© 2013 Steve Campsall
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write about a play
Download free revision guide
- This guide works alongside the Englishbiz guide to essay writing -
Whether for controlled assesment or exam, writing about a play needs extra care. You will perhaps only have read the play in class so take care to keep in mind that plays are written for the stage, not the page.
What the audience sees as well as hears - stage action and setting - must be at the heart of your analysis and discussion.
Only if you analyse from the perspective of the play's audience, will you be able to recognise the effect the play is having on them and understand the purposes intended by the playwright - always a two-fold purpose, for plot and theme. Be sure you understand the full implications of this - read on!
Be sure to consider the methods used, the effects created and the purposes intended of the following dramatic aspects:
Another pitfall to avoid...
Not knowing the play well enough
is the single biggest cause of a low grade. Fortunately, it's easily
resolved... so focus on the higher grade
that'll be in store for you and spend some extra time re-reading
and reflecting on
play itself. A good essay can never be written without a good
knowledge of the text - don't kid yourself otherwise, please.
What will also help is to get hold of a good study guide. Click on one of the links below to find one free online.
Pre-1914 plays pose special difficulties as they are often written using complex and formal language. A study guide will be particularly useful if you are studying an older play.
You're never going to know all there is to know about the play you're studying so, if you've read and discussed it in class and then re-read it at home along with a good study guide, you have done all that can be expected. Of course, this guide will help, too!
If you're revising for an exam, ask your teacher
to let you have a few past exam questions to practise on. This will
boost your confidence and you'll be better prepared.
What is it that gains most marks?
What kind of exam questions can be expected?
1. Questions based upon an extract from the play
Usually the exam paper contains three questions on the play you have studied, the first of which is compulsory followed by a choice of answering one other question from two alternatives given.
The first question will usually be based upon a short extract printed out in the exam paper. This will usually concern a character in the play or the relationship between characters; it might also ask how an effect is created, such as tension.
2. Questions based upon a character, theme or an important aspect of the play
In this part of the exam paper you are given a choice of two questions from which to answer one.
WAYS TO BOOST YOUR GRADE
Analysing and writing about a play means writing from the perspective of the play's audience. This is very important. Doing this will transform your essay if you keep it in mind. Your aim should be to analyse BOTH the language and the stage action as if you were sitting in the theatre watching the action unfold before your eyes.
you are more aware than
the audience. You know, for example, what is to come at any point. You will,
therefore, be able to write a fuller account than a member of the audience
could at any point - but discussing what the audience are feeling and
thinking will mean you will write about the structure
of the play, which is such an important aspect as it reveals important
aspects such as the effect of entrances and exits, of costume, setting, dramatic irony
You will need
to select appropriate quotations and descriptions of stage
action from your play to support the points you
are making that will be developing your argument which forms the answer to
the essay question (find out more here).
When you do this, be sure to explain and comment on the
effects on the audience both of the
language used and on aspects of
stagecraft and dramatic devices.
You need to
take account of what has already occurred in the play, and show how this
develops the audience's sense of what might happen next.
These methods - some linked to the language of the play, some linked to the action on stage will put there by the dramatist to create specific and useful effects on the audience and each of these will have a purpose attached to it, perhaps to develop a character, create a mood or tension, develop the plot or explore a theme.
remember that the purpose attached to a specific effect of language,
interaction or stage action will be for a local effect at this point in
the play, and will in some small way be contributing to the play's
overall effects or theme. Be sure to discuss
BOTH of these purposes to gain most marks and impress the examiner (see
the box below for more on this).
Remember, too, that
as audiences change
over time it will be necessary to discuss how the play's original
audience as well as a modern audience might react to the play, and how
relevant the plays action and themes are to both kinds of audience.
Whatever your essay question, you will be expected to look for and explain the effects the play is having on its audience, the methods being used to create these effects and the possible purposes behind them.
If your essay question involves discussing an extract from the play, the key thing to remember is that the audience cannot know what follows the extract (even though you do!) - so part of your answer needs to discuss just this point and explain what effect the extract will have on changing what the audience knows up to this point: has it created dramatic irony, has it changed the mood, is it developing characters, tension, etc. Why is this done? How does it prepare the audience for what is to follow?
