Jul 24, 2012

Reading drama

A really quick one-page introduction for the short attention-spanned...

Drama is the most social of all literary genres because plays are written and produced for live audiences. Whereas reading modern fiction tends to be a solitary affair with a text, and reading a poem is generally a personal experience of that poem, dramas continue to be primarily social experiences of literature. 

A play truly cannot be experienced in all its glory unless one sees it acted on the stage. Anyone who has ever viewed or acted in a play should understand the special chemistry that can occur between players and audience during a theatrical production. Each performance is unique, each audience is unique. The meaning of a play thus depends in large measure on the interpretive decisions on the part of the director and actors and stagehands, and on the collective meaning produced in the minds of the audience, which can generally be assumed to share certain cultural assumptions. 

The challenge of reading a play is to use your imagination to visualize the play as it might be directed for an audience.  

Like fiction, most conventional drama tells a story. It relies heavily on strong characterization (flat and round), conflict, and plot.  The means drama uses to deliver narrative are much more limited than what you will find in fiction, however. Plays are limited by physical factors such as the size and configuration of the theater and stage. Setting is limited to what can be fabricated for that space (backdrops, limited props, costumes, lighting).  The story must be propelled by means of dialogue, stagecraft, and acting (characters speaking to one another or to themselves).  Plays are also limited with respect to time. Stories must be told in a matter of minutes or at most a few hours, so you will find a more economical mode of storytelling than you would find in a long story or novel. 

Traditionally, drama has been classified into two types: comedy and tragedy. To put it crudely, comedies are stories with happy endings (marriage, reconciliation, success, etc.). The characters in comedies are fallible; they make mistakes, they misunderstand, yet everything turns out alright in the end. Tragedies are stories with unfortunate and sad outcomes. Characters meet unfortunate fates like death, suicide, destruction, loss of love, despair. Frequently these characters participate in their own downfall; sometimes they are subject to fate or suffer at the hands of their antagonists. In the best tragedies, the unfortunate characters retain some level of dignity or nobility by way of their suffering, and we feel sorry (pity) for them. This contrasts with comedy, which tends to view people as more undignified, foolhardy, vainglorious (after all, they are being made fun of). So there is an interesting blend of contrary motives within each type of drama. The comedic view takes a satirical or low view of people, but lets them off the hook at the end. The tragic view sees the more noble and even heroic side of humankind as they suffer their way down. Melodrama is another type of drama that combines elements of tragedy, high conflict, and suspense, but usually ends happily (the hero reigns victorious). Most Hollywood films have melodramatic, not tragic plots. Tragicomedy is a hybrid genre. In tragicomedy, elements of comedy lighten up an otherwise bleak and sad story. One of the more famous tragicomedies is Beckett's Waiting for Godot, an absurdist drama about two bleak tramps stuck in limbo waiting to meet a man named Godot who never comes. Although the situation is quite tragic (and symbolic of the human condition), the play is also quite funny.  That's tragicomedy. 

When you read drama, you should focus your attention on the characters, conflicts, and the major stages in the plot. Try to think like an actor, a director, and the audience. 

How would you play this role? 
How would you express these lines? 
What motivates this character? What do they need, want, desire, crave? 
What are their intentions in any given scene of the play? 

It is perfectly appropriate to probe the psychological depths of dramatic characters, to feel what they feel. The more you connect with those characters, the further “inside” the play you will get, and you will understand more of the inner logic of the play itself.