction and poetry is that fiction is intended to be read off the printed page, while poetry is intended to be spoken aloud. In the same way, drama is not intended to be read off the printed page but to be acted out in front of an audience. That audience might consist of living people who are sitting in a playhouse, watching live actors perform the story, or it might consist of the people who will watch the movie or television show at a later date.
In the case of film or television, we tend to think of the camera as taking the place of the audience, while the actors perform their roles in front of the camera so that real people can watch the performance at home or in the theater. Before the prevalence of television, the same approach was used in radio, where live actors treated the microphone as their audience—whether the real people were listening in front of radios at the same time, or the show was recorded for later broadcast.
How Drama Compares to Fiction
Before we delve into the unique elements of drama, let's take a moment to review what elements drama has in common with fiction and poetry.
One of the primary things that drama and fiction have in common is plot structure. We discussed this fully in Chapter 3, so we will only summarize it here. Refer back to Chapter 3 for a fuller treatment of these elements.
You will remember that a vital aspect of plot is conflict—there needs to be some element of conflict within the story, whether it's between several characters or within a specific character. The same holds true in drama: There needs to be some sort of conflict, some struggle taking place as the story unfolds.
The structure of plots in drama is essentially the same as in fiction, involving the elements of (1) exposition, (2) complication, (3) climax, (4) falling action, and (5) resolution. Here is the diagram again to refresh your memory. The numbers refer to the elements of exposition and so forth.
Setting and the Set
Drama, like fiction, takes place in a setting—the time and place where the story occurs. In fiction, the setting must be described by the narrator or by things that the characters say or do. In drama, however, the setting can be explained to the audience simply by the visual elements of the story, such as scenery and costumes.
In drama, we refer to the setting as the set, the visual space where the drama is performed. Stage plays are performed on a stage (obviously) in a playhouse, and the set consists of many elements. There might be a painted backdrop at the rear of the stage, perhaps a picture of distant mountains or a sandy beach. There might be props (short for properties) on stage, such as the front of a building with stairs leading up to a balcony. Placing that balcony prop in front of a painted backdrop of distant mountains will help the audience recognize that the story takes place at some mountaintop castle.
The time period in which the story takes place can be explained to the audience in many ways, as well. Costumes and props can convey the time period instantly, for example. An audience watching a man leap onstage with a drawn rapier, wearing a long cape and a broad-brimmed hat with a feather, will immediately surmise that the play takes place during the time of the Musketeers.
Speech patterns can also give clues to the time setting. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible has the characters speaking in a sort of 1600s style of English, referring to one another as thee and thou, and this alerts the audience to the fact that the play is set in Colonial America.
Because it is a very visual medium, drama has the advantage in creating atmosphere that fiction and poetry do not have. When you read a novel, you must picture what is happening in your mind, visualizing for yourself the setting and the characters' appearance and so forth. But drama is performed right in front of your eyes, so you have no doubt what things look like.
This enables the dramatist to create very realistic atmospheres that will convey to the audience a particular mood in the drama. This can be easily accomplished with the many physical elements involved in drama, such as the lights that are used to illuminate the stage. For instance, if the playwright wants to evoke an atmosphere of anticipation, that something dreadful is about to happen, the lighting can be adjusted to create a dark, forbidding set.
Costumes and props can also convey a strong atmosphere. The drama Les Miserables, for example, takes place in slums and in wealthy homes. This contrast is strengthened by the costumes that the actors wear and the props and sets that they act with. The wealthy characters have beautiful clothes and live in rich homes, while the poor man and his family wear ragged clothes and live in squalor. These things are accomplished visually for the audience, and help a great deal in conveying the atmosphere that the playwright is striving for.
Of course, when you are reading a play, you cannot actually see the actors and the costumes and the set and so forth. But those details are frequently explained in the text that you will be reading in the form of stage directions. The author frequently describes what the set looks like or what the characters are wearing or what mood the lighting should convey. (We will discuss this more fully later in this chapter.)
