Learn how to 'read' a performance the same way you would read a book or story. In this lesson, we'll discuss strategies for identifying thesis, narrative, and meaning in the performing arts.
Reading a Performance
What do a circus show, a historical re-enactment, and Swan Lake all have in common? They're all performances. A performance is a form of art that uses the body (or bodies) of the artist (or artists) to convey meaning. This could mean dancing, acting, singing, or all kinds of other things. Sometimes you watch a performance live and sometimes you watch it as a recording, like in a movie, a TV show, or a recording of a play.
It's easy to watch a play or a movie and say that you liked it, or didn't like it, but it's much more rewarding to figure out what meaning the artists were actually trying to convey. In this lesson, we'll go over some strategies for finding meaning in a performance beyond just liking or not liking it. Specifically:
- How can you understand the narrative of a performance?
- How can you find a thesis in a performance?
- How can you find meaning when it isn't obvious?
Finding the Narrative
The narrative of a performance isn't just a list of things that happen, it's a connected series of events that build on each other. This typically happens in a familiar pattern called the narrative arc:
- Exposition: Setting the scene and introducing the characters. Exposition leads to:
- Rising action: Most of what happens in the work is here; this is where the characters face challenges and change in response.
- Climax: This is what all the action builds up to, often a final dramatic battle or fight scene.
- Denouement: Wrapping up loose ends and what happens to the characters after the climax.
For example, let's look at a performance you're probably familiar with: The Lion King musical. If you haven't seen it, it is basically the same plot as the animated Disney movie.
- Exposition: The song, 'The Circle of Life,' is a great example of exposition: we learn who Simba and Mufasa are, what their relationship to each other is, and how they fit into the bigger picture of the Pride Lands.
- Rising action: This is everything that happens as Scar plots to depose Mufasa, kills Mufasa and takes over, and Simba grows up and works to take down Scar.
- Climax: The climax is the battle for Pride Rock, where Simba regains his rightful throne.
- Denouement: The song, 'King of Pride Rock,' and the reprise of 'Circle of Life' are the denouement - this is where the musical basically says that 'they all lived happily ever after'.
Identifying these points in the performance will help you understand the plot and how the events in the story fit together.
Finding the Thesis
To help you understand a performance, it also helps to identify the thesis. A thesis is the most important argument that a work makes. A thesis statement defends one side of a debatable issue - it's not just a statement of fact. You might not be used to thinking about a movie or a play making an argument, but you just have to look at it from the right perspective. These two questions will help you find the thesis of a performative work:
- What is this work about?
- What does the work say or imply about its subject? What's the takeaway message?
For example, let's take Joseph Addison's play Cato. This play is about the Roman orator, Marcus Porcius Cato, who was most famous as the last bastion of the Roman Republic fighting against Julius Caesar. Caesar eventually wins the war, and Cato takes his own life so he can die free rather than live in slavery under Caesar. That's not the thesis, though. That's the subject of the play. The thesis has to be some kind of argument. So, what is this play claiming about Cato? Well, here's a quotation from his sons talking about him in the play:
'His sufferings shine, and spread a glory round him;
… he fights the cause
Of honour, virtue, liberty, and Rome.' (Act I, Scene I, Lines 29-31)
Addison portrays Cato as the personification of liberty, virtue, and patriotism. Props like books of Plato's philosophy (in Act V, Scene 1) reinforce his status as morally perfect. He's even assimilated to a god:
'His virtues render our assembly awful,
They strike with something like religious fear.' (Act 1, Scene II, Lines 18-19)
There's one thing that the play is claiming about its subject: Cato was the personification of perfect virtue. But let's look a little deeper. Cato's death is one of the most important moments in the play - it's the dramatic climax at the end. So, what does the play have to say about it?
Mostly that it's as wonderful as everything else Cato does. Cato dies because he's just too perfect to live in Caesar's world. Cato, the personification of virtue and patriotism, dies nobly in the fight against tyranny. So we could say that this play is also putting forward another argument: it's noble to die fighting for liberty, and that's what virtuous people (like Cato) do. That's a debatable argument; you could also argue that it's better to live and keep serving your country however you can. Since it's debatable, this qualifies as a thesis. It was probably the takeaway message that George Washington was going for when he showed the play to his troops at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War!
Finding Hidden Meaning
In the example of Cato, it's pretty obvious what the moral of the story is, but that's not always the case. For example, in a modern dance performance, you won't get that kind of explicitly stated meaning. So, what can you do to find the hidden meaning?
- Use comparison wisely: Before you go see a live performance, think about what kinds of set design, costume choices, and props you expect to find. For example, in a dark and tragic play like Macbeth, you'd probably expect to find very dark and gloomy costumes and sets. Analyze any differences between what you were expecting and what you actually see; if a director gives you the set of Macbeth all done in shades of bubblegum pink, she's probably making some kind of statement.
- In an abstract work, look for symbolism: Color choices, imagery borrowed from other sources and other kinds of symbolism can help you discover meanings.
- Get familiar with genre conventions: What kinds of dance poses indicate happiness, sadness, life, death, or other concepts? What kind of costumes are traditionally used for certain types of characters? In recorded media, what kinds of camera angles create certain effects?
These strategies will help you interpret works that are more abstract and find meanings, arguments, and narratives that are hidden under the surface even of performances that look straightforward.
In this lesson, you learned about some ways to find the narrative, thesis, and other meaning in a performance like a play, opera, ballet, dance, or movie. The narrative is 'a connected explanation of the events in the story that explains how they build on each other'. The typical narrative arc builds from the exposition to the rising action to the climax and finishes with denouement.
The thesis is 'the main claim of the work'; for example, 'love will always win in the end' or 'it's brave and justified to die for your country.' This isn't always explicitly stated the way it is in an academic essay - you have to infer it from the work. To find the thesis, try to identify a main theme or topic in the work and identify how the work treats that subject. Even if the narrative and thesis aren't obvious, you can look for clues in the set design, symbolism, and genre conventions of the particular type of performance to help identify meanings that lie beneath the surface.
When this lesson is completed, you should have the skills to meet these goals:
- Define the term 'performance'
- Identify the use of narrative, thesis and hidden meanings in performances
- Give examples of these performance conventions