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analyse a stage play

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- Also read the accompanying 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.


Be sure to consider the methods used, the effects created and the purposes intended of the following dramatic aspects:

  • stage directions (but remember that the play's audience never see these)

  • think about the effect of stage entrances and exits

  • positioning, action and interaction of characters

  • use of props and costumes

  • the key device of dramatic irony

  • structure, that is, the development and sequencing of action (NOTE: often used to create dramatic irony)

  • the creation of intrigue, tension and suspense (i.e. the key elements of an effective plot)

  • uses of asides and soliloquies.


A 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 the play itself. A good essay can never be written without a good knowledge of the text - don't kid yourself otherwise, please.

What is it that gains most marks?



  • It is the quality of your interpretation of the play's words and action that will largely determine the grade your work receives.

  • When you interpret the action and dialogue of a play, you are finding, explaining and discussing the methods, effects and purposes of the layers of meaning that exist beyond the surface meaning. Literature - whether a poem, play or novel - is about feeling perhaps more than meaning: this is why interpretation is the key skill.

    • Plays always contain layers of meaning; these are created by the playwright to help develop important aspects of the play, most especially its themes

    • To uncover these different layers of meaning, you will need to consider the what, how and why of such things as the mood being created, the way a character is being portrayed through dialogue and action, etc., how the stage setting (i.e. the time, place and context) adds to the play in subtle but important ways, and how the events (plot), stage action and dialogue all work to help develop and explore the play's themes. All of these are covered in detail later.

    • It's important to realise that interpretation is not about facts. An interpretation is, by its very nature, an opinion - a point of view. This is why examiners are not keen to read the opinions of others - those of your teacher or those taken from a study guides, for example; examiners like to read about individual ideas - your ideas. These are always rewarded more highly.

    • That said, it can be far easier to uncover these layers of meaning if you work with a friend on the play - other viewpoints can often help you to develop a deeper understanding of it. This does not mean you should ever copy from a friend - or rely on a study guide - but it does mean that reading and discussing the play with others can be very helpful indeed.

    • Because interpretations are opinions not facts, they will need supporting by referring to the aspect of the text that caused them to arise. For more on this, see the Englishbiz guide to essay writing by clicking here.

  • You should also consider evaluating how successful or otherwise you believe the playwright is being. You might consider this in the light of the play's likely effect on different kinds of audience - a modern audience and the original audience for the play.

  • Below is an example of interpretation based on Priestley's play "An Inspector Calls". Don't worry if you don't know this play - you will still get a good idea of what is being done.

  • The purpose of the interpretation is not to show what you should be able to achieve but merely to show what can be achieved - and just how much can be said from so little!

  • BIRLING: Well, it's my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I'd agreed to this demand for a new rate we'd have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs. Does that satisfy you? So I refused. Said I couldn't consider it. We were paying the usual rates and if they didn't like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else. It's a free country, I told them.

    Priestley gives Birling the kind of language that he hopes would set him out in the audience's mind as a profiteering capitalist, words such as 'duty', 'labour costs' and 'usual rates'. His manner on stage and his dress would add to the air of arrogance that Priestley wants to convey. At this stage of the play, the audience will be well aware of the kind of 'duties' that Birling obviously doesn't recognise as important: his duty to pay his workers a fair and living wage.

    The workers, in Birling's terms, don't ask for more, they make 'demands'; and again, Priestley's choice of language helps underpin the 'them and us' attitude factory owners such as Birling have towards their workers. There is no sense of compassion or community here, features that Priestley saw as vital to a healthy society.

    Birling's use of the term 'free country' is clearly ironic: he himself might enjoy a good deal of freedom but his workers know very little thanks in large part to the near enslavement of the low wages he pays and the lack of alternatives available to them, despite his claim to the contrary that 'they could go and work somewhere else.' The way Priestley ends Birling's speech so emphatically with 'I told them' itself adds to the irony - having to be told you're free suggests very much that the opposite is the reality.

    Finally, in these few lines, Birling uses the first-person pronouns 'I' and 'my' no less than five times thus emphasising his self-centred nature.


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.

2. Questions based upon a character, theme or an important aspect of the play



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.


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.

  • Remember - there will always be two levels of purpose to discuss: first, there will always be what you might call a 'local' purpose - something to do with the point in the play it occurs and quoting from; this will always be linked to some local aspect such as development of a character, creation of mood or tension, development of the plot, helping the audience relate to or engage with the action and so on.

  • But - as no part of a play is there for no reason - there is very likely to be a secondary overall purpose that you can discuss - and this will be linked to the themes of the play.

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?

  • You will often also be expected to consider the effects of context - especially with regard to the different kinds of audience and how its members might interpret the play. Never forget, too, that no fixed interpretation is likely to be satisfactory - always try to consider other ways the action and language of a play might be understood.

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!


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:

Where and when the action occurs

How a character is dressed

What a character does

The division of action into scenes and acts

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.