Reading Drama Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading (page 3)
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.
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