The tone of a drama is essentially the same as what we discussed in Chapter 3 on fiction. Like fiction, drama conveys the author's desired tone through the actions and words of the characters within the drama. Here again, however, the dramatist has the added luxury of many visual elements to work with, and the tone of a drama can be accentuated through lighting, costumes, sets, and props.
The elements of figurative language, such as metaphor and simile, which were discussed in Chapter 3, are also found in drama. There is one interesting difference, however, in the area of irony.
You'll remember that irony in fiction consists of a character or narrator saying something that is the opposite to what he or she really means—similar to sarcasm. Drama, however, can employ something called dramatic irony. (This is also used in written fiction, but its real strength is found in drama.)
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters in the story don't know, or when a character knows something that the audience doesn't know. We encounter this technique frequently in movies. For example, the audience may be shown a scene where the villain is setting a trap for the hero, then another scene where the hero is walking toward the trap. The hero does not know about the trap, but the audience does. The hero might even make some comment to the effect that he has beaten the villain, but the audience knows that he has not.
The reverse can also happen. For example, the audience might be horrified when the villain grabs a gun and stops the hero in his tracks. The tension builds as the villain gloats over the fact that he's about to shoot the hero, and the audience is convinced that there's no escape for the character that they have been rooting for. But the hero remains calm, and finally the villain pulls the trigger—only to hear a harmless click. The hero knew that he had already taken the bullets out of the gun, but the audience did not know it (unless we guessed because we've seen this trick a hundred times in other movies). This is another example of dramatic irony.
You will notice that dramatic irony is not really an element of figurative language, because it is not spoken but acted out. This accentuates the chief difference between written fiction and drama: Drama is meant to be acted out, while fiction is meant to be read.
You will remember that personification refers to taking an abstract concept and turning it into a living being—such as the statue of justice, which we considered in Chapter 3.
This is used occasionally in drama as it is in fiction, although modern drama rarely uses it. For example, a character might find himself alone on stage, wrestling with some major decision. One classic way of handling this situation is through monologue, which will be discussed later in this chapter. But another way of showing the audience that the character is struggling with internal conflict is to use personification.
In this case, two other actors might come onto the stage, one on each side of the main character. The actor to the left tells the character, "You must do what you have planned! It is essential to your future!" The other actor disagrees: "No! Such a thing would be wrong! You must do what is right, even if it costs you your life!" In this example, the two actors are personifications of the character's struggle between doing what is right and doing what is expedient.
Generally speaking, drama does not use a narrator. You will remember that the narrator in fiction is the character who is telling the story—whether that character is part of the story or not.
This technique was actually used extensively in ancient drama, such as the drama of ancient Greece. In some Greek drama, a person would walk on stage to introduce the play and the setting and the characters, and might also appear from time to time between scenes to explain to the audience what has happened behind the scenes, in order to advance the plot. Other plays used a chorus of several people who actually sang or recited poetry, explaining to the audience things that were not acted out on stage.
In most modern drama, however, there is no narrator who explains things to the audience. The important parts of the drama are acted out onstage or onscreen. Things that are not acted out are quickly explained to the audience through the dialogue that the characters speak.
This technique is frequently seen in film. In a war movie, for example, two characters might be onscreen discussing strategy for the next day's battle. They might mention the fact that the enemy has just taken a strategic bridge that has complicated the soldiers' task. The audience does not see the battle for that bridge; it is just summarized by the characters on screen. This is an example of how the narrator fits into modern drama.
Drama makes use of characters just as fiction does, and this includes the use of a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is generally also called the main character, and is frequently (though not always) the hero of the story.
The antagonist, on the other hand, is the character that resists the protagonist. This is usually an actual character in the drama, but not always. In some dramas, the antagonist and the protagonist might actually be the same person.
The Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, for example, concerns a man who is destined to marry his mother and murder his father. The main character is Oedipus; he is the protagonist who is determined to escape this dreadful fate. Unfortunately, he also serves as the antagonist as he unwittingly sets about to commit these very crimes.
