Reading Drama Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading (page 2)
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.
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