A Guide to the Theory of Drama
Manfred Jahn

Full reference: Jahn, Manfred. 2003. A Guide to the Theory of Drama. Part II of Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. English Department, University of Cologne.
Version: 1.7.
Date: August 2, 2003.
This page: http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/pppd.htm
Project introductory page: http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/ppp.htm

To facilitate global indexing, all paragraphs in this section are prefixed 'D' for 'drama'. If you quote from this document, use paragraph references (e.g., D2.1) rather than page numbers.

Note. This part is largely based on Manfred Pfister's The Theory of Drama (first German edition 1977; English translation 1988).

D1.   Text and performance
D2.   Dramatic communication and communication in drama
D3.   Basic technical terms
D4.   Shakespeare
D5.   The picture-frame stage
D6.   Epic drama and epic theater
D7.   Action analysis
D8.   Characters and Characterization
D9.   References

D1. Text and performance

D1.1. As in the poetry section of this tutorial (P1.1), this part will begin by proposing a 'differential definition' that aims at capturing the 'specificity' of drama, and this will then serve as a framework for all technical terms that follow. Nevertheless, what has to be noted from the outset is that there is a strong family resemblance between drama and prose fiction. Both genres are narrative text types, and it is for this reason that the theory of drama and the theory of narrative texts cover a good deal of common ground (Richardson 1987; 1988; 1991). Indeed, whenever possible, the following account will borrow from the inventory of concepts that has been created within what is now known as 'narratology' (N0). See also the genre taxonomy presented on the PPP Project Page (I2). For a critical view of this approach and an argument to restrict narratology to prose narratives see Genette (1988: 17).

D1.2. In a bookshop, you will find the drama section next to the fiction and the poetry sections. But does that mean that a play is a type of text just like a novel or a poem? Today, most theorists assume that the true nature of a play lies in its orientation toward a public performance, toward being or becoming a 'play in performance' in which the characters' parts are enacted by actors. The play's text is variously seen as a guide to a performance, comparable to a blueprint, a musical score (Krieger 1995: 78), or even a recipe for baking a cake (Searle 1975: 329). As to the role of the audience, audience reactions (laughing, crying etc.) are not only integral parts of a performance, they also have an immediate feedback effect. All this is reflected in Pfister's basic definition.

Extending Pfister's definition, we will say that a play is a multimedial narrative form because it presents a story (a sequence of action units). Note that, on this view, there are two main narrative forms: epic narratives (i.e., novels and short stories) and dramatic narratives.

D1.3. Regarding the criterion of public staging, two exceptions have to be noted: closet dramas and private showings.

As to private showings, the seclusive Bavarian king Ludwig II had the habit of ordering entirely private performances of Wagner's operas -- much to the composer's annoyance.

D1.4. Just as the reception of a play is a collective public experience, staging a play is a collective enterprise, involving the collaboration of many people including producers, directors, designers, choreographers, musicians, and, of course, actors.

See Peter Lathan's School Show Page at www.schoolshows.demon.co.uk/resources/technical/gloss1.htm for an excellent glossary of technical theater terms.

The reader may wish to skip the following sections (on various approaches to drama) and turn directly to D2.

D1.5. Historically, it is useful to distinguish three types or 'schools' of drama theory and interpretation. For convenience, let us label these schools 'Poetic Drama', 'Theater Studies' and 'Reading Drama'. As the following brief survey will show, they constitute the dialectic stages of a Fichtean thesis-antithesis-synthesis cycle. Each school, from its specific point of view, has strong views about what counts as true, false, interesting, important, or unimportant; and their followers belong to distinct "interpretive communities" (Fish 1980). In the following three sub-paragraphs, these schools are summarily described by listing their main tenets, their favorite interpretive strategies, their keywords and catchphrases, and their agendas.

Bearing in mind the relativity thus introduced, the present introduction largely embraces the beliefs of the Reading Drama school as laid down in Pfister (1977), Scanlan (1988) and Scolnicov and Holland, eds. (1991).

D1.5.1. Poetic Drama prioritizes the (printed) dramatic text. Reading the dramatic text is seen as a uniquely suitable and rewarding experience, particularly when viewed against the shortcomings of theaters, actors, and actual performances. Only the careful reading of a play brings out the work's full aesthetic quality and richness.

D1.5.2. Theater Studies is an approach that privileges the performance over the text. According to this approach, a play's text has no independent existence whatsoever. See Styan (1975) for a programmatic exposition, Hornby (1977) for a critique of the Poetic Drama approach, Levin (1979), Taylor (1985), Hawkins (1985) [all on the text vs performance issue as related to Shakespeare].

