Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Chapter 5: The play’s the thing

In the last chapter, we looked at the handling of time in short prose fiction and recognised the importance of scenes as important building blocks in the construction of short stories (and novels, as we shall see in Chapter 6).

In this chapter, we will be looking at the particular challenges posed by play-texts as reading and viewing experiences. We will also be looking at the form of tragedy and at two influential strands in modern drama.

Drama as an audio-visual spectacle
The dramatic imagination: The Crucible
Tragedy as a genre: King Lear
Realism: A Doll’s House
Banishing the fourth wall: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

5.1. Drama as an audio-visual spectacle

A) Drama as visual
The following close reading (or viewing) tasks are aimed at developing your understanding of stage drama as a visual medium. They can be done individually or in groups.

set is a visual three-dimensional construction designed to evoke a place or state in a theatre. It is the theatrical equivalent of a setting.

Photograph 1: Graham Green’s Travels With My Aunt, adapted for the stage by Giles Havergal. Peter Hambleton (left), Ross Duncan (centre), Ian Watkin (right) and Raymond Hawthorne (above) play a number of roles in this play, including the main character, Henry Pulling, and his Aunt Augusta. [Auckand Theatre Company. Photo: John McDermot]
Photograph 2: Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya. Stuart Devenie plays Uncle Vanya (centre). Lee Grant plays Marya Vassileyevna, Vanya’s mother (left). Ian Watkin plays the retired professor, Alexander Serebryakov (right). [Auckand Theatre Company. Photo: John McDermot]
  1. On the basis of Photographs 1 and 2, which of the two sets, Uncle Vanya or Travels With My Aunt, would you describe as the more naturalistic? (A naturalistic set is one which attempts to recreate a ‘real life’ setting on stage.)    Give reasons for your answer.
  2. How would you describe the mood conveyed by the set in Photograph 1?
  3. How would you describe the mood communicated by the set in Photograph 2? In particular, discuss how the back wall and the book pages strewn on the floor communicate an atmosphere.
Language Tool Kit:
Set: In a theatre, a set is a visual three-dimensional construction designed to evoke a place or state.
Naturalism: A theatrical movement (specifically Nineteenth-Century) which attempted to make happenings on stage as close to ‘real life’ as possible
  1. Lighting is an important feature of modern theatre. Stage lighting can be thought of as fulfilling four distinct functions:
    • to illuminate all or part of the set and to aid scene changes;
    • to highlight a particular character, stage feature or event;
    • to establish a mood;
    • for special effect;
      How would you compare the way lighting functions in Photograph 1 and Photograph 2?
  2. The word minimalist is used to describe a set which tends to be abstract and devoid of stage furniture. (Photograph 1 portrays a minimalist set.) The term stage property is used to denote those large objects on stage (e.g. beds, thrones, tables) that remain fixed for at least the duration of a scene. List the stage properties you can identify in Photograph 2 and Photograph 3.
  3. Conversely, hand props denote the general group of objects that can literally be carried in the hand. Hand props may remain on stage for the duration of a scene (a small lamp, for instance) or may be brought on and carried off by one of the characters. A cane, a dagger, a crown, a list of names are examples of hand props. Identify objects in Photograph 2 that might function as hand props.
  4. Good actors make use of stage and hand properties as ‘extensions’ of their character. How are the actors playing Uncle Vanya and Alexander Serebryakov using props in ways that help their communication of their characters?

Costume has always had an important role in theatre. Plays wherein characters wear costumes which attempt to reproduce the clothing of the period in which a play is set are said to be period productions. As you learn more about the theatre, you will discover that different theatrical traditions have their own costuming conventions. A modern production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra might have Antony dressed as an ancient Roman and Cleopatra dressed as an ancient Egyptian. But Shakespeare’s own company production would have dressed both these characters lavishly as Elizabethan persons of high rank.

Photograph 3: Tom Stoppard, Arcadia.  Emmeline Hawthorne plays Thomasina Coverly (left). Marton Csokas plays her tutor Septimus Hodge (right). [Auckand Theatre Company. Photo: John McDermot]
  1. Compare and contrast the costuming in Photographs 1, 2 and 3.
  2. What does the way the character playing Uncle Vanya wears his costume tell you about his character?

The main function of an actor on stage is to interpret their character to the audience. The actor might be thought of as a go-between, who mediates between the playwright’s view of a character (as far as this can be known), the director’s view and his or her own, and the audience. Visually, an actor relies on facial expressions, gestures, posture and body movements. Study Photograph 3 carefully.

  1. What do the expressions on the actors’ faces convey to you?
  2. What, in your view, is being communicated by the gestures and posture of the actors playing Thomasina Coverly and Septimus Hodge?
Language Tool Kit:
Minimalism: An approach to scenic design which reduces objects on stage to bare essentials.
Stage property: A large (usually furniture) object that remains part of a set for the duration of a scene.
Hand prop: An object small enough to lend itself to be brought on and off the set by one of the actors.
Period production: A production where actors wear costumes which duplicate the kind of clothing worn in the period in which a play is set.
Stage action: The movements actors make on stage relative to the set and to one another.
Stage picture (or tableau): The picture created by the arrangement of actors on stage at any one instant.

Last but not least, we come to the total look of what is happening on stage at any one moment. Stage action is the general term for the movements actors make on stage relative to the set and to one another. A stage picture (or tableau) is the picture created by the arrangement of actors on stage at any one instant.

  1. How would you describe the physical relationship of the characters to one another in
    Photograph 2? What is the function of eye contact (or the lack of it) I this tableau?
  2. The way characters place themselves in relationship to one another is frequently an indication of the way their exercise their power (or lack of it). Discuss some of the ways in which the actors in Photographs 2 and 3 are using their stage positions as a way of exercising power.

B) Drama as aural
Sound is the second half of drama as an audio-visual spectacle.

Close listening (individual or group)
In order to answer the following question you will need to tape at least the opening passage of a radio play.

Music has a long association with drama.

  1. What function did music play in the radio drama you listened to?

Sound effects can play an important role at crucial points of a play. We distinguish two kinds of sound effect. An diagetic sound effect is one made on the stage or just off it. (A gunshot made by a starter pistol immediately off stage is an example of this. So is a dropped plate.) A pre-recorded sound effect is a taped sound played through some kind of sound system. (The sound of running water would be an example of this.)

  1. List the various sound effects you are aware of as you listen to your taped play extract.
  2. Which of these sound effects appear to be made diagetically (for example, by the actors in the recording studio)? Which sound effects are likely to be pre-recorded?
  3. Explain the function of three of the sound effects you noted in Question 1.