In this play, one might also consider the abstract concept of fate to be the antagonist, working against Oedipus to bring about the prophecy despite the protagonist's efforts to avoid it. Either way, we find that there are occasionally pieces of drama that include an unorthodox protagonist/antagonist relationship. Generally, however, these roles are filled by two different characters in the drama.
An Example of Dramatized Fiction
Let's take a look at a story that was written in two forms, both as a novel and as a drama. You are probably familiar with the story of Peter Pan, but you might not know that author J.M. Barrie wrote the story both as a novel and as a play. Here is an excerpt from Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy.
Chapter 14: The Pirate Ship
One green light squinting over Kidd's Creek, which is near the mouth of the pirate river, marked where the brig, the Jolly Roger, lay, low in the water; a rakish-looking craft foul to the hull, every beam in her detestable, like ground strewn with mangled feathers. She was the cannibal of the seas, and scarce needed that watchful eye, for she floated immune in the horror of her name…
"Quiet, you scugs," he cried, "or I'll cast anchor in you"; and at once the din was hushed. "Are all the children chained, so that they cannot fly away?"
"Then hoist them up."
The wretched prisoners were dragged from the hold, all except Wendy, and ranged in line in front of him. For a time he seemed unconscious of their presence. He lolled at his ease, humming, not unmelodiously, snatches of a rude song, and fingering a pack of cards. Ever and anon the light from his cigar gave a touch of color to his face.
"Now then, bullies," he said briskly, "six of you walk the plank tonight, but I have room for two cabin-boys. Which of you is it to be?"
Now, here is the same scene written for performance on stage, from Barrie's drama Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. (Incidentally, Barrie actually wrote the play first, then adapted it into the novel.)
Act 5, Scene 1: The Pirate Ship
The stage directions for the opening of this scene are as follows: —1 Circuit Amber checked to 80. Battens, all Amber checked, 3 ship's lanterns alight, Arcs: prompt perch 1. Open dark Amber flooding back, O.P. perch open dark Amber flooding upper deck. Arc on tall steps at back of cabin to flood back cloth. Open dark Amber. Warning for slide. Plank ready. Call Hook.
In the strange light thus described, we see what is happening on the deck of the Jolly Roger, which is flying the skull and crossbones and lies low in the water. There is no need to call Hook, for he is here already, and indeed there is not a pirate aboard who would dare to call him. Most of them are at present carousing in the bowels of the vessel, but on the poop [a deck of the ship] Mullins is visible, in the only great-coat on the ship, raking with his glass [telescope] the monstrous rocks within which the lagoon is cooped. Such a look-out is [unnecessary], for the pirate craft floats immune in the horror of her name…
HOOK: Quiet, you dogs, or I'll cast anchor in you! [He descends to a barrel in which there are playing-cards, and his crew stand waiting, as ever, like whipped curs.] Are all the prisoners chained, so that they can't fly away?
JUKES: Ay, ay, Captain.
HOOK: Then hoist them up.
STARKEY: [raising the door of the hold] Tumble up, you ungentlemanly lubbers. [The terrified boys are prodded up and tossed about the deck. HOOK seems to have forgotten them; he is sitting by the barrel with his cards.]
HOOK: [suddenly] So! Now then, you bullies, six of you walk the plank tonight, but I have room for two cabin-boys. Which of you is it to be? [He returns to his cards]
These two passages depict the same scene in the story of Peter Pan, but they are written very differently. In the first passage, the narrator describes the setting of Captain Hook's ship floating in the bay. The narrator also describes what the characters are thinking and feeling, such as the "wretched boys" who are dragged into Hook's presence.
In the second passage, however, the author knows that the actors on stage will convey those thoughts and feelings to the audience visually. So Barrie provides stage directions for the actors, telling them what emotions to act out and where to stand and what to do—such as Hook's playing with a deck of cards.
The second passage also begins with lighting directions, those cryptic notes about the Amber and Arc lights. The author has instructed the performers on how to light the stage, and how to construct the various props—such as Captain Hook's ship, the Jolly Roger—and other elements which will set the proper atmosphere for the performance.
