Unit 4: Reading & Writing About Drama

This essay should be a 500-750 word essay focusing on the plays we have read in Weeks 5 and 6. It is due at the end of Week 6.This should be a close reading essay, and should use as evidence mostly passages from the play that you discuss. While it is fine to do a little background reading on the history related to the play you’re writing on, this should use as evidence mostly passages from the play that you discuss. If you need to bring in historical context at all, do your best to limit the context to “common knowledge” information (information that appears in more than 4 sources, and might have appeared in newspapers at the time, for instance). Try to avoid using ANY outside sources unless you discuss with the instructor first. If you do use sources, make sure to cite them if you quote or paraphrase them, even if you are quoting or paraphrasing common knowledge information.The essay should be in MLA essay format and should have the student/teacher cover letter as the first page.See this document for the cover letter questions and final draft checklist, and the sample essay for an example of an MLA formatted essay.The essay grading rubric can be found here.Choose 1 of the following topics, and write a thesis-driven essay in response to that topic:Unrealistic Elements in Reed’s The C Above C Above High C: Ishmael Reed’s The C Above C Above High C is full of unrealistic elements–inserted scenes, superimposed characters, slide images as backdrops–that can be confusing, especially when one is reading the play. Pick 1 scene that makes use of unrealistic elements, and create an argument about how the use of that element affect the scene. Why do you think Reed made the choice to write the scene using unrealistic elements instead of writing it in a more realistic way? Do unrealistic elements open up specific possibilities that would not be available in a more realistic play?Classifying The Merchant of Venice: The Merchant of Venice is a troublesome play to classify in the usual Shakespearean categories of comedy, history, or tragedy. Though it ends with several marriages, and therefore matches the usual pattern of a comedy, it also contains some very dark and problematic elements, such as Shylock’s essentially forced conversion to Christianity. How do you think that we should view this play? Is it really a comedy? Is there any way to argue that it is a tragedy? Be sure to clearly define your understanding of tragedy and comedy; for some helpful sites, see Comedy and Tragedy by David L. Simpson of DePaul University, and the Comedy and Tragedy pages by Lisa Schnell of the University of Vermont.Social Issues in Reed’s The C Above C Above High C: Reed’s play is focused on major social issues of the 50s, not only those pertaining to race, but also those pertaining to sex and gender, and he approaches those issues from some interesting directions. Choose 1 social issue other than race that Reed engages and analyze his presentation of that issue through the particular characters and non-historical encounters that he depicts. Why does he approach the issue using these particular characters and their concerns? Is his approach effective? Make sure that you specifically define the social issue and characters being used, and if necessary, do some historical research on that issue to better inform your view.Satire in The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar Wilde is known for his satire, and The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception to Wilde’s usual mode of satirical writing. The effect of satire will change, however, depending upon the audience, and one of the fascinating things about this play is that the people Wilde satirizes are also the people he expects to be watching the play. Why does Wilde satirize the viewers who will be buying the tickets? What kind of reaction might he be aiming to evoke in his audience?275Unit 4: Reading & WritingAbout Drama276Muller−Williams: Ways In:ENGL200Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/eII. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005CHAPTER 5Writing about Drama“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare, and on that stage we witness the joys and sorrows, the tragedy and comedy, the reality and romance of life. While one traditional purpose of drama is to “suspend yoursense of disbelief” so that you can respond emotionally to what you experience, thinking about and describing drama gives you a far deeper understanding of it. Learning about tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, melodrama, andother types of plays will help you understand the conventions of dramatic literature and playwriting, and through this process, help you to not only experience the world of the play, but aid you in understanding why you experienceit the way you do.THE ELEMENTS OF DRAMATragedy and comedy are the best-known categories of dramatic writing perhaps because they were the first to be defined, and have a long, if somewhaterratic, tradition. Aristotle, in his Poetics, describes and defines the nature oftragedy, albeit his view was limited