Many theorists comment on the fact that analysis of performance is a notoriously difficult undertaking. An opening night of a play is unlike that of the final performance, a performance cannot be stopped in its course, there are no pages to turn back to or to skip, references and interpretations are both difficult to document and difficult to verify (should all such references be based on a video recording?). Consider the following skeptical comment by Laurence Lerner:

D1.5.3. Reading Drama is an approach which holds that the Poetic Drama and Theater Studies schools are based on unnecessarily biased positions. Instead, Reading Drama assumes an ideal recipient who is both a reader and a theatergoer -- a reader who appreciates the text with a view to possible or actual performance, and a theatergoer who (re)appreciates a performance through his or her knowledge and re-reading of the text. The text is accepted both as a piece of literature and as a guide to performance; the movement from "page to stage" is considered equally important as that from "stage to page" (Berger 1989). Like a director, the reader of a play's text must be one "who is able to bring the numerous explicit and implicit signs and signals inherent in the literary text to life in his imagination" (Pfister 1988: 13). Programmatic texts: Ubersfeld (1977) [a study entitled Lire le theâtre], Elam (1980), Pfister (1984 [1977]), Scolnicov and Holland, eds. (1991) [a collection of essays entitled Reading Plays], Scanlan (1988) [a study entitled Reading Drama; author claims that "The richness of drama is most fully experienced when the reader is simultaneously aware of the structural and performance dimensions of the play" (p. iii)], Berger (1989) [excellent discussion of the Theater Studies vs. Reading Drama debate, illustrated with reference to "Shakespeare on Stage and Page"].

Consider also Berger's recipe for 'imaginary audition':

In the present writer's view, Reading Drama presents a most promising synthesis. Not only is it the least apodictic of the approaches listed above, it also encourages the cross-disciplinary exchange between the theory of drama and the theory of narrative prose (narratology) that the following account largely builds on.

D1.5.4. In summary, the Reading Drama approach sketched above suggests that one should be aware both of commonalities and of specificities, particularly concerning one's definition of plays on the one hand and of 'epic narratives' (novels, short stories) on the other. Among the various aspects that can be considered here are (1) how the respective genres are received (the reception criterion), (2) what they are about (a thematic criterion), and (3) what privileges and obligations they offer their authors.

See Goffman (1974: 149-155); also the narratology part of this tutorial, especially the sections on authorial narration (N3.3.1), point of view/focalization (N3.2), summary narrative mode (N5.3.1), inside views (N8.8).

D2. Dramatic communication and communication in drama

D2.1. As Pfister (1988) and Chatman (1990) point out, drama is a narrative form that represents or 'tells' a story, sometimes literally so. The following graphic shows that narrative communication in general involves several levels. Each level of communication comes with its own set of addressers and addressees (i.e., senders and receivers, story-tellers (narrators) and audiences).


Real-life persons can occupy more than one of the agent positions in this model. Many playwrights (Albee, Ayckbourn, Pinter) double as directors. Perhaps the most famous contemporary writer-director-designer-choreographer-performer in the British theater scene is Steven Berkoff.

As in the narratological model and its treatment of embedded narratives (N2.4), additional levels have to be used to capture the structure of a 'play-within-the-play' (as occurs in, e.g., Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and Midsummer Night's Dream).

D2.2. The distinction between plays that do or do not use the level of narrative mediation leads to the distinction between epic and absolute drama (Pfister 1988: ch. 1.2.3):

D2.3. Even though, in ordinary circumstances, the terms person, character and figure are often used indiscriminately, modern theoretical discourse makes an effort to be more distinct and accurate.

By way of exercise, pick any play you know and place all of its real and fictional agents into the functional slots of the model sketched in D2.1. Make a suggestion as to how to deal with historical plays, i.e. when a play's protagonist is also a historical person (e.g., Shaffer's Amadeus).

D3. Basic technical terms

D3.1. The main divisions within a playscript or a performance are acts and scenes:

In critical practice, acts and scenes are usually referred to as I.1, IV.3 (alternatively, 1.1, 4.3) etc. (read: Act 1, Scene 1 etc.). See Wallis and Shepherd (1998: 91-97) for a discussion of character distribution patterns and a 'French scene analysis' of The Tempest. Also Pfister 1984: 6.4.2.

D3.2. Characters and setting are the main 'existents' (Chatman 1978) of a dramatic fiction. There are two terms that specifically refer to setting-related features as represented in a performance:

D3.3. Focusing on the playscript, we can see that it subdivides into two types of text: primary text and secondary text (terms coined by Ingarden 1931: ch. 30):

In the terms introduced by Genette (1997 [1987]), secondary text elements such as prefaces and 'postfaces', dedications, the title, the dramatis personae, textual notes etc. are peritextual elements (situated on the periphery of the text).

D3.4. Here are the main elements of the primary text:

D3.5. And here are the main elements of the secondary text:

D3.6. Note that stage directions may either be 'readerly', catering to the needs of ordinary readers, or 'actorly', catering to the needs of theater practitioners. Today, most printed playscripts are readerly versions, whose secondary text describes stage and action from the point of view of the audience and generally avoids technical jargon. In contrast, the 'acting editions' published by Samuel French are dedicated actorly texts, containing terms like 'stage left', 'upstage right', 'downstage center' etc., often abbreviated as SL, USR, DSC, etc. -- these are directions which assume the point of view of an actor facing the audience. (See D5.4 for a sketch of the stage areas.)

D3.7. Analyze the following introductory stage direction:

Question 1: Is this a readerly or an actorly stage direction?

Question 2: Who is the speaker of the stage directions? Write a brief essay discussing the communicative status of stage directions, presenting an argument that upholds our model of narrative communication, and the distinction between absolute drama and epic drama (see Issacharoff 1989: ch. 3; Carlson 1991; Suchy 1991).