The Structure of Drama
Drama does share many things in common with fiction and poetry, as we've been discussing, but there are other elements which are unique to drama. One area of uniqueness is in the way that drama is structured or put together.
Acts, Scenes, and Lines
Novels are written in chapters, and some novels even have separate sections that include multiple chapters. You may be familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings story, which has been adapted into dramatic form for film. Each book that Tolkien wrote is divided into two sections, and each of those two sections contains numerous chapters.
This same technique is used in drama, except that a drama is divided into acts and scenes. Most dramas have numerous acts (although there are one act dramas as well), and each act may be subdivided into several scenes.
Within each scene are the actors' lines. The actors who portray the characters within a drama are given lines to speak, which simply refers to the words that they are to say.
Look back at the two versions of Peter Pan. You will notice that the first passage, from the novel, is from Chapter 14. The second passage, from the dramatized version, is from Act 5, Scene 1. The lines from that scene are simply the words that the actors speak. Each set of lines begins with the name of the character who is to speak those lines, such as "JUKES: Ay, ay, Captain" and "HOOK: Then hoist them up."
The lines within some plays are also numbered, making it easier to refer to a specific quotation within a drama. You are probably familiar with the famous line, "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" This is from Shakespeare's drama Romeo and Juliet, and it can be found in Act 2, Scene 2, line 33.
Dramatic tension is sometimes called suspense. This refers to the sense of uncertainty that the audience feels during the course of a drama.
Remember that every plot will have some form of conflict, whether between two characters or some other form. The outcome of this conflict is uncertain in the audience's mind—will the hero marry his sweetheart, or will the villain get to her first?
Dramatic tension is used very heavily in modern film—so much so that we have a modern genre, or type, of film known as suspense films. The usual plot line of such movies is that a powerful villain is threatening some innocent people, and a very unlikely hero is forced (generally against his will) to intervene and save the day.
This technique, however, is not new. It has been a staple of drama for centuries. The dramatic tension in Hamlet, for example, is the fact that the audience is not sure whether Hamlet will overcome his doubts and uncertainties and avenge the murder of his father. It is this very uncertainty, this tension and suspense, which keeps the plot and its conflict interesting to the audience.
The Dramatic Stage
Drama as we know it today had its origins in ancient Greece and Rome. The art form died away for many years, and was then revived during the Middle Ages in Great Britain. What we consider drama today was largely defined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by playwrights such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and others.
Most drama was written to be performed on a stage by live actors in front of a live audience. The advent of radio, television, and film is relatively modern, yet many dramas today are written specifically for those media and not for live performance in a playhouse. Nevertheless, the structure and terminology of screenplays (scripts for movies) is still very close to the traditional structure and terminology of stage plays.
This structure consists of three rather general categories: the auditory element of drama, the physical element, and the audience.
Dialogue, Monologue, and Soliloquy
Drama is primarily concerned with what the characters have to say, which we refer to as the auditory element of drama. By auditory, we simply mean what the audience will hear. (The word audience itself refers to the people who are listening or hearing.)
As we have already seen, the actors who perform the roles of various characters are given words to speak, which we call lines. But there are many different types of lines that a drama can use.
The most common type of speech in drama is called dialogue. The word dialogue, which literally means two speaking, captures the essence of what dialogue is in drama: two or more characters who are speaking to one another. Here is a passage of dialogue from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
ALGERNON: How are you, my dear Earnest? What brings you up to town?
JACK: Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? Eating as usual, I see, Algy!
ALGERNON: [Stiffly.] I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock. Where have you been since last Thursday?
JACK: [Sitting down on the sofa.] In the country.
ALGERNON: What on earth do you do there?
JACK: [Pulling off his gloves.] When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.
ALGERNON: And who are the people you amuse?
JACK: [Airily] Oh, neighbors, neighbors.
ALGERNON: Got nice neighbors in your part of Shropshire?
