Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus Photo by George Rex

Studying Drama

Drama is a popular choice for Part 3, possibly because some teachers perceive plays as more accessible and manageable texts for their students given the limited class time they have. While this may be true for some drama texts, it does not follow that plays are necessarily 'easier' to study for this part of the course. Indeed they come with their own set of challenges due to the fact that, unlike the other genres, a play text is not the final outcome of its author's craft - that is, of course, the actual performance of the play before an audience. Ideally, therefore, students should be given the opportunity to see the play performed in addition to reading it so that they have a good sense of how dramatic conventions work in practice and how an audience is invited to 'read' the play on a stage.

Of course, even if you live close to a vibrant theatre scene, it is very unlikely that you will be able to see a performance of all of your selected texts so it is important you find other opportunities for your students to experience plays in performance. If one exists, watching a film version will give them some sense of this although you will need to discuss the differences between film and theatre. For some plays there are some excellent filmed stage performances or adapted versions of stage productions. For example, the recent version of Hamlet starring Maxine Peake is well worth using for students of that play while the Digital Theatre website (www.digitaltheatre.com) has a growing range of high quality filmed performances including The Crucible, Doctor Faustus and Macbeth. If you can't see the plays you are studying performed, seeing any play - whether it's a professional show or a school production - will help students become more aware of how theatre works and the special intimacy, danger and electricity that only exists in live performance.

It is also beneficial - and enjoyable - to give students opportunities to perform parts of the texts themselves. This allows them to explore how a text is transformed in performance and the extent to which the text allows for different interpretations. Suggested ideas for performance activities can be found on subsequent pages.

Whichever plays you are studying, it is important to begin study of drama texts with consideration of what a playwright does and how writing, reading and studying a drama text is different from doing the same with poetry or prose.

Why 'Playwright'?

Write the word 'Playwright' on the board and ask students why it is spelt like this. Some of them won't have realized this is how it is spelt (thinking it is 'Playwrite') and of those who did know this, most won't have ever thought about why it is spelt in this way.

If nobody knows why it is spelt this way, write up a couple more words that use the 'wright' suffix - wheelwright and shipwright for example. After this, someone will probably point out that it means a maker or builder of something. Ask students what this then suggests about the writing (or 'wright-ing') of plays and the nature of drama as a genre.

To extend this thinking, students might find it useful to think of a play text as a blueprint for the physical performance that is the playwright's ultimate goal. Furthermore, like a builder a playwright has certain 'tools' at their disposal for the creation of this performance. Ask students to brainstorm the 'tools' a playwright has at their disposal, generating a list such as this:

  • The stage space
  • Set and set design
  • Props
  • Costume
  • Lighting
  • Music
  • Sound Effects
  • Movement
  • Dialogue/Monologue/Soliloquy​

Stage Directions

It is important for students to see that characters' speech is only one aspect of the text and that reading stage directions can be just as important as reading dialogue, and can often be more revealing of a character's true nature. Take the following example of an early stage direction from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, where Blanche is briefly left alone in Stella and Stanley's house:

Suddenly she notices something in a half-opened closet. She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whiskey bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whiskey and tosses it down. She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink. Then she resumes her seat in front of the table.

If we skip over this when reading then we miss out on a crucial piece of information an audience would be given about Blanche's character: when we watch a play what we see and how characters look and behave will often have a far greater impact than what they say and students need to be aware of this when they read play texts.  Furthermore, stage directions work with dialogue and - using the same example -  if we don't read Williams' stage direction above then our appreciation of the dialogue that follows soon after will also be diminished:  

Blanche:  Well, now you talk. Open your pretty mouth and talk while I look around for some liquor! I know you must have some liquor on the place! Where could it be, I wonder? Oh, I spy, I spy!

At this point it is also worth discussing how different playwrights approach stage directions, either using plays from their prior experience or by asking them to have a look through the plays for their Part 3 study and comparing the approaches taken by different writers.

Class Activity: split your class into 3 or 4 groups (1 group per Part 3 text) and ask them to skim through looking only at stage directions and making notes about which 'tools' the playwright uses in their writing. These notes can then be shared and collated as a class, serving as a good starting point in terms of students thinking about some key genre conventions and comparing how the three or four different playwrights use those conventions.

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