In a drama essay, your purpose is always to explore, explain and discuss the various significant ways by which the tools of drama have been used to entertain and engage the audience, persuading them to think about the world in a certain way - the dramatist's! The ideas explored by are called the play's themes and themes are always made clear through the play's characters and action. All essay questions will concern some aspect of theme and character.
Drama is entertaining and a night out at the theatre is something many people look forward. Today, not realising what an interesting experience they are missing, of course, most people's experience of plays is not that of live acting at a theatre but the recorded and edited action of TV.
Plays are a unique and very special form of literature because they are based on a combination of language and action and are the vision of two important people: the playwright and the play's director this vision is coupled with the enormous hard work of a company of actors and back stage personnel. Plays are designed both to entertain by capturing the imagination and to persuade by capturing the mind.
Playwrights are often very political creatures who are particularly sensitive to what they perceive to be the wrongs of society. Their plays are often a vehicle not just for entertainment but for the expression of the playwright's ideas and concerns. These are called the play's themes. A modern televised play can stir the imaginations and consciences of millions of people and change minds in a way little else can. It is because of this that drama has always had the potential to be a radical form of literature indeed, in Shakespeare's day, many plays were banned or had to be performed secretly or outside of the city's legal limits to avoid censorship or worse: more than one playwright was imprisoned and worse for their work.
Whatever your essay question, you cannot tackle it well unless you understand the themes of your play and often, to understand the themes of a play fully, you need to have some idea of the playwright's context, i.e. the time, place and situation in which he or she lived and wrote: the aspects of their time and society that motivated and inspired them to write about what they have, in the way they have. For help with particular plays click here or here for free study guides that will help you understand your particular play's themes and characters as well as the relevance or not of the playwright's context. Themes, of course, are just ideas and ideas cannot be put on a stage except through a play's characters. So, the study of a play always involves the study of who its characters are, what they do, how they do it, who they do it to, as well as what they say, how they say it and who to... that is, the action and language of the play!
CHARACTERS AND ACTION
A vital aspect of a play is its characters, what they do and what the audience come to think about them (are they sympathetic or antagonistic, for example?). Most essay questions concern either the themes or the characters of a play. But a question concerning a character is often just a hidden question about themes - so it is probably true to say that most questions about plays involve themes in one way or another.
Who a character is, what they say, how they say it, what other characters say about them, how other characters act around them and so forth all help to build up a character in the audience's mind.
Do you like a particular character?
Why? Do you empathise with him or her or even sympathise with their plight? If so, think about what it is that makes you feel this way perhaps some aspect of the way they are being treated by their society? This is a theme of the play. Your sympathy and engagement with this character is persuading you to accepting the playwright's ideas or themes. And just because their society is, for example, Italy in the olden days, does not mean that the ideas are old hat. Society may have evolved technologically, but not always in other ways. Shakespeare's views on human relationships, and Arthur Miller's views on society are, in many ways, still very valid today.
Do you dislike a particular character?
Again, why? What are they doing to be disliked? How are they being presented? Are they created as a stereotype - a kind of stock character? What ideas occur to you when you watch them? Again, these ideas are linked to the themes of the play.
The effects and purposes behind the playwright's use of stagecraft are as important in your analysis and essay as the choices and uses of language. Always consider how what is said in a play fits in with the following aspects of stagecraft:
This is the commonest and often most important dramatic device used by a playwright to engage and involve the audience in their play. Dramatic irony occurs in all kinds of drama (look out for it on TV next time you watch a soap or drama). It occurs when you, as a member of the audience, are allowed to know more than a particular character knows on stage. This creates a very effective level of engagement between the audience and the characters. Members of the audience become involved in the action because they feel they ought to 'step in' and help the character - but obviously they cannot. This creates tension and involvement - and even sympathy.
Do you remember the use of dramatic irony in childhood pantomimes when you actually could shout out to a character in a play, 'Watch out - he's behind you!' ?