JACK: Perfectly horrid! Never speak to one of them.
ALGERNON: How immensely you must amuse them!
Note that dialogue is not necessarily between two characters only; there is no limit to how many characters might be speaking together.
When one character is speaking alone, it can be either monologue or soliloquy. Monologue generally refers to a character talking to himself or to the audience, perhaps thinking out loud. In Shakespeare's play Othello, for example, the villain turns to the audience and explains his plans to bring about the destruction of Othello and Desdemona. The character who is speaking the monologue might be the only character on stage, or there might be other characters in the background.
Soliloquy is a refined sort of monologue, in which a character speaks aloud as if to himself, and wrestles with some deep question as he makes a decision. The most famous soliloquy is probably that of Hamlet, where he asks himself, To be or not to be, that is the question. In this soliloquy, Hamlet is standing alone on stage, speaking to himself as he wrestles with the question of whether or not to commit suicide.
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 heartache, 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: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus [death] make
With a bare bodkin [dagger]? who would these fardels [burdens] bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia!…
In this famous passage, Hamlet is standing alone on stage, talking out loud to himself. He is weighing the question of committing suicide, wondering whether it is more noble to endure suffering or to fight against it—by taking his own life. Why bear all of life's burdens, he asks himself, when a man can so easily take his own life with a "bare bodkin" or naked dagger? What keeps him from killing himself is the realization that he does not know what will come to him after death. In the last few lines of his soliloquy, Hamlet notices that Ophelia has come on stage, walking slowly toward him, and he moves out of soliloquy and back into dialogue as she approaches center stage.
A character who speaks a soliloquy is generally the only character on stage. A soliloquy is also generally longer than a monologue, and generally addresses some deep and weighty issue that the character is struggling with. This inner wrestling match is frequently also the turning point in a drama, as one of the main characters comes to a decision as to how he will act. In Hamlet, the main character finally decides not to kill himself but rather to confront his stepfather about his real father's murder.
Another form of speech in drama is an aside. This might be a character speaking directly (and briefly) to the audience, letting us in on a secret that none of the other characters knows. There may well be other characters on stage during an aside, but none of them hears what is being said—it's just a little comment between a character and the audience, or perhaps between two characters as a whispered comment.
In comedy, asides are sometimes used as oneliners, short quips that are funny but do not advance the plot of the drama. If you've ever seen any old Marx Brothers movies, you have seen many such asides and one-liners. This was a staple of their brand of humor, which is still used in modern film comedies.
The next component of drama concerns the physical element: what the actors do while they are on stage, what props are on stage, how the set is lighted, and so forth.
Stage directions are instructions from the author on how to conduct the drama. These instructions might state what an actor should do, how the actor should deliver his or her lines, what the set should look like, what sort of music might be playing, what the lighting should be, and many other details.
The passages from Peter Pan that we looked at earlier included some stage directions. The playwright opens the scene with specific instructions on how to light the set. He includes details within characters' lines that instruct the actor what to do physically—such as his instruction that the actor portraying Captain Hook should be fiddling with a deck of cards while speaking his lines. Playwrights even instruct the actors on how to deliver their lines—suddenly in Peter Pan, airily and stiffly in The Importance of Being Earnest.
When you are reading a dramatic script, such as a play by Shakespeare, the stage directions can help you to picture in your mind what is happening visually during the performance. But keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance, not to be read from a book in a college classroom. This is, as we've noted already, the chief difference between drama and other forms of fiction: Drama is intended to be performed. Stage directions, therefore, are intended to assist the actors, directors, stagehands, and others in producing the drama as the author envisioned it.
These stage directions are a very important tool when you are reading a play, rather than seeing it acted out on stage. They tell you what the set looks like, what the actors are wearing, what the lighting is like—the atmosphere that is being evoked on stage. All of these details will be important as you are reading dramatic passages and answering the questions that you will encounter on the GED exam. Remember to watch for the stage directions!
