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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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6 From text to performance

6.1 Performance and production

The idea that drama is a performed art should, by now, be one with which you feel familiar. What should also be clear from each of the examples discussed so far is that there is a range of factors to consider when approaching a dramatic text, and that to engage with any dramatic work we need to consider more than just the words on the page. Here, I'll be asking you to think about the language of the text, and about what's involved in moving outwards from the page to the stage. I will also be asking you to begin thinking about the text in relationship to its production and reception. This means acknowledging that the process of moving from the text to the performance involves making decisions about, among other things, delivery, movement, set design, sound, costume and lighting.

The following two extracts are very different; the first is from the Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth, and the second from Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both, however, also contain some similarities in terms of how they suggest performance possibilities. Here they are reproduced without the stage directions. Read the following extracts carefully, noting how the language implies possibilities for performance.

Extract 1
GENTLEWOMANLo you, here she comes. This is her very guise, and upon my life, fast asleep. Observe her, stand close.
DOCTORHow came she by that light?
GENTLEWOMANWhy, it stood by her. She has light by her continually, 'tis her command.
DOCTORYou see her eyes are open.
GENTLEWOMANAy, but their sense are shut.
DOCTORWhat is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.
GENTLEWOMANIt is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands; I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
LADY MACBETHYet here's a spot.
DOCTORHark, she speaks.
Extract 2
HELMERNora, what do you think I have got here?
HELMERThere you are! Do you think I don't know what a lot is wanted for housekeeping at Christmas time?
NORATen shillings – a pound – two pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time.
HELMERIndeed it must.
NORAYes, yes, it will. But come here and let me show you what I have bought. And all so cheap! Look, here is a new suit for Ivar and a sword, and a horse and a trumpet for Bob, and a doll and dolly's bedstead for Emmy -they are very plain, but anyway she will soon break them in pieces. And here are dress lengths and handkerchiefs for the maids; old Anne really ought to have something better.
HELMERAnd what is in this parcel?
NORANo, no! You mustn't see that till this evening.

There are obvious contrasts between the two extracts, both in the language used and in the way the subject of the dialogue is revealed to us. The first draws us into a dialogue, but one that is highly ambiguous as to its subject, at least at the start. It becomes apparent that this is a scene of voyeurism, in which those watching observe the somnambulant rituals of Lady Macbeth. The second extract presents an altogether more naturalistic scene; here there are identifiable characters, engaged in a dialogue about a discernible subject. There is however a sense in which the language in the two extracts is very similar, and that is in its performative function. Dramatic language often ensures that the dramatic situation is constituted in the speech-act itself; in the Shakespearean and earlier periods the verbal indicators of dramatic action were especially important, given the absence of the visual and technical means of presentation we have today. Here the speech of the Doctor and the Gentlewoman suggests a series of actions carried out by Lady Macbeth (sleepwalking, carrying a light, washing), while the dialogue between Torvald and Nora denotes various actions, gestures and dynamics; the counting of the money, the movement of Torvald towards Nora to look at the presents, and Nora's display of them, his curiosity in the parcel that Nora then refuses to let him see.

Activity 10

What are some of the implications for the performance of these extracts?


The first extract presents us with a number of performance considerations, the most challenging being how to direct the movement and actions of Lady Macbeth. She is carrying a light and is sleepwalking, so decisions about lighting and costume need to be considered. Does she, for example, occupy the main performance area, with the other characters looking on from the side in hushed conversation? Does she remain standing, or would you want her to be kneeling, perhaps implying remorse or the act of praying? When Roman Polanski directed Francesca Annis in this scene in his 1971 film version of Macbeth, he chose to present her without clothes, thus emphasizing her vulnerability, and in stark contrast to the scores of Lady Macbeths who roam the stage in a nightdress. How would you choose to portray her in this scene?