because he based it upon tragedy writtenduring the “golden age” of Greek drama, and obviously could not foretell theevolution of the drama through the millennia to follow. But the prolific writings of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—the three Greek tragedianswhose plays remain extant—provided Aristotle with enough samples to devise a theory of tragic form. For Aristotle, tragedy focused on a hero (male orfemale) of noble birth, who, through a misdeed or hamartia, underwent a decline in stature that led to tragic consequences whether in the realm of material prosperity, physical well-being, or moral rectitude, or a combination ofthese, as in the case of Oedipus Rex. Even the titles of many Greek tragedies arethe royal personages upon which the plays focus, such as Antigone, Electra,and Agamemnon.The development and subsequent action of true tragedy usually derivesfrom one or more of three possible modes of conflict: an internal conflict thatthe protagonist, or main character, must resolve within himself or herself; a60Muller−Williams: Ways In:Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/eChapter 5II. The Elements ofLiteratureWriting about Drama5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e61conflict between a protagonist and an outside antagonist; or one between theprotagonist and the society-at-large. Although the play A Raisin in the Sun byLorraine Hansberry might not be classified as a classic tragedy, it embodies allthose conflicts that make tragedy possible. Walter Younger is confronted byseveral simultaneous conflicts. He is at odds with his family who have different ideas concerning how to spend his father’s life insurance benefits. He is inconflict with society-at-large in the guise of Mr. Linder, who offers to buy backthe home in a white neighborhood that the Younger family has just purchased, rather than allow the African-American family to move in. Finally, hemust do battle with his own sense of righteousness and justice, whether to accept the offer that will leave him with enough money to open his liquor store,and tacitly accept the racist motivation behind it; or keep the newly purchasedhouse, and struggle to make a decent life for his family. Most drama that hasbeen acknowledged through history as the finest examples of the playwright’sart (such plays as A Doll’s House, Oedipus, and Death of a Salesman, as well asmost of the works of Shakespeare) interweave these three elements of conflict.On the stage today, we rarely see a contemporary tragedy that rigidly conforms to the genre as it was first defined by Aristotle. First of all, few of ustruly would be shocked by flaws in so-called great personages, as we havecome to consider even the loftiest world leaders as human and subject to thesame weaknesses as the rest of us. Tabloids are filled with sordid tales of greatmen and women and we have grown to take them for granted. Second, playwrights, beginning in the nineteenth century, have broadened their perspective to focus attention on the conflicts and actions of the lower and middleclasses, not just the mighty and powerful. One might call this the democratization of tragedy, and this inclination has followed the same trends that have occurred in other art forms, for example, painting, poetry, architecture, and soon. Take for example the very name of the main protagonist in Arthur Miller’sDeath of a Salesman—where “Low-man” suggests his humble status.Coinciding with the reduction in the stature of characters in tragedy hascome a hybrid form that has come to be known as tragicomedy, that is, worksof drama that combine the tragic and comic together. A Raisin in the Sun combines elements of both tragic and comic form as do David Hwang’s Family Devotions and Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires. While these plays address issues such as intergenerational and intercultural conflict, rancor, jealousy, evenmurder, the playwrights have managed to inject moments of humor that adddimension to human experience.We do not have a comprehensive theory of comedy from Aristotle (although he planned to write one), but we do have many early extant Greekcomedies by the playwright Aristophanes who poked fun at Greek mores, politics, and society. Perhaps his most famous play is Lysistrata, which satirizesthe absurdity of war as well as the “war between the sexes.” Today, politicalsatire is alive and well in film and television, and as you probably know, is amajor subject for contemporary stand-up comedians.The two Roman comic writers whose works are extant are Terence and Plautus. They helped to initiate the type of theater we know as comedy. Influenced277278Muller−Williams: Ways In:ENGL200Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/e62II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Part 2 The Elements of Literatureby the Greeks, Plautus’ plays satirized Roman life, using such devices asbungling behavior, reversals of expectations, and mistaken identity to keep hisaudience laughing. His most famous play, The Menaechmi Twins, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s first play, The Comedy of Errors. And