Specific directions are also written to help the actors on stage and the many other people involved in creating a stage (or screen) production. You may encounter directions such as stage right or down left. These directions specify where exactly on the stage to stand or perform some action. Left and right, however, refer to the actor's left and right, which is the opposite of the audience. So stage right actually refers to the left side of the stage from the audience's perspective. The stage itself is divided into center, right, left, as well as front and rear. The wings are the sections to the sides of the stage (right and left) that the audience cannot see. This is where actors wait until their cue to come on stage.
Here is a typical set of stage directions that you might find at the beginning of an act:
Curtain opens on comfortable living room. Large sofa stands center; small tables either end. An overstuffed wing chair sits front right, with a matching chair front left. Rear is lined with bookcases and occasional tables and lamps. Rear backdrop shows view out large window, overlooking a small pond. Sound of clock ticking. Enter CONSTANCE, right wing.
In this set, a sofa is standing center stage, with an overstuffed chair at center left and another at center right. Bookcases are at the rear of the stage. A backdrop pictures what is situated outside the house. The character named Constance comes onstage from the right wing, which means that she will enter from the audience's left.
The third component of drama is the audience. As a general rule, all drama is intended to be performed in front of an audience—those people who are listening to the plot.
Originally, drama was intended to be performed live, with real people performing the roles in front of a real audience who was present. The early dramas of medieval England were performed in the public street, not inside buildings with a large stage and lighting. By the time of Shakespeare, permanent theater buildings had been constructed, and the audience sat on benches or stood on the floor in front of the stage and watched the play.
We still use this convention today, as there are countless playhouses that perform drama on a stage in front of a live audience. But the advent of electronic communications such as film and television expanded the definition of an audience to include people who are not actually present during the performance. We might refer to these people as the viewing audience or the listening audience or the Internet audience—those people who will watch the performance on film at a later date, or who will be watching it live from a long distance over the internet or on television.
This element of the audience brings up a final distinction between reading drama and seeing it performed. When we read the written script of a play, for example, we can understand what the dialogue means, and we can appreciate some of the humor or tragedy of the plot, but we cannot experience the reactions of other people as they watch the drama with us.
This is an intangible but vital element of drama. Stage plays, for example, are often intended to build upon an audience's reaction. A comedy such as The Importance of Being Earnest delivers one humorous line after another, but what makes the comedy really come to life is hearing the laughter of the entire audience building up to a crescendo as the characters throw out their wit.
Types of Drama
There are many different types (or genres) of drama, just as there are many genres of poetry and fiction. But for purposes of the GED, we will concentrate on the two major, overriding genres within drama: tragedy and comedy. (Other, more modern genres such as realism and theater of the absurd still generally fit within the category of tragedy or comedy.)
The Hero's Fortunes
Before we begin, however, let us review briefly the overall plot structure of drama that we have discussed previously. You will remember that a plot generally consists of some form of conflict, and that there is some complication of that conflict, followed by a climax and a resolution.
The conflict, as we have discussed, is generally between a protagonist and an antagonist. The climax is the point in the play where some great decision is made or some great action is taken; the protagonist might finally decide to do something decisive about the antagonist's troublemaking, or the antagonist will finally gain the upper hand over the protagonist. At this point in the plot, we say that the protagonist's fortunes shift in one way or another. The resolution then finally resolves the conflict once and for all. Generally, the fortunes of the protagonist are the opposite of what they were when the story began.
This concept of fortune refers to a character's circumstances, whether good or bad—whether the character is lucky or unlucky. It is a very important element in drama, because the characters' fortunes are central to most plot structures.
The Greeks and the medieval British playwrights and poets personified the concept of fortune, depicting Fortune as a woman who stood next to a spinning wheel or mill wheel. Men and women were riding on that wheel, like an ancient version of a Ferris wheel, and Lady Fortune stood by, spinning the wheel whatever way she saw fit. This was the subject of much art and poetry, as well as drama, during the Middle Ages and beyond; and the phrase Wheel of Fortune has been kept alive in a modern television show.