D4. Shakespeare

D4.1. The person, his time, and his work.

Some comprehensive Shakespeare resources websites are http://castle.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Annex/ShaksitesAll.html , http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/ and http://web.UVic.CA/shakespeare/Library/Criticism/guide.html

D4.2. Shakespeare's plays were performed in basically three types of locations: (1) in public theaters (such as the Globe Theater, located outside the City limits of London), (2) in private theaters (such as the Blackfriars, in central London), and (3) in various venues for special occasion -- public town halls, royal residences, etc.


In the eyes of the city authorities, the Globe playhouse had a relatively bad reputation; it was considered a dangerous environment which encouraged uncontrolled mixing of people from all classes and casts of life, including prostitutes and pickpockets. Many critics believe that the diverging interests of the Globe Theater's heterogeneous audience are actually reflected in Shakespeare's choice and treatment of themes, characters, and language.

There are many excellent internet resources on the Shakespearean stage. Hilda D. Spear's "The Elizabethan Theatre" is at www.uni-koeln.de/phil-fak/englisch/shakespeare/spear.html . Both the University of Reading, UK, (www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/) and the US-based Shakespeare Globe Center (www.sgc.umd.edu/home.htm) have excellent documents on historical and architectural detail, performances, etc. A net-based bibliography can be found at www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/newglobe/Bibliography.htm .

D4.3. In the following, I will try to highlight the dramatic options offered by the Globe Theater stage. For a virtual tour through the Globe, let us use Walter Hodges's famous "conjectural reconstruction" as reprinted in Harrison (1966: 126). (I am using this source for its ready availability rather than for its historical accuracy. See the references just cited, as well as those that follow below, for newer accounts. Needless to say, the exact shape and dimensions of the Globe are still a highly disputed matter.)


(a) The sign over the entrance shows Hercules (or possibly Atlas) carrying the globe on his shoulders -- an allusion to the name of the house as well as to the Elizabethan theater's claim to present a mirror image of the world ("hold the mirror up to nature", Hamlet III.2).

(b) Basic entrance fee is a penny, entitling the spectator to use the standing room in the open 'Yard'. People standing in the Yard are called 'Groundlings'. For comparison, a quart of beer (1.1 liters) cost 2 to 3 pennies. Today's entrance fee to the New Globe's Yard is GBP 5.

(c) Spectators who are willing to pay an extra penny are entitled to a seat in one of the galleries (the 'twopenny rooms').

(d) In the lower galleries, both to the left and to the right of the stage, are the 'Lord's Rooms', for members of the aristocracy and other VIPs.

(e) The stage itself is situated on a raised platform. In the middle of it, there is a trap-door leading down to the 'hell'.

(f) The space underneath the stage -- the 'hell' -- is hidden from view by boards or lengths of cloth.

(g) The tiring house construction is partly connected to the Globe's back wall, and partly supported by two pillars in front (often integrated into a play as trees, masts, or hiding places). On top of the tiring house is a "hut" containing pulleys and other machinery for letting down ('flying in') or pulling up ('flying out') objects or people (for instance, Ariel in The Tempest). (The 'fly floor' is usually also a feature of modern stage designs.) The ceiling of the tiring house shows painted representations of the sun, moon, clouds, and planets.

(h) There are two main stage doors through which the characters enter or exit.

(i) Between the two doors, there is another opening, a 'discovery space', possibly a 'chamber' suggesting a nightchamber, a sickbed scenes, etc. The exact nature and function of this space is rather a controversial issue. It was the only space that could be concealed by a curtain -- an interesting feature in view of the role of the curtain in later stage designs (D5.1).

(j) There is also a first-floor chamber or balcony one level up. This is used both as an occasional acting area as well as a space for the musicians.

(k) At the back of the tiring house are the tiring rooms as well as store rooms for props, wardrobes, etc.

(L) The roof as shown in Hodges's drawing is thatched. The story goes that the Globe burned down in 1613 because the reed caught fire. (When the Globe was rebuilt it was fitted with a shingled roof.)

(m) The playhouse flag was flown to indicate either that a performance was in progress or about to begin. Performances usually began at 2 p.m. The main seasons in London were autumn and spring (in other words, the playhouse was actually closed for most of the year).

Compare the dimensions in Hodges's 'conjectural reconstruction' with the ground plan as used in the actual building of the New Globe. (The building's outer diameter is exactly 100 ft., and rather than having 16 sides, it has 20.)


A more highly detailed version of this plan can be found at www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/newglobe/MarkedPlan.htm . The graphic lists some of the newer concepts as used in the Globe pages of the U of Reading at www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/newglobe/ . If you have plenty of time and patience you can also try your hand at building a cardboard (1/150th) scale model: http://www.sgc.umd.edu/model.htm or Heritage Models at www.heritage-models.co.uk . Click globe1a.zip for downloading a scalable vector graphics version (CorelDraw) of the above picture.

D4.4. Note the following reflection of the Globe architecture in Shakespeare's plays.

(While this effect strongly promotes audience involvement and participation, see D7.9 for a potential downside to this. Or, question, can you already see one for yourself?)

