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Analyzing Dramatic Works: Theme, Character Development & Staging

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  • 1:10 Drama Vs. Prose
  • 2:34 Elements of Analysis:…
  • 3:08 Elements of Analysis: Theme
  • 3:48 Analysis: Characters,…
  • 5:54 Elements of Analysis:…
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

If 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,' then why does analyzing a dramatic script seem so difficult? Find out how to make analyzing dramatic works easier with a four-step process in this video lesson.

Dramatic Works

Have you ever simply listened to your favorite television show rather than watch the actors on the screen? As you might guess, you'd miss quite a bit of the story if you couldn't see where the actors were and what they were doing. When you read a script, you might have the tendency to only read the dialogue, but you will miss a good part of the story if you do that. Look at this example from Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians.

Marston: The legal life's narrowing. I'm all for crime.

Armstrong: My God, he's dead!

If you only read the dialogue, you probably have no idea what's going on, but if we add the stage directions:

Marston: The legal life's narrowing. I'm all for crime. (Drinks it off at a gulp, appears to choke, gasps, has a violent convulsion and slips onto the sofa. Glass falls from his hand.)

Armstrong: (Runs over to him, bends down, feels a pulse, raises his eyelids) My God, he's dead!

Now the scene makes more sense as we see the first victim swallow his poisoned whiskey.

Drama v. Prose

Unlike a short story or a novel, a play is meant to be performed. In fact, the playwright who is penning out her script does not write for the audience to see her words or to give the audience the complete details of her story. Instead, the playwright writes for the actors, the stage crew, and the directors who will be interpreting both the dialogue and the stage directions to create the performance that the audience will see.

That means that if you're reading and analyzing a play as a piece of literature, that you cannot approach it like you would a short story or a novel. Instead, you have to take on the roles of actor, stage crew, and director, and fill in the other parts of the story that are not on paper. Even so, analyzing a play isn't really very different from analyzing prose. Your purpose is the same: to determine how the different elements work together to create the overall effect.

The basic elements of a play are the same basic elements that you see in prose. There are characters, a plot, and a theme. But because the written structure of the play is different, you do not receive those elements in a play in the same order that you receive them in prose. And there are additional elements in the play, such as stage directions, that must be accounted for. Finally, the effect itself is different in a play because all of the elements work together to enhance a performance, or at least a potential performance.

Elements of Analysis: Type of Play

Analyzing a play simply means that you are questioning the text in order to gain a better understanding of the author's message, style, or even characters. Typically, you are analyzing the script for the theme through its development of dramatic techniques. If you are given a script to read and analyze, the first thing you want to do is to identify the type of play. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Can you identify the sub-genre? The type of play will give you insight as to what to expect from the theme, characters, and plot. The other videos in this series can help you with the details for the play types.

Elements of Analysis: Theme

There are two questions you ask when you are determining theme. First is the 'What?' For example, 'What is the theme?' Usually, the theme is going to be a moral or a lesson that the characters learn. Often in a tragedy, the topics include revenge, loss, revelation, and justice. Comedy often deals with disorder in varying degrees.

The next question, 'How?', will further your analysis of the script. 'How does the playwright implement the theme?' Usually, this will be through characters and dialogue. Not only will this help you better understand the theme, it will help you discuss the playwright's style, or her unique use of dramatic techniques.

Elements of Analysis: Characters, Plot, & Stage Directions

The other elements of analysis, the dramatic techniques like the characters, plot, and stage directions, are all very much intertwined during the play. As you read, you need to ask yourself, 'How do stage directions, dialogues, soliloquies, and actions develop the characters?'

One of the first elements you encounter in a script is the cast of characters. And while you ultimately want to analyze for theme, it is important to remember that the characters are acting out the playwright's themes, and in some cases the characters themselves are representing certain themes. Therefore, they are always a good place to focus when beginning an analysis. Sometimes there's simply a list of character names with a brief description of each. This can help you determine the relationships among characters as you begin reading.

Each character will further be developed through the use of dialogue, or what the characters say, throughout the play. Not only will the playwright give you their speaking lines, she will often give you stage directions, the information in the script that is only meant for the director, actors, or stage crew, that indicate tone of voice and mannerisms. What the character says and how he says it will give you insight to the character's importance to the plot. In fact, the main character in the play will move the plot. The minor, or less important, characters will help create the mood - the general feeling that the audience has as they watch the play.

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