The actor’s Voice complements their body as a medium for character interpretation which needs to be controlled with a high degree of subtlety and skill. There are a number of aspects of voice:

  • Volume
  • Pitch
  • Intonation           
  • Pausing
  • Pace
  • Emphasis
  1. Did you find the voice of a particular actor in your taped extract memorable?
  2. What aspect(s) of voice did the actor control particularly well? Comment on how the actor used the various aspects of voice to support their interpretation of character.
Language Tool Kit:
Diagetic sound effect: one made on the stage or just off it.
Pre-recorded sound effect: A taped sound played through a sound system in the course of a play.
Intonation: The rise and fall in pitch which is a feature of spoken English.
ElementsPerson Responsible

Stage properties
Hand properties
Body language
Stage movement

Sound effects

Set designer
Set designer/Stage manager
Set designer/Stage manager
Technical director
Costume director
Make-up director

Musical director
Technical director

C) Extension task (individual research)
Choose one of the following theatrical traditions:

In your chosen tradition, investigate the conventions which applied for one of more of the following:

  • stage/set design
  • use of properties
  • lighting
  • costume and make-up
  • interpretation
  • music and sound effects
Hamlet’s advice to actors:
Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped….Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor, suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first, and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
                                                                      Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, ii]

5.2. The dramatic imagination: The Crucible

As we have seen, the reading of a play-text requires active imagining. (This book, of course, has been making the point that all reading requires active imagining, but a play-text is a special case.) As you read a play-text, you need to find ways of visualising the action, to hear the words that are said (and other sounds) and to be sensitive to messages that lurk at a sub-textual level (what we will be calling sub-text).

a) Visualising a piece of play-text
When playwrights write play-texts, they might be thought of as having three distinct audiences in mind:

  • the director;
  • the actors;
  • the general reader who may not have immediate access to an actual production of the play.

Group task

  1. In writing a play-text, what purpose or purposes does the playwright have with respect to:
    • the director?
    • the actors?
    • the general reader?
  2. What differences are three between the three sets of purposes you identified in questions 1?

The Crucible by American dramatist, Arthur Miller, was first produced in 1953, at a time when many supposed ‘left wingers’ in the United States were being persecuted by a Senate committee chaired by Joseph McCarthy (hence McCarthyism). Although set in 1692, at the time of the famous (or infamous) witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts, The Crucible serves as a commentary upon the excesses of his own time. As Miller himself wrote: ‘It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one would have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.’

The following extract occurs near the beginning of Act II, in this four-act play. (Each act is one long scene.)

   In Act I, the minister of Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris, finds himself in a predicament. A number of children, including his own daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams, have been caught in the forbidden act of dancing in the woods. As the play commences, his plight has been complicated by Betty’s apparent coma-like state. He is torn between an explanation based on natural causes and one that suggests bewitchment. To check out the latter, he has asked an expert on the devil, John Hale, to come to Salem. Not only is his own rather brittle reputation at stake. So is Abigail’s. There is a rumour abroad that the children have been ‘trafficking with spirits’.
   In the course of the Act, an encounter occurs between John Proctor, a local and rather outspoken farmer and Abigail, in which it is revealed that an affair has taken place between them. Abigail, who has been dismissed by Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, is clearly still enamoured of John. We are also introduced to a number of Salem townsfolk in scenes which reveal a variety of interests, rivalries and motivations. Finally, the Reverend Hale arrives, ready and willing to interrogate Abigail on her actions in the forest and to discover a demonic explanation for Betty’s coma. Another dancer, Parris’s black servant, Tituba, is questioned closely by Hale and in a sudden flash sees a way out of her own predicament by shifting responsibility by accusing old and disreputable woman in the town of bewitching her. Seizing her opportunity, Abigail (and then Betty) join in the chorus of denunciation. [Here Act I ends.] Within days, a trial has been set up of those persons the children have accused.
   Act I takes place in Betty bedroom. Act II shifts to the farm kitchen of John and Elizabeth Proctor.

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller


The common room of PROCTOR’S house, eight days later.
At the right is a door opening on the fields outside.  A fireplace is at the left, and behind it a stairway leading upstairs.  It is the low, dark, and rather long living room of the time.  As the curtain rises, the room is empty.  From above, ELIZABETH is heard softly singing to the children.  Presently the door opens and JOHN PROCTOR enters, carrying his gun.  He glances about the room as he comes toward the fireplace, then halts for an instant as he hears her singing.  He continues on to the fireplace, leans the gun against the wall as he swings a pot out of the fire and smells it.  Then he lifts out the ladle and tastes.  He is not quite pleased.  He reaches to a cupboard, takes a pinch of salt, and drops it into the pot.  As he is tasting again, her footsteps are heard on the stair.  He swings the pot into the fireplace and goes to a basin and washes his hands and face.  ELIZABETH enters.

ELIZABETH: What keeps you so late?  It’s almost dark.
PROCTOR: I were planting far out to the forest edge.
ELIZABETH: Oh, you’re done then.
PROCTOR: Aye, the farm is seeded.  The boys asleep?
ELIZABETH: They will be soon.  And she goes to the fireplace, proceeds to ladle up stew in a dish.
PROCTOR: Pray now for a fair summer.
PROCTOR: Are you well today?
ELIZABETH: I am.  She brings the plate to the table, and, indicating the food: It is a rabbit.
PROCTOR, going to the table: Oh, is it!  In Jonathan’s trap?
ELIZABETH: No, she walked into the house this afternoon; I found her sittin’ in the corner like she come to visit.
PROCTOR: Oh, that’s a good sign walkin’ in.
ELIZABETH: Pray God.  It hurt my heart to strip her, poor rabbit.  She sits and watches him taste it.
PROCTOR: It’s well seasoned.
ELIZABETH, blushing with pleasure: I took great care.  She’s tender?
PROCTOR: Aye.  He eats.  She watches him.  I think we’ll see green fields soon.  It’s warm as blood beneath the clods.
ELIZABETH: That’s well.
            Proctor eats, then looks up.
PROCTOR: If the crop is good I’ll buy George Jacob’s heifer.  How would that please you?
ELIZABETH: Aye, it would.
PROCTOR, with a grin: I mean to please you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH – it is hard to say: I know it, John.
            He gets up, goes to her, kisses her.  She receives it.  With a certain disappointment, he returns to the table.
PROCTOR, as gently as he can: Cider?
ELIZABETH, with a sense of reprimanding herself for having forgot: Aye!  She gets up and goes and pours a glass for him.  He now arches his back.
PROCTOR: This farm’s a continent when you go foot by foot droppin’ seeds in it.
ELIZABETH, coming with the cider: It must be.
PROCTOR, drinks a long draught, then, putting the glass down: You ought to bring flowers to the house.
ELIZABETH: Oh!  I forgot!  I will tomorrow.
PROCTOR: It’s winter in here yet.  On Sunday let you come with me, and we’ll walk the farm together; I never see such a load of flowers on the earth.  With good feeling he goes and looks up at the sky through the open doorway.  Lilacs have a purple smell.  Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think.  Massachusetts is a beauty in the spring!
ELIZABETH: Aye, it is.
            There is a pause.  She is watching him from the table as he stands there absorbing the night.  It is as though she would speak but cannot.  Instead, now, she takes up his plate and glass and fork and goes with them to the basin.  Her back is turned to him.  He turns to her and watches her.  A sense of their separation rises.