D4.5. The following paragraphs will briefly touch on sources, genres, and the early printed texts, which form the basis of all modern editions.

D4.5.1. Shakespeare's sources. None of Shakespeare's plays was an 'original' play in the modern sense of the word. By preference, Shakespeare and his contemporaries treated classical or otherwise familiar stories whose didactic and entertainment value was well established. Shakespeare often combined multiple sources, using both current translations of classical authors like Plautus, Seneca, Plutarch (Lives), Ovid (Metamorphoses), Ariosto (I Suppositi, Orlando Furioso), Boccaccio (Decameron), and Chaucer as well as contemporary authors like Spenser (The Faerie Queene) and Sidney (Arcadia). The main source for his English 'histories' was Holinshed's Chronicles. See Bullough (1957-73) [7 vols, an authoritative account], Evans (1978c) [brief overview].

From this, one cannot conclude that Shakespeare lacks originality. Rather, his originality lies in his ability to flesh out characters, his expressive language, the way in which he modifies and composes existing stories to make a new one, and the way in which he is able to transform action lines of epic dimensions into highly effective plays.

D4.5.2. Shakespeare's dramatic work is traditionally (and rather arbitrarily) divided into three main genres: comedies, histories, and tragedies.

None of these categories are what one would call watertight or exclusive: for instance, in their titles, some of the histories are explicitly identified as tragedies (Richard II), and some are comedies (Henry IV, part I).

D4.5.3. Early and modern Shakespeare editions. On average, Shakespeare wrote two to three plays per year. It was only when a play had completed its current production run that a text was printed which could be sold in the streets. Normally, the projected printing of a play was registered with the Stationer's Company and listed in the Stationer's Register:

Single plays were usually printed in small-size 'quarto' booklets; the first edition containing 36 of Shakespeare's plays (only Pericles was missing) was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death.

D4.5.4. To the 21C reader, the original early editions are full of spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, even though such judgments are clearly relative. While many 19C editors notoriously overdid correction, emendation, and wholesale rewriting of passages, the modern scholarly approach is to treat the sources with great respect, and to follow the scrupulous demands of textual criticism:

D4.5.5. In Shakespeare's time, most of the people who bought a text had seen the play in the Globe, and the text basically served as a reminder of what the play had been like (Pfister 1988: 14). For this purpose, printing the text of the speeches (i.e., the primary text, D3.3) was quite sufficient. Contemporary readers automatically remembered and re-imagined the performance, the backdrop of the Globe, the props, the costumes, and so on. They did not have to be told, by detailed stage directions, what the characters were doing in a particular situation; also, much of the nonverbal action was reflected in implied stage directions (D3.4). Interestingly, this mode of re-imaginative reading comes very close to the Reading Drama approach sketched in D1.5.3. As Harrison points out,

D4.5.6. All plays (including the printed versions) were subject to censorship, especially with regard to political, religious, and moral aspects. Plays could be censored for treason, heresy, and blasphemy, and sanctions included the closing of playhouses or the deletion of offending expressions or scenes (for instance, the famous deposition scene in Richard II was omitted from the Folio edition [Lloyd Evans and Lloyd Evans 1978: 294]). No women were allowed on stage prior to 1665, and all female roles had to be impersonated by boy actors. The main censorship authorities were the city administrators of London (who tended to obstruct the public playhouses on moral grounds), the Lord Chamberlain (the person in charge of matters of royal entertainment) and the monarch's privy council (the Queen herself is known to have been a supporter of the theater companies). Interestingly, there was no ban on obscenity or violence -- if there had been, very few of Shakespeare's texts would have survived uncensored.

For an example, consider the case of Othello. In the quarto edition of the play the speeches are liberally dotted with religious oaths and expletives -- expressions like 'Sblood [= God's blood], Zounds [= God's wounds] etc. These exclamations were all removed from the text of the 1623 Folio edition, whose editors evidently feared being charged with publishing foul language and profanities.

Censorship was formally abolished in Great Britain in 1968; today it is largely a matter of self-regulation. Today, judging from recent productions, basically "anything goes".

D4.6. Shakespearean language is a variant of Early Modern English, whose main characteristics, from today's point of view, are variability and flexibility. Both characteristics are probably due to the period's lack of authoritative dictionaries (the first true dictionary, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language did not appear until 1755).

For addressing a single person, a Shakespearean character can use either you or thou. You in Early Modern English counts as a polite form, whereas thou can be made to transmit three basic connotations which variously signal, uphold, modify or manipulate pragmatic (speaker-hearer) relationships:

D4.7. In Shakespeare's plays, situational conditions and pragmatic circumstances can be interestingly complex. A speaker can address a hearer using thou in one situation and you in another. Imagine, for instance, a courtier talking to his king. Normally, the appropriate form would be the respectful you. But if the courtier is John of Gaunt, head of a powerful aristocratic family, old, wise, and near his death, somebody who feels ill-treated by the king and perhaps wants to make it obvious that the king is young, inexperienced, and irresponsible, then it is not so surprising to find him addressing the king as follows:

D4.8. Verse vs. Prose. Shakespeare's plays are predominantly written in verse, and editors usually number a play's lines to allow references such as IV.3.112 (= act 4, scene 3, line 112). The standard type of verse employed by Shakespeare is the blank verse:

Note the following important deviations from this standard scheme: (a) many of the plays include songs which use their own type of meter and rhyme scheme; (b) sometimes the text shifts from blank verse to a sequence of heroic couplets (i.e., rhymed iambic pentameters); (c) a single heroic couplet may also signal the end of an act or scene; (d) the later plays make increasing use of prose passages. As in the case of thou vs you, the use of blank verse vs prose and of blank verse vs rhyming couplets is usually motivated by pragmatic factors that merit close stylistic analysis. See, e.g., Brockbank's (1976: 185) note on Coriolanus II.3.111-123.

