Understanding Performance Art: Finding the Thesis, Narrative & Meaning

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  • 0:04 Reading a Performance
  • 0:59 Finding the Narrative
  • 2:42 Finding the Thesis
  • 5:32 Finding Hidden Meaning
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

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?

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