Close reading (individual)

  1. How do the different type-styles in the passage reproduced support the purposes you identified in the previous group task?
  2. Draw a floor-plan of the ‘common room of Proctor’s house’, using information from the stage directions as a guide. (Figure 1, based on a school production of The Crucible, is an example of how you might do this.
  3. What stage properties in your floor-plan did you base on information provided in the stage directions?
  4. In your floor-plan did you go beyond or change Miller’s directions and add items he does not mention? Explain your choices.
  5. Track (using dotted lines) Elizabeth and John’s movements around your set during this passage? What is motivating them to move in this way?
  6. List the hand-props that are mentioned and/or used in this extract. How do their use contribute to the tension that exists in this scene?
  7. Even before Elizabeth enters, the pot has played an important role as a hand-prop. What is its function?
  8. Explain the function of the stage directions:
    • She receives it.
    • Her back is turned to him.

In this particular production, the set contained a pivoted wall, which was turned to stage right for Act 1 and stage left for Act 2.

Language Tool Kit:
Stage Directions: Often written in italics and enclosed in square brackets, stage directions contain instructions from a playwright on such things as how a set should be arranged, stage and hand properties, costuming, sound and lighting effects, actor interpretation and stage movement. Sometimes, for example with Shakespeare’s plays, stage directions are added by editors.
Floor-plan: A two-dimensional representation of a set, showing the location of stage properties for a particular scene.

b) Hearing a piece of text (paired close reading)
In the preceding section, you went beyond the dead surface of the play-text to begin imagining what an audience might view in seeing a play. In this section, you and your partner will be imagining what an audience might hear.

  1. What mood is created by Miller’s having Elizabeth singing to her children at the start of this act?
  2. Are there other sound effects you might add at any point in this extract should you be directing this play?
  3. Experiment with the placement of pauses in the following sentences? Then decide on a preferred reading. Are any of your pauses non-syntactical? Perform your reading to another pair, explaining your reasons for putting a pause where you did.
    • ‘It’s well seasoned.’
    • ‘I took great care.’
    • ‘I know it, John.’
  4. Prepare and perform Proctor’s lines beginning, ‘It’s winter in her yet.’ As part of your preparation, think through what you want to communicate (feelings, thoughts, motivations, etc). How might you make use of some or all of volume, pitch, intonation, pausing, pace and emphasis?

c)  Context and sub-text
The atmosphere generated in this domestic scene is a rather tense one, as we have seen by the way the characters move and how they speak to each other.

Close reading (groups)

  1. From what you know of the situation that exists between John and Elizabeth Proctor, what is it that is contributing to the tension that exists between them?
  2. Come up with an interpretation for the sub-text that exists for the following lines of dialogue. (In other words, what do you think is going on beneath the surface?)
    • ‘What keeps you so late?’
    • ‘It’s well seasoned.’
    • ‘How would that please you?’
    • ‘Cider?’
    • ‘You ought to being some flowers in the house.’
  3. Establishing sub-text is a crucial process between director and actor in any play where the characters are rounded. You’ll have noticed that as you worked through question 2, you developed a fuller picture of the Proctors. Because The Crucible is set in New England in the year 1692, however, there is one other effort you have to make as you construct your picture of these characters. You have to come to grips with their context of culture — the rather grim world of seventeenth-century, New England Puritanism. As both director and reader, that means doing some background reading. At a certain point in this extract, Proctor says: ‘That’s a good sign walkin’ in.’ How does a reading of the extract below help you understand the sub-text of this line, particularly with respect to Proctor’s use of the word ‘sign’?
I in the Burying Place may see
  Graves Shorter there than I;
From Death’s Arrest no Age is free,
   Young Children too may die;
My God, may such an awful Sight,
   Awakening be to me!
Oh! that by early Grace I might
   For Death prepared be.
Fear God all day,
Parents obey,
No False thing Say,
By no Sin Stray,
Love Christ alway,
In Secret Pray,
Mind little Play,
Make no delay,
In doing Good.

The New England Primer
Language Tool Kit:
Sub-text: The feelings and thoughts that remain unspoken in an exchange between two characters in a play. Sub-text refers to the rich inner world of thought and feeling that is only hinted at by the surface dialogue.
  After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind….And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance  of a thunder storm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.
                                From Jonathan Edwards   Personal Narrative, 1739.

5.3. Tragedy as a genre: Shakespeare’s King Lear

This section will be looking at two questions:

  • What makes a play a tragedy?
  • How is tragedy reflected in the structure and texture of a play?

a)  Opening up the field (group discussion)

  1. List the titles of films or plays that your group members consider to be tragic. As you do this, share with one another brief summaries of ‘What happens’ in each of these works. (You may find yourself crossing items of your list as your discussion proceeds.)
  2. Are there common elements in the stories you told each other? What are they?           
  3. One dictionary of the theatre says of tragedy that it is a: ‘Form of drama so often and so variously defined that perhaps all which may safely be said of it is that it ends unhappily, usually if not invariably with the death of the principal character’ (John Russell Taylor, The Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre). Why do you think Taylor uses the words ‘all which may be safely said’?
  4. Formulate your own definition of tragedy. (You can modify it later should you wish.)

Extension task (individual or group)
As a genre, tragedy has its origins in ancient Greek times. Investigate the nature of tragedy in Greek society. You might like to cover such topics as:

  • The Greek view of the world;
  • What Greek tragedy was like;
  • Who the Greek tragedians were and what stories they told;
  • Aristotle’s view of tragedy.
Language Tool Kit:World-view: A way a person makes sense of the world in terms of a set of answers to the ‘big’ questions about the ultimate meaningfulness of human existence. Often these answers are reflected in a set of myths. Some cultural commentators use the term grand narrative to refer to the underlying story a cultural group uses to explain itself to itself.