D5. The picture-frame stage

D5.1. In the previous section, we argued that the Globe theater stage exerted a strong influence on many aspects of Shakespearean drama -- duration of a performance, verbal decor, passepartout scenery, etc. Continuing this line of approach, we will now examine in how far the architecture of the modern stage (often called a 'picture frame stage') exerts a similar influence on 19C and 20C drama. The transition from the 16-17C Globe theater stage to the modern picture frame stage is best illustrated by using two (highly simplified) models (Pfister 1988: 20).


The arrow in this graphic is an invitation to conduct a mental experiment. Imagine a cartoon sequence that transforms the shape of the Globe into the shape of the picture-frame stage (cp. Lloyd Evans and Lloyd Evans 1978: 83). You can do this, for instance, by moving the Globe theater's apron stage to the back of the auditorium, removing the tiring house, and transforming the circular shape of the Globe into a foreshortened rectangle. Finally, let the Globe's small curtain become more substantial and move it to the front so that it forms the dividing line between stage and auditorium (which is the main characteristic of the picture-frame stage).

D5.2. The transition from the Globe architecture with its apron stage and its ready-made scenery to the picture-frame stage and its variable sets begins, even in Shakespeare's time, with the work of Inigo Jones (1573-1652), an English architect. Jones's main achievement was to craft highly elaborate scenic detail, facades, perspective paintings and other types of backgrounds to stage sophisticated 'masques':

D5.3. In overview, the main contrasts between the two stage constructions are as follows:

D5.4. The picture-frame stage has a number of clearly defined acting areas that are often referred to in the stage directions.


The terms upstage and downstage refer to the fact that many stages are (or were) angled (or 'raked') downwards. Hence 'up' actually means in the back, and 'down' means close to the ramp. Consequently, to 'upstage' somebody means to play so well or so conspicuously as to push another actor from a position of interest (a downstage or center-stage position) into the background (an upstage position) -- this is commonly called 'stealing the show'. As Lathan (2000) points out, "in most modern theatres it is the audience seating that is raked, not the stage". Exercise: indicate the location of a stage direction such as 'upstage left' ('USL') in the drawing above (D3.6 for help).

D5.5. The picture-frame stage lends strong support to a specific type of play: the realist play.

Assuming that the stage represents a room, audience and stage are separated by what is called an 'invisible fourth wall':

Compare this (a) to the conditions in the Globe theater which thrives on the visual contact between actors and audience [D4.4], and (b) to the conception of epic drama (below), which makes an attempt to subvert the realist illusion.

D6. Epic drama and epic theater

D6.1. Although realism is an important stylistic force in 19 and early 20C drama (Ibsen, Hauptmann, Shaw, Pinero), many authors and directors consider the theater of illusion a restrictive and paralyzing invention. There are several ways of escaping from the restrictions of purely absolute drama. An obvious one is to reactivate the convention of a play-internal narrator figure. The anti-illusionist countermovement culminates in Brecht's 'epic theater' and its radical 'alienation effects', which undermine the illusion potential of the picture-frame stage (D5).

D6.2. There is one type of drama in particular that foregrounds the epic element of self-reflexivity (reference to itself):

D6.3. While realist drama consistently appeals to the audience's willing suspension of disbelief, epic drama makes temporary use of epic elements or alienation techniques only. In other words, realist drama is a pure form, whereas epic drama is a composite form, mixing illusionist and anti-illusionist elements. Very few plays can manage without any make-believe at all, although Peter Handke's Insulting the Audience (1966), a play whose 'action' consists entirely of a group of actors doing precisely what is announced by the title, is a useful counterexample (Pfister 1988: 248). Normally, an epic play's narrative level forms a mediating and exposition-oriented frame in which realist elements (such as the play's proper action) are embedded. In his preface to A Man For All Seasons, an avowedly epic drama, Robert Bolt passes the following instructive comment on the dangers of overdoing Brechtian alienations:

D6.4. Examples. As an exercise, identify and comment on the epic characteristics of the following excerpts, mainly incipits (beginnings).

D6.4.1. A metadramatic/narrative prologue.

Gower, actually a historical poet, a contemporary of Chaucer, introduces himself as a narrator figure (level of fictional mediation), identifies the story's genre (interestingly calling it a "song"), comments on its didactic purpose and its original addressees, points out that it is based on a successful story (D4.5.1), and generally tries to capture the audience's attention and benevolence (so-called captatio benevolentiae). The passage concludes with Gower providing some verbal decor ("This [is the city of] Antioch") which serves as a transition to the ensuing scenic action. On the whole, the passage is an epic frame providing both metadramatic comment and exposition.