today we still see theinfluence of Roman comedy in such forms as farce and slapstick in the theaterand situation comedies on TV. Terence’s comedies, on the other hand, did not gofor the broad laugh, and just as is true among today’s audiences, his more subtlecomedies and humanistic themes were not as popular as Plautus’, whose workinspired more belly laughs.Melodrama is a type of drama which, although derived from tragedy,stands apart from it because the conflicts that the characters must confront arecontrived or merely clever and the characters are usually less fleshed out thanthree-dimensional dramatic characters, and they seem to resolve their conflictsin interesting, yet concocted ways. While melodrama is not found as much onthe stage today as it was in the nineteenth century, the form is alive and wellin many contemporary action-adventure movies like the Indiana Jones filmsand Romancing the Stone, where men and women are saved from disaster inthe nick of time, much as they are in the old cliché of the damsel in distresswho is tied to a railroad track as a speeding train approaches, only to bewhisked away at the last moment by a valiant hero.With the proliferation of drama portraying the common person, many audience members have become accustomed to associating plays with realistic portraits of life and with rather conventional ways of depicting such portraits, asthough the theater were a place to see a mirror or reproduction of real life. Thiscouldn’t be further from the truth, however. Many so-called schools and movements of drama have depicted life in unrealistic manners. Playwrights such asEugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett portray a world that is quite unlike the onewith which we are familiar. Plays representing life with an unreal quality include depictions of life as romantic as in Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon;or absurd as in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape; or magical as in LangstonHughes’ Soul Gone Home. Even the contemporary classic Death of a Salesman hasmany scenes of unreality, when, for example, Willie’s brother seems to magically appear on stage much in the same way as the ghost appears in Hamlet.PlotAs in fiction, plot is essential to nearly all drama, in fact, possibly more so thanto other forms of literature. Plot is a skeleton of the action in a play. It is whathappens to characters under the circumstances the playwright has devised.One reason plot is so important in drama is that since plays are meant to beperformed and seen, an audience will have little tolerance for pauses in the action. In fiction, on the other hand, action may be interwoven with physical description or characters’ thoughts. In drama, what you see is what you get, so tospeak. And it is the playwright, in his or her division of acts and scenes, whowill determine the pauses in the action, whereas a reader is free to stop andstart reading where he or she pleases.Muller−Williams: Ways In:Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/eChapter 5II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e63Writing about DramaTo keep the plot of a drama interesting to its audience, most playwrightstry to maintain a heightened level of action through the development of conflicts and obstacles that occur far more readily and densely than they do inreal life. It is through such conflict that the plot moves forward. And thegreater the stakes involved in these conflicts, the more riveting the play will beand the more you will care about how the conflict is resolved. Take for example an early scene in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Nora, the protagonist, ishaving a discussion with Krogstad, a man from whom she borrowed moneyto keep her family intact during a stressful and tenuous period. Krogstad, abank clerk, fearing that he will be passed by for a promotion by his superior,Helmer (Nora’s husband), threatens to blackmail Nora by revealing that sheborrowed money from him without her husband’s knowledge.KROGSTAD: . . . My sons are growing up; for their sake, I must try to regainwhat respectability I can. This job in the bank was the first step onthe ladder. And now your husband wants to kick me off that ladder into the dirt.NORA:But my dear Mr. Krogstad, it simply isn’t in my power to help you.KROGSTAD: You say that because you don’t want to help me. But I have themeans to make you.NORA:You don’t mean you’d tell my husband that I owe you money?KROGSTAD: And if I did?NORA:That’ be a filthy trick!Nora counters that her husband will merely pay back the money that isowed, which would at first glance seem to defuse Krogstad’s threat. ButKrogstad retaliates and increases the stakes and the conflict by dangling adamaging secret about Nora’s loan before her. Several lines later, the following exchange occurs:KROGSTAD: I promised to get you the money in exchange for an I.O.U., whichI drew up.NORA:Yes, and which I signed.KROGSTAD: Exactly. But then I added a few lines naming your father as secuNORA:rity for the debt. This paragraph was to be signed by your father.Was to be? He did sign it.