Personal writing (individual workbook task)
As a genre, tragedy reminds us that literary forms relate to the culture which produced them and that different cultures have their own ways of responding to such big questions as:

  • Is there a G(g)od?
  • How free am I in the actions I undertake?
  • Do I inhabit a meaningful universe?
  • What makes the universe meaningful (or meaningless)?
  • What is the point of human suffering?
  • Does my own life have a point to it?
  • Where does evil come from?
  • Are we fulfilled or oppressed by our participation in human society?
  • Your turn.
  1. Write a series of entries expressing your own position (point of view) on some of these questions.
  2. If you did the extension task above, write a piece of dialogue where you argue with an ancient Greek (you might call them Creon or Ismene) about some of these big questions.
Language Tool Kit:
Hamartia: A term used by Aristotle (and some critics) to refer to the tragic protagonist’s error of judgement. The term is sometimes roughly translated as tragic flaw, but it should be  kept in mind that a tragic error can be made without some kind of moral flaw being implied.
Catharsis:  A much disputed term used by Aristotle. One version of The Poeticstranslates Aristotle thus: ‘Tragedy is, then, an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude, it employs language that has been artistically enhanced by each of the kinds of linguistic adornment, applied separately in the various parts of the play; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents.’ (Leon Golden, O.B. Hardison, Jr. Aristotle’s POETICS: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literatur). Commentators tend to be split between those who would translate ‘catharsis’ as a kind of purgation or purification (occurring in the viewing audience) or as a intense moment of recognition or clarification which occurs at a key point in the tragic hero’s journey towards awareness. Take your pick.

b) Tragic structure
The way we tell stories often reflects a world-view. (Most of the stories we grew up on have neatly-packaged, happy endings. You might ask yourself whether children’s stories are an adult conspiracy to protect the young from the harsh truths of life.) The following view of tragic form, based on the work of English critic Ruth Nevo, argues for a five-act structure for tragedy. It is only one view of tragedy, and you must decide yourself, as you study various tragedies, how useful it is as a way of reading that genre.           

I) Predicament
In the first act, the protagonist is presented with a difficult choice. Whatever option chosen is likely to have dire consequences.

II) Psychomachia
As tension rises in Act II, the protagonist is caught between two systems of value. (For example, Romeo and Juliet are caught in the middle between a value system based on family honour and a value system based on individual, romantic love.)

III) Reversal (Peripeteia)
During Act III, the protagonist suffers a reversal of fortune.

IV) Darkening Vision
The tragic world-view suggests that the attainment of wisdom can only come through suffering. In Act IV, the protagonist achieves a fuller, wiser, more comprehensive understanding of the world.

V) Catastrophe
In the catastrophe, the worst possible outcome of the initial situation is realised, often through the death of the protagonist and others as well.

The tragic error (hamartia) is a particular choice made by the protagonist which more or less seals their fate. In Nevo’s view, this error can occur in different acts. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, it often occurs in the third act (where Romeo, for example, kills Tybalt and Othello allows himself to be seduced by Iago’s trickery).

In this structure, major climaxes tend to occur in Act III and Act V, though a climax can occur anywhere in a play where a piece of rising action is brought to some kind of head or resolution.

I) Analysing a Shakespearean tragedy (group)
The following tasks can be done individually. However, a adequate analysis of a play’s action is a big task and one that lends itself to being shared in a group.

Step 1
Use the format and approach of the table, ‘Analysing King Lear as a tragic hero’, as a model for taking notes on the tragedy you are studying. In the ‘Evidence’ column, you should note down events and quotations which indicate your protagonist’s state of mind or which typify their behaviour at the particular point in the play. The ‘Significance’ column allows you to comment on the evidence you have collected.

Step 2
Using your notes from Step 1 as data, answer the following questions:

  1. Describe your protagonist’s predicament in the first act (or first two acts) of the play. what choice does the protagonist make in order to resolve their predicament?
  2. Attempt to describe an internal conflict your protagonist is caught up in during the first three acts of the play. what qualities, virtues or values do the two sides of this conflict represent?
  3. In what way does your protagonist suffer a reversal in Act III.
  4. How does your protagonist view the world in Act IV of the play? How does this view differ from their view earlier in the play?
  5. Describe the catastrophe of your chosen play.
  6. At what point in your chosen play does the protagonist make a tragic error of judgement. What is this error and what consequences stem from it?

II) King Lear as a tragic case study
 King Learvies with Hamlet as Shakespeare’s most highly regarded tragedy.

Close reading (group)
Before attacking the following questions, complete the table on ‘Analysing King Lear as a tragic hero’ for the remaining four acts of the play. The table is one way of summarising the central action of the play.

  1. Identify Lear’s predicament in Act I, Scene i. What choice or choices does he make in order to resolve his predicament?
  2. Divide the characters in King Lear (with the exceptions of Lear and Gloucester) into two groups crudely labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’. What qualities, virtues or values do each of these groups represent?  In what way is Lear caught in the middle these two groups and what they represent?
  3. In a number of ways, Lear suffers a reversal in Act III. Describe how his fortunes change in terms of:
    • his physical condition;
    • his social status;
    • his state of mind.
  4. In Act IV, Lear has begun to see the world and himself rather differently than he did in earlier scenes. How does Lear view the social world in IV, vi? How does his view here differ from his view implicit in I, I? (You might also refer to the extracts found in section 5.3.e of this chapter.)
  5. In what way is Act V, Scene iii a catastrophe?
  6. In King LearLear makes his tragic error in the very first scene. What is his error of judgement? What quality in Lear’s character causes him to make this error? What consequences in the play flow from this error?

Extension task (individual)

  1. Use the formal and approach of the table, Analysing King Lear as a tragic hero’, to produce a summary of Gloucester’s character development.
  2. Reformulate the questions pertaining to Lear above so that they apply to Gloucester.
  3. Answer the questions. 

c) Shakespeare and the principle of decorum
At its most prescriptive, the principle of doctrine of decorum, which was a powerful literary theory during the Renaissance, arranged various genres in hierarchies, each of which was to have it’s own appropriate style. In the strictest sense, Shakespeare flouted the principle of decorum by incorporating comic elements in his tragedies (which were supposed to be written in a style of consistently high seriousness).