The personification of Lady Fortune included the concept that she was fickle; she would show favor to a person one moment, then suddenly throw him into disfavor. The person who was pictured on the top of Fortune's wheel was experiencing comfort and success and good luck—but he or she needed to keep in mind that Lady Fortune might spin that wheel at any moment, plunging the person from success into failure and despair. The reverse was true, of course, for the poor sap who found himself at the bottom of the wheel of Fortune.
A short definition of tragedy is that the plot deals with serious issues, and ends badly for the protagonist.
More specifically, a tragedy generally begins with the protagonist at the top of Fortune's wheel. Life is going well, and the protagonist is enjoying good luck and fortune. The protagonist of classic tragedies was frequently a person with some power and influence—often royalty, such as a prince or king.
We quickly discover, however, that the protagonist has an adversary—the antagonist—who is in some form of conflict with him. This is frequently another character, such as another nobleman or a person of lower class, who is jealous of the protagonist's good fortune. Sometimes the antagonist might be an abstract concept—perhaps even Fortune herself. This is the case, for example, in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, where the protagonist (Oedipus) is struggling to avoid fulfilling an ancient prophecy of his own downfall.
The climax is the point where the protagonist and the antagonist reach some sort of decisive action. The antagonist might finally gain control over the protagonist, or the protagonist might finally make some fatal mistake. One common theme in drama is that of hubris, which refers to mankind's inherent pride. In this case, the protagonist's climax comes when he or she falls into the fatal error of pride.
The climax of a tragedy generally entails something bad for the protagonist. This is the point at which Fortune's wheel takes a sudden spin, and the protagonist finds himself spinning down from good fortune to a bad ending.
The resolution of a tragedy generally is that the protagonist has fallen from his or her high position—whether that position involves power or wealth or just a good reputation. So a tragedy involves the protagonist's fall from happiness into misery.
Tragedies also tend to be more serious in their tone. This does not mean that there is no humor in a tragedy. Many great tragedies include a character or two whose role is to bring comic relief, to relieve the tension of the serious drama by interjecting some element of laughter. But the overall tone and atmosphere of a tragedy is serious.
The subject matter of tragedies also tends to be deep and significant. Tragedies deal with big issues in life, such as pride, betrayal, the dangers of war or politics, and so forth.
Finally, the protagonist of a tragedy is frequently a person of some high moral character or high social position. Many tragedies involve kings and queens, people who are seen as being above the common man. This permits the playwright to demonstrate that everyone is subject to the whims of Fortune—even the great and powerful and wealthy cannot prevent Lady Fortune from spinning her wheel and toppling them down.
At the opposite end of drama is the genre of comedy. The short definition for comedy is that the plot deals with common, everyday issues and ends well for the protagonist.
By common and everyday issues, we mean simply the sorts of things that the common man might experience in life, such as love, marriage, prosperity, dealings with neighbors, pursuing a career, and so forth. But comedies can also deal with those negative things that everyone is subject to: divorce, infidelity, disagreements with neighbors, losing a job, and so forth. The subject matter may actually be something negative in a comedy, but it is the sort of thing that just about anybody might go through.
A comedy generally begins with the protagonist at the bottom of Fortune's wheel, rather than at the top. Life is not exactly a bed of roses; the protagonist would like to improve his or her position in the world in some way. Shakespeare's comedy The Tempest begins with a group of people being shipwrecked on a deserted island. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which we looked at earlier, begins with two young men who happen to be very wealthy and comfortable—certainly at the top of Fortune's wheel in that respect—but who are in love with two women whom they cannot marry. Their issue is not their wealth or prestige, but the fact that, for one reason or another, they are not permitted to marry their sweethearts.
This is the element of conflict, or opposition, in comedy. Note that both comedy and tragedy include the element of conflict. The protagonist in both genres is faced with some situation or force or person that is opposing him or her.
The key difference between comedy and tragedy is the outcome of that conflict. In comedy, the protagonist eventually overcomes the opposition and wins the conflict. Therefore, the climax in a comedy entails the protagonist gaining the upper hand over the antagonist—the opposite of tragedy.
