How to Read a Play Critically
Drama as genre: Is meant to be heard, not read; is meant to be interpreted by producers, directors, and actors--not immediately by the audience; depends completely on dialogue; uses movement, gesture, and tone of voice for interpretation. Like poetry and short stories, it does have character, plot, structure, theme, setting, symbolism, and point of view.
Dramatic structure: The dramatist must do everything quickly and clearly. Hence the most important element is the story or plot. The Heart of the dramatic story is the agon or argument. The pros of the argument are represented by the protagonist, the cons by the antagonist.
Conventional structure involves the following:
1. Point of attack--the starting point
2. Exposition--Establishes the essential facts about the characters and the conflict.
3. Rising action--Builds interest by complication of the conflict.
4. Climax--the play's high point, the decisive showdown between protagonist and antagonist.
5. Falling action--the events fall into place and the conflict moves toward resolution.
6. Denouement--the play's conclusion; the explanation or outcome of the action.
Character: The tragic hero
1. The classic def. Someone who is highly renowned and prosperous who is destroyed by means of a character flaw, usually a disproportionate measure of a specific human attribute such as pride (Oedipus) or jealousy (Othello) or indecision (Hamlet).
2. The modern tragic hero: a person whose chosen image of self and position is denied fulfillment by the environment, especially the social environment. The person no longer need be born into nobility but gains stature in pitting self against the cosmos.
In comedy the hero or protagonist is not defeated at the end. In classical terms, only a noble person and serious subject matter could be the subject of tragedy. Comedy assumed people of low class involved in ludicrous situations.
The dramatic monologue is a self-revealing speech delivered by one person to a silent listener. The aside is a speech made by an actor who turns and addresses it to the audience. These two devices let us know the thoughts of characters that are not revealed to the other characters.
Questions to ask when reading a play:
1. What is the central conflict and how is it resolved?
2. Are there secondary conflicts? If so, how do they relate to the main one?
3. Does the play show traditional dramatic structure? What is the climax? Is there a denouement?
4. Who is the protagonist? What sort of person is he or she? Does the protagonist have a fatal flaw? Is the protagonist a hero?
5. Is the antagonist a person, an environment, or a social force? If a person, so does the antagonist cause conflict intentionally?
6. Do other characters provide exposition? Are they foils opposing, contrasting, criticizing, and thus help develop the main character(s)?
7. What are the time and setting of the play? How important are they? Could the play be as effective in another time and place?
8. Does the title help understand the play? What title would you give it?
9. Can you state the theme of the play in a single sentence?
10. Is the play a tragedy, a comedy, or a mixture? Is the classification important?
11. Is the presentation realistic? Does the playwright use any special theatrical devices, and, if so, what effect do they have on your impression of the play?