The second extract depicts a conversation between a husband and wife in an altogether more naturalistic scene, but is nonetheless dramatic. Performance considerations would centre on set design (it is Christmas time), costume and the dynamics between Nora and Torvald. The conversation is about money, and the characters occupy what could be described as parent and child roles in its exchange here. You might choose to emphasize this and direct Nora to play up to this role by suggesting that she makes the running here with Torvald remaining still, keeping the money out of her sight and reach. Or, if you chose to interpret the dynamic of the relationship as one in which Nora has the power (notice that it is she who beckons to Torvald to ‘come here’), then you would need to consider a different approach to directing the movement of the characters.

These two extracts show us how dramatic language is constructed to influence and direct performance through signals and indicators of action. However, not all dramatic language is constituted in this way; some modern drama, for example, deliberately refuses such information, giving us little in the way of signs or directions.

Activity 11

Read the following extract, and note the main differences between this and the two extracts above. What are the main performance considerations?

Extract 3
Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone.
AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high, shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note.
As house lights down MOUTH's voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds. With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required, leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient, into:
MOUTH… out … into this world … this world … tiny little thing … before its time… in a godfor– … what? … girl … yes … tiny little girl……into this … out into this … before her time … godforsaken hole called … called … no matter … parents unknown … unheard of… he having vanished … thin air … no sooner buttoned up his breeches … she similarly … eight months later … almost to the tick … so no love … spared that… no love such as normally vented on the … speechless infant… in the home … no … nor indeed for that matter any of any kind … no love of any kind … at any subsequent stage … so typical affair .. nothing of any note till coming up to sixty when- … what? … seventy? … good God! … coming up to seventy … wandering in a field … looking aimlessly for cowslips … to make a ball … a few steps then stop … stare into space … then on … a few more … stop and stare again … so on … drifting around … when suddenly … gradually … all went out… all that April morning light… and she found herself in the- … what? … who? … no!……she! … (Pause and movement 1.) … found herself in the dark …
(Beckett, 1990, pp. 216–17)


You were probably struck by how detailed the stage directions are, and probably grateful for them, since without them, what are we to make of this? This is from the modern playwright Samuel Beckett's play, Not I (1972), and as with all of Beckett's plays, it concentrates on the mystery of existence, and the impossibility of making rational explanation of time, birth or death, in short the essential incommunicability of much of the would-be material of art. His characters therefore often enact the absurd patterns of the ‘wait’ for the end, sometimes obsessively uttering the frustration with the less than satisfactory nature of the medium: words. In Not I words dominate, but as an almost unintelligible droning, a manic re-enactment of a futile past. Syntax and structures are shattered, as the character plays out her dilemma.

Returning to the extract then, and the role of the stage directions, we get a sense of how this performance might look; lighting, performance space and acoustics are all important here. But even given the specifications of the set and the position of the character, we are far from knowing how to direct the action, or rather, the lack of it. What role does the AUDITOR play? What sort of performance space would suit this play? Given the potential intensity of this performance, and the nature of the subject, you might choose a performance space which enabled you to focus on the visual image of the MOUTH, and yet one which also allowed the utterances to be audible, so it would be a space which kept a close proximity between audience and performer. Given the domination of the words, it would be a good idea to emphasize the aural assault on the audience and minimize all movement, with the light focusing solely on the MOUTH. You would want to leave an audience almost breathless from the tirade; if read quickly, this play lasts approximately eighteen minutes. The greatest challenge, then, would be the actor's difficulty in delivering the lines; keeping up the momentum whilst retaining succinctness and clarity would be crucial in a play whose sole focus is words. When Billie Whitelaw played MOUTH in the 1973 Royal Court performance of Not I, she read the script at break-neck speed, strapped to a chair with her head fastened to the back. The play was performed in-the-round, with the AUDITOR to one side responding to the speech occasionally by flapping his arms helplessly at his sides in what the stage directions call ‘an attitude of helpless compassion’ (Beckett, 1990, p. 215).

This extract shows us that there are many more considerations than the stage directions suggest in directing a play, and that there are technical and practical as well as imaginative challenges involved.