Language Tool Kit:
Decorum: A Renaissance theory which stressed the importance of suiting the style of a text to its subject matter and genre. The idea of decorum, applied to a play, would stress the importance of suiting the language used by a character to the nature and motivation of that character.

However, in a looser sense of the term (as it has been used in the last chapter), Shakespeare does indeed observe the principle of decorum by matching the style of a character to their nature and motivation. In the speech below, Goneril is responding to Lear’s invitation to show him how much she loves him.

Close reading (individual)

  1. What is Goneril’s purpose in this speech?
  2. What function does comparison serve in Goneril’s argument?
  3. Discuss Goneril’s ‘disposition’ of the words ‘I love you’ (See the definition of  ‘rhetoric’ in the Language Tool Kit.)
  4. What is the effect of Goneril’s hyperbole on those listening to her (including the audience)?
  5. Scan this passage, mark the irregularities and discuss their effect.
  6. Examine the speeches of Regan and Cordelia (see below) made in response to their father’s love-test. Identify examples of figures of speech, figures of sound and syntactical balancing. How do these devices reflect the motivations of these two daughters? How does Shakespeare use language to establish a contrast between Regan and Cordelia?

I am made of that self metal as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense possesses,
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear Highness’s love.

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Happily, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.


Language Tool Kit:
Rhetoric: Defined by Aristotle as the art of ‘…discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given case.’ In classical times, rhetoricians distinguished between invention (how one constructed one’s argument), disposition(how one organised one’s argument) and style (one’s choice of diction and syntax).
Hyperbole:  Exaggeration or overstatement.
Balanced syntax: Rhetoricians valued the ability to balance one’s syntax through such devices as parallelism. In this passage, the structure of ‘child…loved’ (subject/verb) is balanced by the similar structure ‘father found’ (subject verb). When these balanced structures contain a contrast, we call the device antithesis. The well-known sentence from Julius Caesar, ‘I have come to bury Caesar not to praise him,’ is an example of antithesis.

d) Visualising the action
Shakespeare’s play-texts are themselves readings of versions of plays published during and after his lifetime. While Shakespeare did use some stage directions (for example to show the entrance and exit of characters), many stage directions in your modern edition of the play will have been added by editors. (These are often distinguished by square brackets.)

However, it is clear that Shakespeare visualised the action taking place in his plays as he wrote them. This is hardly surprising. He was not only familiar with the physical shape of the Globe or Blackfriars Theatre;  he usually knew the actor he was writing a part for.

Read the following extract from Act IV, Scene vii (the moving reunion and reconciliation scene between Lear and Cordelia).

Lear: Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight?
I am mightily abus’d. I should e’en die with pity
To see another thus. I know not what to say.
I will not swear these are my hands: let’s see;
I feel this pin prick. Would I were assur’d
Of my condition!

Cordelia:                                           O! look upon me, Sir,
And hold your hand in benediction o’er me.
No, Sir, you must not kneel.

Lear:                                                  Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I feel I am not  in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night.

Close reading (individual)
Using clues from the text, identify gestures and actions Shakespeare appears to be imagining his actors making as he wrote this piece of text.

e) The wisdom of the play
Close reading (individual)
The following extracts come from Act IV of the play. Read the extracts and answer the questions that follow.

i  In IV, i Gloucester, now blind, is being looked after by an old man and is encountered by his disguised son, Edgar:

Gloucester: I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.

Gloucester:             As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods;
They kill us for their sport.

Gloucester:                                     Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.

superfluous:  having too much
slaves your ordinance: enslaves or yokes divine order to their own self-interest

ii   In IV, vi, mad Lear meets blind Gloucester.

Lear:                                A man may see how this
world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears:
see how yond justice rails upon yond simple
thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places, and,
handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the
thief?  Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a

Gloucester: Ay, Sir.

Lear: And the creature run from the cur? There
thou might’st behold
The great image of Authority:
A dog’s obey’d in office.
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why does thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin in gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

rails: to direct abusive language
beadle: a church officer who exercised authority in a number of matters
usurer: money lender
cozener: small-time cheat

Questions on Extract i

  1. What is your own response to the paradox suggested by the words: ‘I stumbled when I saw.’ What makes this particular paradox tragic?
  2. At this point in the play, how does Gloucester view the relationship between human beings and the gods? To what extent to you sympathise with this view?
  3. What connection does Gloucester make between how much we possess and our ability to be compassionate? In what way does Gloucester’s viewpoint here challenge your own views on the right of individuals to amass wealth?

Questions on Extract ii

  1. In the long extract from IV, vi, Lear is putting forward an argument about those who exercise authority in society. What is Lear’s argument and how does he back up his reasoning? What other points does Lear make about society?
  2. Why should Lear be regarded as an expert on the matters mentioned in question 4?
  3. `How relevant, in your opinion, are the observations Lear puts forward to your own society? Justify your answer.

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5.4. Realism: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
The Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is generally regarded as the father of modern theatre. Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House while in Italy in 1879.

Language Tool Kit:
Realism: A nineteenth-century tradition which aimed at avoiding overly contrived plotting and exaggerated acting, which addressed ‘real’ social situations and issues, and which attempted to suggest real conversation in its dialogue. To some extent, realism was a reaction against melodrama.
Melodrama: A rather sensational form of drama relying on extreme appeals to emotion, implausible coincidences, two-dimensional character types and happy endings.

a) Exploring realism (individual)

  1. List the ways in which the action on a Shakespearean stage differs from ‘real life’ as you know it.
  2. To some extent, the tradition of realism was a reaction against melodrama. From what you know about melodrama, suggest reasons why a number of playwrights decided to react against it.
  3. In 1873, Ibsen wrote to an English admirer who had expressed regret that his first important prose play, Emperor and Galilean was not written in verse. Ibsen wrote: ‘It was the illusion of reality I wanted to produce….We no longer live in Shakespeare’s time….In general the form of the language must be adapted to the degree of idealisation that is given to the account. My new play is no tragedy in the old style; what I wanted to portray was people, and it was precisely for that reason that I did not allow them to speak with “the tongues of angels”.’ Why do you think Ibsen uses the phrase ‘illusion of reality’?
  4. A Doll’s House is a three-act play. Each act takes place in the same room which is described as follows in Ibsen’s stage directions: ‘A comfortably and tastefully, but not expensively furnished room. Backstage right a door leads to the hall; backstage left, another door to HELMER’s study. Between these two doors stands a piano. In the middle of the left-hand-wall is a door, with a window downstage of it. Near the window, a round table with armchairs and a small sofa. In the right-hand wall slightly upstage, is a door; downstage of this, against the same wall, a stove lined with porcelain tiles, with a couple of armchairs and a rocking-chair in front of it. Between the stove and the side door is a small table. Engravings on the wall. A what-not with china and other bric-à-brac; a small bookcase with leather-bound books. A carpet on the floor; a fire in the stove. A winter day.’ How true is it that our houses are symbols of ourselves? Select two ‘stage-props’ and two ‘hand-props’ from your own room that might be said to symbolise you as a person.
  5. Even before we meet the characters in A Doll’s Housesomething is communicated about them by the space they inhabit. List some points you might make about the people who live in this space
  6. Draw your own floor-plan based on Ibsen’s stage directions.
  7. The following question can be applied to any non-Shakespearean play you have studied. As you study your play, identify the dramatic and/or symbolic uses made of a number of stage properties. (If the play you have studied happens to be A Doll’s House, you might take notes on the use Ibsen makes of the following stage features:
    • the doors
    • the piano
    • the round table
    • the stove
    • the Christmas tree [brought on at the start of Act I].)