(Q: Gower's verses are clearly different from those used in the play's verbal action. In what way, and for what purpose?)

D6.4.2. Music as commentary.

D6.4.3. Epic use of lighting effects etc.

D6.4.4. Alienation effects.

[self-reflexivity, emancipated actor.]

D6.4.5. Epic elements in a 'memory play'.

[aside ad spectatores; narrator figure.]

D6.4.6. Identify and categorize the drastic anti-illusionist elements in the following passage. As was argued in D6.3, even the most dedicated of epic plays cannot use epic elements all of the time. What is the function and/or effect of this mixture of anti-illusionist and illusionist elements?

D7. Action analysis

D7.1. Although 'action' is a more or less self-explanatory term, let us try to give it a precise and useful definition.

D7.2. The terms 'story' and 'plot' were originally introduced by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1976 [1927]). Since we are here assuming that drama is a narrative form (D1.1), story and plot are applicable to drama, too (Pfister 1988: ch. 6). Actually, one should perhaps distinguish three action-related aspects: (i) the sequence of events as presented in the play's text or performance (= order of presentation); (ii) the chronological sequence of the action units (= story); and (iii) the action's causal structure (= plot).

To illustrate, fairy tales are usually tightly plotted following the pattern A does X because B has done (or is) Y. -- The Queen is jealous because Snow-White has become more beautiful than she is. So she orders a huntsman to kill her. But the huntsman does not do it because he takes pity on Snow-White (because she's so beautiful). . . etc. Forster (1976 [1927]); Bremond (1970); Rimmon-Kenan (1983: ch. 1); Pavel (1985); Ryan (1991).

D7.3. General summaries or 'synopses' normally present a plot-oriented content paraphrase. For a detailed story analysis, it is advisable to work out a story's time line so that all main events can be situated in proper succession and extension. Generally, a time-line model is a good point of departure for surveying themes and action units; it also helps visualize events that are presented in scenic detail as opposed to events that are skipped or merely reported by, e.g., a messenger or a narrator. A time-line model can also show up significant discrepancies between story time and performance time ('story time' vs 'discourse time' in narratological terms, N5.2.2). Pfister (1988: ch. 6, ch. 7.4.3); Genette (1980: ch. 1-3).

The graphic below presents a discourse/performance-time oriented model of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. The numerical values on the scale represent line numbers in the Faber edition; the story's main events, which include three flashbacks, are indicated in shorthand fashion. The play's story line covers the protagonist's 69th birthday, when he listens to a tape recorded on his 39th birthday. As we learn from the tape, on his 39th birthday he listened to a tape recorded ten years ago.


D7.4. Although the time structure of Krapp's Last Tape is far from simple, more complex (indeed, more creative) models are needed for plays whose scenes are presented in 'anachronic' order, or epic plays that have a narrator whose narrative act has a time line in addition to the play's actual story line. In certain experimental forms of drama, one sometimes encounters 'split scenes' that simultaneously show events either occurring at the same time, or at totally different points in time (example: Nichols's Passion Play).

D7.5. 'Freytag's pyramid' is a well-known time-line model which attempts to capture the general structure of a classical five-act tragedy (as established by Horace 50 BC). Freytag (1965 [1863]); Sternberg (1993 [1978): 5-8); Pfister (1988:


Abrams (1964) illustrates Freytag's pyramid using Shakespeare's Hamlet as an example: "the rising action (or what Aristotle called the complication) begins with the ghost telling Hamlet of his murder, and continues with the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, in which Hamlet, despite setbacks, succeeds in controlling the course of events. The highest point of the rising action, the climax, comes with the proof to Hamlet of the king's guilt by the device of the play within the play, Act II, scene II. The falling action begins with the 'turning point,' or Hamlets failure to kill the king while he is at prayer. From now on the antagonist, Claudius, for the most part controls the action until the tragic catastrophe, at which point occurs the death of the hero" (Abrams 1964: 72). Holman (1977: 174) adds: "The latter part of the falling action is sometimes marked by an event which delays the catastrophe and seems to offer a way of escape for the hero (the apparent reconciliation of Hamlet and Laertes). This is called the 'moment of final suspense' and aids in maintaining interest."

D7.6. The terms of Freytag's pyramid can be put to excellent use when one is asked to describe a scene's or an episode's structural position. Here are some additional structural concepts:

D7.7. Open and closed forms of drama. Classical drama builds on plot patterns that develop "out of a transparent initial situation based on a [...] comprehensible set of facts" and lead "towards an unambiguous solution in the end" (Pfister 1988: 241). In the terms proposed by Volker Klotz (1975), plays that present an "unambiguous solution in the end" exemplify a 'closed form' of drama, while plays that lack typical closure patterns are, reasonably enough, 'open forms'. Most prominent among the open forms are naturalist and documentary plays, Brecht's 'epic theater', and the 'drama of the absurd'. Georg Büchner's Woyzeck (1836; first performance 1913) is usually cited as the prototypical example of an 'open form'. Pfister (1988:,

D7.8. The main defining feature of a tragedy is that its protagonist dies in the end:

In his Poetics, Aristotle (384-322 BC) describes a tragedy's protagonist as a valuable character, somebody who has both strengths and weaknesses, most importantly, somebody the spectators can empathize or identify with. The tragic hero's downfall is usually caused not only by adverse circumstances but also by his/her misassessment of a situation ('hamartia') and a certain amount of overconfidence ('hubris'). Co-experiencing the protagonist's tragic fate, the spectators feel 'pity and fear', making it possible for them (a) to deal with these emotions in real life, and (b) to cleanse their minds of them (this is the famous effect of 'catharsis' or purging). In sum, then, a tragedy stages a character's downfall to allow the spectators a purifying vicarious experience.