•••KROGSTAD: Tell me, Mrs. Helmer, do you by any chance remember the dateof your father’s death? The day of the month, I mean.NORA:Papa died on the twenty-ninth of September.KROGSTAD: Quite correct; I took the trouble to confirm it. And that leaves mewith a curious little problem—[Takes a paper.] which I simply cannot solve.NORA:Problem? I don’t see—KROGSTAD: The problem, Mrs. Helmer, is that your father signed this paperthree days after his death.This building and relaxing and building again of tension is what moves the action of the play forward, giving shape to the plot.279280Muller−Williams: Ways In:ENGL200Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/e64II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Part 2 The Elements of LiteratureWhile the building up of tension in this example is fairly clear, what seemsto be mere conversation in a play often contains the seeds of conflict that willhave an impact on the later action. This is particularly true of more contemporary plays that portray human action in subtler terms. Take for example one ofthe many conflicts that beset the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun—theconflict between Walter’s ambitions and the caution of his wife, Ruth. It is evident even in this bit of morning banter from Act I:WALTER:RUTH:WALTER:RUTH:WALTER:You know what I was thinking ’bout in the bathroom this morning?No!How come you always try to be so pleasant?What is there to be pleasant ’bout?You want to know what I was thinking ’bout in the bathroom ornot?RUTH:I know what you thinking ’bout.WALTER: ’Bout what me and Willy Harris was talking about last night.RUTH:Willy Harris is a good-for-nothing loudmouth.We eventually learn that Willy Harris is involving Walter in a scheme to openup a liquor store, and this has a dramatic impact on Walter’s actions duringthe play, initiating a complex series of conflicts between himself and othermembers of his family.While plays rely on rising action that is a result of tensions that in turn arecaused by a conflict or a series of conflicts, this conflict must somehow be resolved or at least relieved in the end. It is unlikely that you would feel satisfied with a plot that left a major conflict unresolved. As in most plays, the climax to the rising action in A Raisin in the Sun occurs near its end. In thispoignant scene, Walter’s internal and external conflicts are resolved in a showdown with Mr. Linder when the latter pays his final visit to purchase back ahouse the Younger family has bought in a white neighborhood:WALTER: Yeah, Well—what I mean is that we come from people who had alot of pride. I mean—we are very proud people. And that’s my sisterover there and she’s going to be a doctor—and we are very proud—LINDER: Well—I am sure that is very nice, but—WALTER: What I am telling you is that we called you over here to tell you thatwe are very proud and that this—Travis, come here. This is my son,and he makes the sixth generation our family in this country. Andwe have all thought about your offer—LINDER: Well, good . . . good—WALTER: And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want tomake no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to begood neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’twant your money.The Younger family’s conflict now resolved, the play ends with them bantering happily about their move, their spirits uplifted. As you read a play, keepin mind the importance of plot and make notes on how the plot develops. ToMuller−Williams: Ways In:Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/eChapter 5II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/eWriting about Drama65learn more about plot, you may also want to predict how the plot unfolds, andcompare your idea with that of the author’s.CharacterAristotle suggested and playwrights in general follow the rule of thumb that“character is action.” Another way of thinking about character is to envisionhim or her as determined by the choices he or she makes. Take the character ofIago from Othello. In the character list he is described as “IAGO, Othello’s ensign, a villain.” This does not tell us very much. However, in the first scene ofOthello, we soon find out what kind of person he is. Othello, it appears, haspassed over Iago for promotion to lieutenant. Iago is enraged, for—as far as heis concerned—he has the greater experience in matters of war than the candidate Othello has demonstrated. He states his feelings to Roderigo this way:Preferment goes by letter and affection,And not by old graduation, where each secondStood heir to th’ first. Now, sir, be judge yourself,Whether I in any just term am affinedTo love the Moor.During the course of the play, Iago’s character is revealed as he methodically torments Othello until the latter thinks Desdemona, his wife, has beenunfaithful, resulting in the demise of both Othello and his wife. While most ofus would like to take revenge upon a seemingly unfair boss, few of us wouldact upon it as Iago does. Understanding the traits that make character interesting is what allowed Shakespeare to appeal to an audience that was made up ofall social classes. So, despite