b) The cultural context and issues (group)

  1. Are there such things as universal themes, i.e. issues that all people at all times in all places need to address? If so, try listing some of them.
  2. Identify the issues which you consider to be particularly relevant to your own culture at this time.
  3. Ibsen himself wrote: ‘There are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and one, quite different, for women. They don’t understand each other; but in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren’t a woman but a man….A woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess female conduct from a male standpoint.’ These paragraphs were written in 1878 as part of notes towards the writing of A Doll’s House. In your group’s view, how relevant is Ibsen’s statement to your own time and culture?

c) Tragedy as an enduring genre

I) Close reading: how tragic is the play you studied? (group)
The following questions are designed to help you analyse the relationship between character and plot in a play you have studied. Before attempting to answer these questions, check the notes you have made on the play. (You may find the format of the resource, ‘Analysing King Lear as a tragic hero’, useful as a structure for your note-taking.)

  1. Would you say that your main character is in a predicament in the early part of the play? What is it? What choice does your protagonist make in order to resolve their predicament?
  2. Describe an internal conflict your protagonist experiences during the first three acts of the play. What qualities, virtues or values do the two sides of this conflict represent?
  3. Does your main character suffer a reversal of fortune at any point in the play?
  4. Does your main character’s view of the world or of themselves change in the course of the play? In what way?
  5. How does your play end?
  6. Does your main character make a serious error of judgement at some point in the play? What is this error and what consequences flow from it?

II) A Doll’s House: a case study in tragedy
The extract in the last section came from a piece Ibsen entitled, ‘Notes for a Modern Tragedy’. Is A Doll’s House a tragedy? In John Russell Taylor’s definition of tragedy, given in Section 3 of this chapter, it states that the hero of a tragedy does not necessarily die.

Click on the link for a Timeline of A Doll’s House

Close reading (group)
Before attempting the following questions, you will need to make sure that you have a full set of notes on the play. It is suggested that you use the format of the resource, ‘Analysing King Lear as a tragic hero’, as a guide for your note-taking.)

  1. To what extent can Nora be described as in a predicament at the start of the play?
  2. To what extent can Nora be described as caught between two systems of value? As a way of focusing on this question, re-read the confrontation between Nora and Torvald that concludes Act III.
  3. Does this play have a turning point? If so, where does it occur?
  4. Identify the point in the play where ‘the penny drops’ for Nora, where she gains a sudden and painful insight into her situation as a housewife (and doll).
  5. To what extent is Act III a catastrophe?
  6. In King Lear you will recall, the tragic error occurs in the very first scene of the play. Argue a case that Nora’s tragic error occurs in the pre-history of the play. How does the timing of her error affect the atmosphere of the play?
  7. On the basis of your answers to questions 1-6, argue a case for or against the proposition that A Doll’s House is indeed aptly described as a modern tragedy.

d) Tragedy and the journey to awareness
In the introduction to the play in the Methuen edition, Michael Meyer writes that: ‘It’s theme…was the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person.’ The ability to realise a true self is an important measure of many characters in many plays (including A Doll’s House), especially those written in the realistic tradition.

Group discussion
Answer the following questions with respect to the play that you have studied:

  1. Rank the characters in the play from those who develop most in the course of the play to those who develop least. Justify your decisions.
  2. What are the significant changes that have occurred in each of your characters?
  3. What role have minor characters (foils) played in the development of your play’s major characters.

Close reading of A Doll’s House (individual)
Reproduced below are extracts from two of the play’s three acts. Study them carefully, paying particular attention to sub-text and irony. (Torvald is ‘in the dark’ for most of this play.) List the ways in which Nora changes over these three extracts in her relationship with Torvald. Support your comments with both verbal and non-verbal evidence from the extracts.