D7.9. A comedy shares many structural aspects of a tragedy (such as exposition -- climax -- denouement), but it does not end in a catastrophe. Typically, but not necessarily, it also contains a variety of humorous elements. Hence,

There is a typical comedy plot pattern that has become known as Benson's law:

An important subtype of comedy is the farce:

Finally, a very popular, seasonal type of low comedy is the (Christmas) pantomime:

For two interesting cases of plays mistakenly (?) perceived as pantomimes, consider the reception notes to Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion (1913), and the reviews of the 1998 revival of the Merchant of Venice at the New Globe. Here is Shaw, complaining about a deteriorating first performance: "[T]he [...] playgoers did not know what to make of it. At first they settled down to a Christmas pantomime, with low comedians and a comic lion, and began to laugh very good-humoredly. Then they suddenly found their teeth set on edge [...]" (Collected Plays, vol. 4, ed. Max Reinhardt, London 1972, p. 649). On the Merchant, see the Theatre Record reviews (18.11: 687-91): "[Shakespeare's] plays are very popular there [the Globe], but half the time they are like the summer equivalent of Christmas pantomime. The audience is never so happy as when it can boo, hiss, cheer or roar with laughter" (p. 689, Alistair Macaulay). (See also D4.4., and www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/Interviews/TimesRylance.htm for a reply by Mark Rylance, the New Globe's director.)

D7.10. Plot and characters. Often, plot is associated with the actions of protagonist and antagonist, or with certain groups of characters. For instance, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing involves two 'courtship plots', the Claudio-Hero plot, and the Beatrice-Benedick plot. Very basically -- the scheme can easily be refined -- the two plots involve the following action units:

(Q: In extreme reduction, both plots are illustrative of which 'law'?)

D7.11. So far, we have been looking at characteristic action patterns as defining features of certain types of plays. Of course, it is also possible to recognize similar patterns on a smaller scale and hence to identify tragic and comic episodes, respectively. While the mixing of comic and tragic episodes was considered a stylistic flaw in classical drama theory, Elizabethan and later English drama is famous for its effective use of 'comic relief' and 'tragic relief':

The definitions given here imply (a bit too narrowly, perhaps) that there can neither be tragic relief in a tragedy nor comic relief in a comedy. Do feel free to use a slightly broader definition if you come across a case that demands it.

D8. Characters and characterization

Characterization analysis investigates the ways and means of creating the personality traits of fictional characters. The basic analytical question is, Who (subject) characterizes whom (object) as being what (as having which traits or properties). For a general introduction, see Chatman (1978: 107-133); Rimmon-Kenan (1983: 59-70); Pfister (1988: ch. 5); Bonheim (1990: ch. 17).

D8.1. Characterization analysis focuses on three basic oppositional features: (1) narratorial vs figural (identity of characterizing subject: narrator or character?); (2) explicit vs implicit (are the personality traits expressed in words, or do they have to be inferred from somebody's behavior?); (3) self-characterization (auto-characterization) vs altero-characterization (does the characterizing subject characterize himself/herself or somebody else?).

D8.2. For a reasonably complete survey of dramatic characterization techniques, we will use a modified version of Pfister's famous diagram (1988: 184).


D8.3. The modifications to Pfister's original model concern the following items. First, Pfister's opposition self commentary: commentary by others (also, 'outside commentary') has been replaced by auto-characterization and altero-characterization, two terms that more appropriately capture the subject-object relations involved. Second, Pfister's opposition figural: authorial has been replaced by figural: narratorial. Authorial characterization in Pfister's model covers characterizing strategies variously issuing from a play's 'implied author' or its real author (cf. Pfister 1988: 184, 194). Among the authorial phenomena listed by Pfister are 'telling names', explicit characterizations in stage directions (whose subject can hardly be an 'implied' author), and strategic arrangements of scenes and situations (mainly parallels and contrasts). All narratorial agents of the epic forms of drama appear to fall under 'figural' characterization in Pfister, confounding the levels of action and fictional mediation (D2.1).

Our modified model, in contrast, aims at capturing a play's characterizing subjects at the level of fictional action (figural characterization, issuing from characters) and at the level of narratorial mediation (narratorial characterization, issuing from narrators). In our view, neither the author nor an implied author can act as characterizing subject, at least not in the play itself (which is what we are interested in). Characterization in stage directions is here treated as a special form of narratorial characterization (cf. D3.5).