Here again we see Lady Fortune spin her wheel, but this time the protagonist moves upward on the wheel, from misfortune to fortune, from bad to good. The resolution in a comedy is the happy ending, the point where all details of the conflict are resolved and the protagonist is restored to good fortune. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the two young men make some startling discoveries about their true identities, and in the process find that they are now free to marry the women whom they love.
Comedies tend to be more humorous and frivolous in their tone. This does not mean that a comedy contains no unhappiness or danger; many great comedies include some elements of great risk for the protagonist. But overall, the tone is generally comic, humorous, with characters and dialogue that keep the audience laughing.
Finally, the protagonist of a comedy is frequently someone of common birth rather than someone of nobility and power. Comedy is the genre of the common man, stories about people who are not of great privilege or unusually high moral character. Comedies tend to be written in a more conversational, everyday style of speech, whereas tragedies often involve great speeches with very formal and impressive style.
Some Common Dramatic Terms
It is worthwhile to understand a few bits of terminology that are frequently used in drama. Understanding these concepts will help you to understand drama when you encounter it on the GED.
The protagonist in a tragedy frequently has a tragic flaw, which is some element of his or her character that threatens his own well-being. This character flaw may even be the very force that brings about the protagonist's downfall in a tragedy. Hamlet, for example, is brought down by his inability to make a decision. Othello, another Shakespearean tragic hero, is brought down by jealousy.
The emphasis here is not so much on the character's flaw, but on its tragic consequences. Characters in comedies may also have similar flaws in their characters, but those flaws do not bring about the protagonist's destruction. This is what makes a character flaw a tragic flaw: The protagonist's own weakness somehow brings about his downfall.
Catharsis is a Greek word meaning to purge. The concept in drama is that a good story allows the audience to purge themselves of all their unpleasant emotions, to get it out of their system if you will, leaving them feeling calm and contented.
A tragedy offers catharsis by permitting the audience to grieve over the protagonist's downfall, and to feel the fear and tension as they see that downfall approaching. They can, in a sense, project their own fears of life's uncertainties onto the protagonist, allowing him to take their place on Fortune's shifting wheel. Thus, when the audience leaves the drama, they feel purged and less fearful, less stressed.
Comedy accomplishes the same thing from the opposite direction. It enables the audience to get their minds off their own problems by laughing at the silly antics and witty dialogue of the actors on stage. By laughing at someone else, they can leave the theater feeling purged and ready to face real life once again.
Many modern dramas feature a protagonist who is a variation on the classic protagonist. In classic drama, the audience usually identified in some way with the protagonist, even if the protagonist happened to be a king or prince or some person far removed from the typical audience member. They may have not had much in common, but the audience still basically liked the protagonist and found themselves rooting for him to some extent.
The antihero, however, is someone who inspires pity rather than respect. He or she is often someone that the audience does not even like, but they find themselves drawn into the story because they can see that the antihero's tragic flaw is going to bring destruction. Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman features an antihero named Willy Loman who is essentially having a nervous breakdown in the play. He is not a likeable character, but the audience does feel sorry for him.
The classic example of the antihero is Don Quixote, the famous nobleman who tries to joust with windmills. Quixote is an antihero in the sense that the audience can see what he cannot see: that there are no more giants and dragons to slay, no more damsels in distress to be rescued. It is noteworthy that Quixote is actually quite likeable, speaking many humorous lines; yet the audience cannot help pitying his lost hopes of becoming a knight in shining armor.
Sometimes a drama will give the audience a hint of something significant that is going to happen later in the story. For example, the hero of a play might be poisoned in the last act. An earlier scene might show the protagonist eating something that tastes strange, and making a joke about poison.
The audience recognizes the hint in foreshadowing, but the character frequently does not. If the audience somehow already knows what is going to happen, then the foreshadowing is also an example of dramatic irony.
Practice questions for this study guide can be found at:
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