Extract A
HEL. [calls out from his room]. Is that my little lark twittering out there?
NORA [busy opening some of the parcels]. Yes, it is!
HEL. Is it my little squirrel bustling about?
NORA. Yes!
HEL. When did my squirrel come home?
NORA. Just now. [Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth.] Come in here, Torvald, and see what I have bought.
HEL. Don’t disturb me. [A little later he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.] Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?
NORA. Yes, but, Torvald, this year we really can let ourselves go a little. This is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economize.
HEL. Still, you know, we can’t spend money recklessly.
NORA. Yes, Torvald, we may be a wee bit more reckless now, mayn’t we? Just a tiny wee bit! You are going to have a big salary and earn lots and lots of money.
HEL. Yes, after the new year; but then it will be a whole quarter before the salary is due.
NORA. Pooh! We can borrow till then.
HEL. Nora! [Goes up to her and takes her playfully by the ear.] The same little featherhead! Suppose, now, that I borrowed fifty pounds today and you spent it all in the Christmas week and then on New Year’s Eve a slate fell on my head and killed me and——
NORA [putting her hands over his mouth]. Oh! don’t say such horrid things.
HEL. Still, suppose that happened,— what then?
NORA. If that were to happen, I don’t suppose I should care whether I owed money or not.
HEL. Yes, but what about the people who had lent it?
NORA. They? Who would bother about them? I should not know who they were.
HEL. That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle.
NORA [moving toward the stove]. As you please, Torvald.
HEL. [following her]. Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? [Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here?
NORA [turning round quickly]. Money!
HEL. There you are. [Gives her some money.] Do you think I don’t know what a lot is wanted for housekeeping at Christmas time?
NORA [counting]. Ten shillings—a pound—two pounds! Thank you, thank you, Torvald; that will keep me going for a long time.
HEL. Indeed it must.
Extract BHEL. …. I have forgiven you, Nora; I swear to you I have forgiven you.
NORA. Thank you for your forgiveness. [She goes out through the door to the right.]
HEL. No, don’t go. [Looks in.] What are you doing in there?
NORA [from within]. Taking off my fancy dress.
HEL. [standing at the open door]. Yes, do. Try and calm yourself and make your mind easy again, my frightened little singing bird. Be at rest and feel secure; I have broad wings to shelter you under. [Walks up and down by the door.] How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your poor beating heart. It will come, little by little, Nora, believe me. Tomorrow morning you will look upon it all quite differently; soon everything will be just as it was before. Very soon you won’t need me to assure you that I have forgiven you; you will yourself feel the certainty that I have done so. Can you suppose I should ever think of such a thing as repudiating you or even reproaching you? You have no idea what a true man’s heart is like, Nora. There is something so indescribably sweet and satisfying, to a man, in the knowledge that he has forgiven his wife—forgiven her freely and with all his heart. It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own; he has given her a new life, so to speak, and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. Have no anxiety about anything, Nora; only be frank and open with me, and I will serve as will and conscience both to you—— What is this? Not gone to bed? Have you changed your things?
NORA [in everyday dress]. Yes, Torvald, I have changed my things now.
HEL. But what for?—so late as this.
NORA. I shall not sleep tonight.
HEL. But, my dear Nora——
NORA [looking at her watch]. It is not so very late. Sit down here, Torvald. You and I have much to say to one another. [She sits down at one side of the table.]
HEL. Nora—what is this?—this cold, set face?
NORA. Sit down. It will take some time; I have a lot to talk over with you.
HEL. [sits down at the opposite side of the table]. You alarm me, Nora!— and I don’t understand you.
NORA. No, that is just it. You don’t understand me, and I have never understood you either—before tonight. No, you mustn’t interrupt me. You must simply listen to what I say. Torvald, this is a settling of accounts.
HEL. What do you mean by that?
NORA [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
HEL. What is that?
NORA. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
HEL. What do you mean, serious?
NORA. In all these eight years—longer than that—from the very beginning of our acquaintance we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
HEL. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
NORA. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
HEL. But, dearest Nora, would it have been any good to you?
NORA. That is just it; you have never understood me. I have been greatly wronged, Torvald—first by Papa and then by you.
HEL. What! By us two—by us two who have loved you better than anyone else in the world?
NORA [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.
HEL. Nora, what do I hear you saying?
NORA. It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with Papa he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you——
HEL. What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?
NORA [undisturbed]. I mean that I was simply transferred from Papa’s hands to yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you—or else I pretended to. I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it it seems to me as if I have been living here like a poor woman—just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and Papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.

e) Critiquing the play (group)
In simple terms, you can critique a play-text in two ways. You can critique its ideas; or you can critique it for its dramatic art. Use the following questions as a basis for critiquing the play you have studied in class. Other questions may also occur to you as you do this exercise. Don’t ignore these questions. They are probably the most important ones in terms of your own reading and learning.

The play’s ideas:

  1. To what extent to you agree with the positions various characters appear to be arguing for with respect to certain issues?
  2. Does the playwright appear to be raising particular issues in this play? What are they? Are they relevant to today’s theatre audiences?

The play’s craft:

  1. Is the plot plausible? Justify your answer.
  2. Are the characters believable? Justify your answer.
  3. Is the character change convincing? Justify your answer.

5.5. Banishing the fourth wall: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

In this section, we will be exploring one of the reactions to Realism and Naturalism in theatre which occurred in the Twentieth Century. Our focus will be on the work of German dramatist, Bertolt Brecht (1896-1956) and his development of Epic Theatre.

Language Tool Kit:
Foil: A minor character used deliberately to contrast the major qualities of a major character. (In Act I of A Doll’s House, Christine Linde’s obvious self-reliance and independence is a foil for Nora’s subservience and dependence on Torvald.
Fourth wall: The imagined wall, parallel with the front of the proscenium arch,  which separates the actors in a naturalistic or realistic piece of theatre from their audience.

a) Thinking about the fourth wall
The idea of the fourth wall comes from the naturalistic theatre of the nineteenth century. In this theatre, the imaginary line drawn across the front of the stage becomes the ‘fourth wall’ of the room in which the action of the play is taking place. This wall is, of course, imaginary, but the actors within the room act out their parts without showing any awareness that they are being watched.

Group discussion

  1. What theatrical performances have your seen where the fourth wall has been intact? Do these performances fall into certain categories?
  2. Would you expect the fourth wall to remain intact in children’s theatre? Explain.
  3. What evidence can you come up with that the concept of the fourth wall does not apply to Shakespeare’s theatre?
  4. Discuss the statement that: ‘In films and television drama, the fourth wall is always in place.’
  5. How might the absence or presence of the fourth wall affect an actor’s approach to their task?

b) Brecht and Epic Theatre
Most of the plays Brecht is known for were written during the period 1938 to 1945. In these plays, groups of fully realised and complex characters act out a series of politically and socially conceived narratives. Brecht’s ideas on Epic Theatre were developed over many years. The following quotation, from a work on theatre published in 1936, gives a flavour of Brecht’s thinking:

The spectator of the dramatic theatre says: ‘Yes, I have felt the same. – I am just like this. – This is only natural. – It will always be like this. – This human being suffering moves me, because there is no way out for him. – This is great art: it bears the mark of the inevitable. – I am weeping with those who weep on the stage, laughing with those who laugh.The spectator of the epic theatre says: ‘I should never have thought so. – That is not the way to do it. – this is most surprising, hardly credible. – This will have to stop. – This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable – I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.’
                                 from Martin Esslin, Brecht: A Choice of Evils, 1980.

Individual writing

  1. To what extent does Brecht’s description of ‘dramatic theatre’ match your own response to plays such as King Lear and A Doll’s House?
  2. In your own words, list the contrast Brecht is spelling out between ‘dramatic’ and ‘epic theatre’.