D8.4. In figural characterization, the characterizing subject is a character. On the level of explicit characterization, a character either characterizes him- or herself, or some other character. The reliability or credibility of a character's judgment largely depends on pragmatic circumstances: (1) autocharacterization is often marked by face- or image-saving strategies, wishful thinking, and other "subjective distortions" (Pfister 1988: 184; consider, e.g., the reliability of marriage ads, letters of applications etc., situations in which one wants to look one's best and to gloss over one's faults); (2) alterocharacterization is often strongly influenced by social pressures and "strategic aims and tactical considerations" (Pfister 1988: 184), especially when the judgment in question is a public statement made in a dialogue (as opposed to when it is made in a soliloquy), and even more so when the person characterized is present (in praesentia) -- it can clearly be dangerous to criticize a tyrant; (3) for the audience, it makes a difference whether the figure characterized has already been on stage or not (characterization before/after the character's first appearance) (Pfister 1988: 186). Example:

The excerpt illustrates what happens when an in-absentia characterization turns into an in-praesentia characterization. Pothinus tells Caesar that Cleopatra is a traitress, which is fine as long as Cleopatra is not present. As soon as Cleopatra enters, Pothinus finds it very difficult to continue.

D8.5. In a narratorial characterization the characterizing subject is a narrator. A narrator can be a figure in the primary text (as in epic drama, see D2.2 and D6.1), in which case s/he can act as a homodiegetic narrator (first-person) or a heterodiegetic narrator; and/or s/he can be the (usually, heterodiegetic) narrative agency of the stage directions (i.e., within the secondary text). (However, recall that all stage directions, including their narratorial voice, are lost when the text metamorphoses into a performance.) Examples:

Although most of the pragmatic features associated with figural characterization (see above) are irrelevant for narratorial characterization, a dramatic narrator need not necessarily be reliable.

D8.6. An explicit characterization is a verbal statement that ostensibly attributes (i.e., is both meant to and understood to attribute) a trait or property to a character who may be either the speaker him- or herself (autocharacterization), or some other character (alterocharacterization). An explicit characterization is usually based on a descriptive statement (particularly, a sentence using be or have as its main verb) that identifies, categorizes, individualizes, and evaluates a person. Characterizing judgments can refer to external, internal, or habitual traits ("John has blue eyes, is a good-hearted fellow, and smokes a pipe"). Note that an explicit characterization is mainly defined as being one that is meant and understood to be a verbal characterization -- however, the characterizing statement itself can clearly be quite vague, allusive, or elliptical (as in "he is not a person you'd want to associate with"). See Srull and Wyer (1988) for a theory of character attribution in social cognition and the supporting concepts of 'identification', 'categorization', and 'individualization'.

D8.7. An implicit characterization is a (usually unintentional) autocharacterization in which somebody's physical appearance or behavior is indicative of a characteristic trait. X characterizes him- or herself by behaving or speaking in a certain manner. Nonverbal behavior (what a character does) may characterize a person as, for instance, a homosexual, a fine football player, or a coward. Characters are also implicitly characterized by their dress, their physical appearance (e.g., a hunchback) and their chosen environment (e.g., their rooms, their pet dogs, their cars). Verbal behavior (the way a character speaks, or what a character says in a certain situation) may characterize a person as, for instance, having a certain educational background (jargon, slang, dialect), as belonging to a certain class or set of people (sociolect), or as being truthful, evasive, ill-mannered, etc.

D8.8. At crucial moments, an implicit characterization can significantly clash with an explicit characterization. In fact, all explicit characterizations are always also implicit autocharacterizations. (Why? Because the way you characterize somebody -- other people as well as yourself -- always also characterizes yourself.) Example:

Jerry explicitly calls Peter an "educated man". Peter remarks that he is a reader of Time magazine, apparently without meaning this to be understood as an autocharacterization. Jerry rightly points out that Peter's being a reader of Time actually supports his prior explicit characterization. Peter agrees, but his nonverbal action -- "turns to his book" -- indicates his unwillingness to be drawn into a conversation. Ignoring the hint, and continuing the dialogue, Jerry indicates that he does not care. It is the undercurrent of these implicit characterizations that anticipates the lethal power struggle that develops between these two characters in the further course of Albee's play.

D8.9. How much a character knows about himself or about others is an important aspect of his or her characterization. One can be well informed or badly informed, know everything or nothing, be fully aware of something or partially aware of something. There is a saying "knowledge is power"; to know nothing about what one is expected to know is to be ignorant (an 'ignoramus'). There is also the additional question whether one's lack of knowledge can be blamed on oneself or on others. Rather than assess a person's knowledge in absolute terms, one can also compare it to the level of knowledge of others, specifically comparing characters vs. characters, and characters vs audience. Comparatively speaking, then, there can be congruent awareness or discrepant awareness. Discrepant awareness, in particular, results from a party's superior or inferior awareness.

D8.10. Even though, normally, the audience starts out on a state of inferior knowledge, it usually does not take long for them to learn the characters' goals and secret plans. The title and the genre of a play may also contribute essential information. Frequently, the resulting superior audience awareness is the basis for creating comic effect. For instance, the audience may know that the person whom somebody addresses disrespectfully is actually the King in disguise. Analytical drama (e.g., Oedipus Rex and The Mousetrap), on the other hand, relies on the fact that the viewers, just like the characters, are left either uncertain or ignorant about essential parts of the plot.

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