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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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1 Approaching plays

Most people's experience of plays will be through seeing them on stage, or on television or video. Or, thinking of drama in a more general sense, we might be avid watchers of TV soaps or films. But, as a student of literature, you are sitting at home with a book open in front of you. It contains the text of a play. What, then, are you to make of the words on the page before you? If the script you were examining was intended for a film or a TV play it would look different from the examples that follow, since these media focus more on the visual aspect, and the conventions or presentation for a film or TV script are different from those of a play script intended primarily for the stage. In this course, we shall be concentrating on play texts, but we shall also be offering some guidance for how to get the most out of watching a performance.

Example 1

ANGIEWish she was dead.
KITWanna watch The Exterminator?
ANGIEYou're sitting on my leg.
KITThere's nothing on telly. We can have an ice cream. Angie?
ANGIEShall I tell you something?
KITDo you wanna watch The Exterminator?
ANGIEIt's X, innit.
KITI can get into Xs.
ANGIEShall I tell you something?
KITWe'll go to something else. We'll go to Ipswich. What's on the Odeon?
ANGIEShe won't let me, will she?
KITDon't tell her.
ANGIEI've no money.
KITI'll pay.

Example 2

NORAReally! Did a big dog run after you? But it didn't bite you? No, dogs don't bite nice little dolly children. You mustn't look at the parcels, Ivar. What are they? Ah, I daresay you would like to know. No, no – it's something nasty! Come, let us have a game! What shall we play at? Hide and seek? Yes, we'll play hide and seek. Bob shall hide first. Must I hide? Very well, I'll hide first.
[She and the children laugh and shout and romp in and out of the room; at last NORA hides under the table; the children rush in and look for her but do not see her; they hear her smothered laughter, run to the table, lift up the cloth and find her. Shouts of laughter. She crawls forward and pretends to frighten them. Fresh laughter. Meanwhile there has been a knock at the hall door but none of them has noticed it. The door is half opened and KROGSTAD appears, he waits a little; the game goes on.]

Example 3

KING HENRYOnce more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galléd rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Activity 1

First we would like you to look at the examples above from three scripts for plays, which all look different on the page, and which offer different challenges in interpretation. As you read, ask yourself what the extracts have in common.


The three extracts above may look very different on the page, but they have this in common: they are all intended for performance, and as you read you need to envisage actors moving around on stage, speaking the words. The first example comes from Caryl Churchill's play, Top Girls, published and performed in 1982. It is followed by an extract from Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, which was first performed in Copenhagen in 1879 and first reached the London stage in 1889. Finally, there is an extract from Henry V's famous speech before the battle of Harfleur. Shakespeare's play, Henry V, is thought to have been first performed in 1599, and first published in 1600.

I shall shortly be looking at the three extracts in detail, but for now I should like to focus on the main differences between them. There are no stage directions in the extract I have chosen from Top Girls, which consists simply of short lines of dialogue exchanged between two characters. In fact, I have cheated a bit here and deliberately chosen a passage which gives speech only; when I give the longer extract for discussion you will see that Churchill does give some directions. But on the whole there are relatively few in this play, unlike A Doll's House, where Ibsen gives many instructions to do with setting, action and expression. In the example here, the speech seems almost secondary to the action, and there are clearly actors on stage (the children) for whom no dialogue is written, though they are not silent, and another actor appears who is silent for some time. Henry V's speech is written in blank verse, a poetic form consisting of unrhymed iambic pentameters that was generally used in drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in combination with prose dialogue. The play script, put together after the performance, contains no stage directions beyond indications of entrances, exits, fights and flourishes. Obviously techniques that are used for analysing poetry and other texts can be relevant in reading a speech like this, but what is important to remember is that it is being delivered by an actor, in costume, to other actors, and to an audience.

This is where a play text differs crucially from a poem, a novel or a short story – it is a text for performance. Poems and stories may be performed in the sense that they may be read aloud, and in that event the way that they are read is itself an interpretation, but a play text is specifically a text for performance, and therefore it is necessary to read it with attention to the way the words will be brought to full life on stage; the performance will need to make not just an aural but also a visual appeal. Another important difference between drama and prose fiction, however, lies in the absence (generally speaking) of a narrator. There are exceptions to be found, for instance in the chorus in Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, or, to take two more modern examples, in Peter Schaffer's Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. In a novel, the narrator, typically, will act as a guide and interpreter, shaping the narrative to give it a particular significance, evaluating character and commenting on the action. In particular, through the handling of point of view the narrator can direct the reader's sympathies. On stage, the play will be interpreted by the director and the actors, and the way in which the audience's sympathies are manipulated is less obvious; much will depend on the extent to which they can identify with one or more of the characters.