The main features of epic theatre might be spelled out in the following list:

  • The appeal to reason: Brecht wanted his audience to consider issues.
  • The use of time: To discourage his audience from ‘involving’ themselves too closely in his characters’ lives, he tended to use exotic times and places for his plays. Moreover, he wanted to break away from the tightly structured plotting associated with such forms as tragedy. The last thing he wanted to suggest was a kind of inevitability in  the way things were. His plays, then, tend to be based around highly episodic narratives that cover a large span of years.
  • Political significance: Brecht wanted his audience to question the political order that shaped their lives. (Putting this another way, he wanted his audience to question the power relations that existed in their society.)
  • The rejection of the illusion of reality: In Brecht’s view, if an audience ‘buys into’ a belief that what they watching is ‘reality’, they will tend to accept what is after all only a version of reality as ‘natural’ and therefore unchanging. Brecht, then, incorporated a range of devices to remind his audience that they were watching a piece of theatre and not  ‘real life’.
  • Elimination of empathy: Similarly, because Brecht wanted a focus on ideas, he tried to frustrate an audience’s inclination to empathise with the characters on stage.

The last play from this period, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, was finished in 1945. What follows is an extract from the beginning of Act 3 from this play.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht

The flight into the Northern Mountains

            As Grusha Vachnadze left the city
            On the Grusinian highway
            Towards the northern mountains
            She sang a song, she bought some milk.

            How will the merciful escape the merciless
            The bloodhounds, the trappers?
            Into the deserted mountain she wandered
            Along the Grusinian highway she wandered
            She sang a song, she bought some milk.

GRUSHA singing:
            Four generals set off for Iran
            Four generals but not one man.
            The first did not strike a blow
            The second did not beat the foe
            For the third the weather was not right
            For the fourth the soldiers would not fight.
            Four generals went forth to attack.
            Four generals turned back.

            Sosso Robakidse marched to Iran
            Sosso Robakidse was a man.
            He struck a sturdy blow
            He certainly beat the foe
            For him the weather was not good enough
            For him the soldiers fought with love
            Sosso Robakidse marched to Iran
            Sosso Robakidse is our man.

A peasant’s cottage appears.

GRUSHA: to the child: Noon time, eating time.  Now we’ll sit here quietly in the grass, while the good Grusha goes and buys a little mug of milk.  She lays the child down and knocks at the cottage door.  An old peasant opens it.  Grandpa, could I have a little mug of milk?  And perhaps a corn cake?
THE OLD MAN: Milk?  We haven’t any milk.  The soldiers from the city took our goats.  If you want milk, go to the soldiers.
GRUSHA: But Grandpa, you surely have a mug of milk for a child?
THE OLD MAN: And for a ‘God Bless You’, eh?
GRUSHA: Who said anything about a ‘God Bless You’?  She pulls out her purse.  We’re going to pay like princes.  Head in the clouds, bottom in the water!  The peasant goes off grumbling to fetch milk.  And how much is this mug?
THE OLD MAN: Three piastres.  Milk has gone up.
GRUSHA: Three piastres for that drop?  Without a word the old man slams the door in her face.  Michael, did you hear that?  Three piastres!  We can’t afford that.  She goes back, sits down again and gives the child her breast.  Well, we must try again like this.  Suck.  Think of the three piastres.  There’s nothing there, but you think you’re drinking, and that’s something.  Shaking her head, she realises the child has stopped sucking.  She gets up, walks back to the door, and knocks again.  Open, Grandpa, we’ll pay.  Under her breath: May God strike you!  When the old man appears again: I thought it would be half a piastre.  But the child must have something.  What about one piastre?
GRUSHA: Don’t slam the door again.  She rummages a long time in her purse.  Here are two piastres.  But this milk has got to last.  We still have a long journey ahead of us.  These are cut-throat prices.  It’s a sin.
THE OLD MAN: If you want milk, kill the soldiers.
GRUSHA: letting the child drink: That’s an expensive joke.  Drink, Michael.  This is half a week’s pay.  The people here think we’ve earned our money sitting on our bottom.  Michael, Michael, I certainly took on a nice burden with you!  Looking at the brocade coat in which the child is wrapped: A brocade coat worth 1000 piastres, and not one piastre for milk.  She glances round.

Close reading (individual)

  1. The following staging devices can remind audiences that what they are watching is a staged theatrical event:
    • Use of narrator;
    • Characters using songs and verse;
    • Use of screens and projectors;
    • Use of non-naturalistic set pieces;
    • Using stage-hands to make set changes in open view.
      Which of these devices is present in the published extract? How do the presence of these devices affect you?
  2. What is the ‘theme’ of Grusha’s song?
  3. What do you understand by the term ‘empathy?’ To what extent do you find yourself empathising with Grusha in this episode? What features of this episode encourage or discourage empathy?
  4. How might an actress ‘play’ Grusha in a way that discouraged the audience from empathising with her?

c) Issuing a political challenge (group)
Brecht made no secret of his Marxism. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle and other plays, Brecht used the theatre to challenge his audience’s views on politics and society. As a group, reflect on the following questions:
1 What does it mean to address political issues? (You might like to try using the following words as your formulate you answer: ‘power’, ‘relationships’, ‘decision-maker’, ‘language’)
2 Should playwrights address political issues or should they focus more on personal issues? Give reasons for your answer.
3 Should school English departments ask their students to read plays by political writers? Give reasons for your answer.

Close reading (group)
With respect to the episode reproduced from the play in this chapter:

  1. What economic lesson does this episode teach?
  2. How relevant is this lesson to your own society?
  3. The play concludes with the song:But you, who have listened to the story of the Chalk Circle
    Take note of the meaning of the ancient song:
    That what there is shall belong to those who are good for it, thus
    The children to the maternal, that they thrive;
    The carriages to good drivers, that they are driven well;
    And the valley to the waterers, that it shall bear fruit.Summarise the essential lesson that this song contains. Now try listing some of the practices of your own society that this lesson challenges, for example, the ease with which people can get a drivers’ licences.

Chapter Summary

This chapter has made the following key points:

  • The print version of a play (play-text) is different from the play as performed.
  • As you read a play-text, you need to exercise both a visual and an aural imagination.
  • Visual features of a play include set, stage properties, hand properties, lighting, costume, make–up, an actor’s body language and stage movement.
  • Aural features of a play include music, sound effects and voice.
  • In plays with three-dimensional characters, sub-text is as important as text.
  • Tragedy is the oldest dramatic genre in the Western world and is still important today.
  • Certain structural features are central to an understanding of tragedy. These include: predicament, conflict, reversal, error of judgement and catastrophe.
  • The world-view behind a tragedy is a social construct (i.e. a produce of a particular society) and changes as society changes.
  • While tragedy can be seen as a product of society, it usually operates as a critical commentary on society.
  • New dramatic trends often emerge in response to what comes before. Realism can be seen as a reaction to melodrama. Epic theatre can be seen as a reaction to realism.
  • Epic theatre is a reminder to us that ideas that seem natural to us are usually simply part of our society’s habitual way of seeing the world.

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