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Analyzing American Drama: Techniques and Plays

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  • 0:01 Analyzing American Drama
  • 0:24 Symbolism & Motifs
  • 2:47 Flashbacks
  • 3:58 Interior Monologues
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

Plays are often developed with the use of a number of literary techniques. This lesson explores the use of symbolism, motifs, flashbacks, and monologues in American drama.

Analyzing American Drama

When you think of reading or watching plays, your mind might immediately go to Shakespeare and all of the elements of the way he wrote. But there are a variety of other types of plays, including much more modern American ones. As you analyze American drama, it's useful to be aware of some of the techniques that are employed in writing and structuring them. Note that the word drama can refer to a specific play or plays in general.

Symbolism & Motifs

If you've studied literature at all, you may recall having learned about symbolism, which is the technique by which one thing stands for something else. For example, you might read a story in which a character is getting over a hardship, and she sees storm clouds break and a bright blue sky open up. That beautiful sky would symbolize her improved outlook.

Symbolism occurs quite a bit in American drama. Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie tells the tale of the Wingfield family - mother Amanda, son Tom, and daughter Laura - who have been left behind by their husband and father. A sense of disappointment permeates the play, as the family often finds itself short on money, and Laura, who wears a brace on her leg, does not have any men interested in dating or marrying her - or 'gentleman callers,' as her mother refers to them.

Laura, the daughter, has a collection - or menagerie - of small glass animals. These fragile animal figures symbolize Laura, as she is very shy and seems delicate. It is noted in the play that when the light hits the animals, they can reflect a rainbow of colors. This phenomenon again calls to mind Laura, who at first glance may appear unremarkable, but who, once people really see her, reveals the depth of her personality.

At Amanda's urging, Tom brings home a coworker, Jim, as a date for Laura. Jim accidentally breaks the horn off of Laura's glass unicorn, which was her favorite figurine. When it's revealed later in the play that Jim is engaged and therefore not looking to enter into a relationship with Laura, it is suggested that she, too, is broken and rendered in a way not special, just as her unicorn was once it lost its horn.

A literary motif consists of repeated symbols or references to a theme that occur throughout a particular work. In Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, a major theme is the decline and death of the Loman family's dream to achieve success and to stand out as special and remarkable. Note that a theme is the main idea of a literary work, and it also includes the important ideas evoked by the work.

Underscoring that theme throughout Death of a Salesman is the preoccupation of the main character, Willy Loman, with being well-known and well-liked. The repeated references to the character's thwarted longings to be well-liked, and for his sons to be well-liked, form a motif throughout the play. In explaining his theory on success in the business world, Loman says, about the 'man who gets ahead:' 'Be liked and you will never want.' Ultimately, the play ends in tragedy when it becomes clear that Willy's longings and his abilities do not intersect.

Flashbacks

A flashback is a literary device in which the timeline of the work diverts from the present and events from the past are depicted. Miller's Death of a Salesman also features this device, as Willy Loman, in the last few days of his life, thinks of his earlier days with his family, and the play flashes back to the past and then comes back to present-day events several times. What we're seeing of the Loman family's past in these flashbacks is filtered through Willy Loman's consciousness, as well as his need to see himself and his family in an ideal light. Again, reinforcing the major theme of the play, Loman sees in his past a perfect American family, destined for success and great things. The discrepancy between the family's goals and realizations about reality, both in the past and in present-day events, underscores the tragic nature of the play.

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