the fact that Shakespeare is renowned for thequality of his language, it is his talent for developing character that makes hima good playwright.This focus on the relationship between action and character should notgive you the impression that a three-dimensional character is fully developedthrough his or her actions alone or that it is easy to develop a dramatic character. For a character to behave plausibly throughout a play, the playwrightmust have a strong sense of who that character is, how the character looks,sounds, dresses, thinks, reacts, and so on. Henrik Ibsen, one of the fathers ofmodern drama (perhaps because of his ability to create such well-motivatedcharacters) said this about the people who inhabited his plays:Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in mind throughand through, and I must penetrate into the last part of his soul—the individual comes before anything else—the stage set, etc. . . .The most interesting characters in drama tend to be complex ones, andtheir actions although seemingly truthful may not necessarily be anticipatedones. Who would think that the Sergeant in Lady Gregory’s The Rising of theMoon would let the fugitive go or that Othello would kill his wife or that WillyLoman, despite his pathetic nature, would kill himself so his family could be281282Muller−Williams: Ways In:ENGL200Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/e66II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Part 2 The Elements of Literaturesustained by his insurance money, or that Oedipus would blind himself? Allthese actions are credible, but unexpected. In writing about character, askyourself questions. Most likely they are the same sorts of questions the playwright asked as he or she planned to write. Who is this character? What arethe given circumstances of time, place, social class, and situation that he or shemust respond to? How does he or she respond?Not all characters in plays are so fully developed that you will feel youknow all about them. Many plays are populated by characters who enter thestage for a small portion of the play. These are often called “secondary characters.” But a talented playwright will have even secondary characters. Forexample, Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s nephew in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’sBlack Bottom, is fleshed out, interesting, and a contributing factor in the action of the play, having been endowed with a puerile personality and a noticeable stutter.SettingUnlike the movies, where you may be transported from New York to California to Tokyo in the blink of an eye, the settings in plays remain rather staticthroughout the action, changing perhaps between acts, if at all. And also unlike movies, which can actually show us all the minutiae of life by directlyfilming it, settings in drama often only suggest the places they depict, or, if itis in the playwright’s vision, even distort them. Still other playwrights maynot consider setting important at all, and their plays are often devoid of anydescription as to how the stage should be depicted, leaving it up to you, thereader or playgoer, to fill in the gaps with your imagination.Besides revealing time and place through props (furniture, everyday objects, and costuming), setting can also exploit stage lighting and special effectssuch as rear-projected film and sound effects to enhance the mood of a play.Dim lighting might suggest a depressing atmosphere; bright lights, an upbeatone. Advances in theatrical technology have expanded the possibilities of establishing setting, as they have our expectations of how setting is depicted.The Greeks relied upon the simplest of means to suggest time and place—forexample, a vertical rectangular box that was painted with a tree on one side,an architectural column on the other (which would be turned according towhether the scene was set in the city or the countryside). Contemporary playwrights, on the other hand, have often called for fairly elaborate staging sothat the audience actually sees a fair representation of the place it is meant todepict. In the end, however, the complexity or lack thereof of a setting is usually up to the vision of the playwright. Notice, for example, the opening setting from the contemporary playwright David Hwang’s Family Devotions.The sunroom and backyard of a home in Bel Air. Everywhere is glass—glassroof, glass walls. Upstage of the lanai/sunroom is a patio with a barbecue anda tennis court. The tennis court leads offstage. As the curtain rises, we see asingle spotlight on an old Chinese face and hear Chinese music or chanting.Suddenly, the music becomes modern-day funk or rock ‘n’ roll, and the lightsMuller−Williams: Ways In:Reading and Writing aboutLiterature and Film, 2/eChapter 5II. The Elements ofLiterature5. Writing about Drama© The McGraw−HillCompanies, 2005Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/eWriting about Drama67come up to reveal the set. The face is that of DI-GOU, an older Chinese manwearing a blue suit and carrying an old suitcase. He is peering into the sunroom from the tennis court, through the glass walls. Behind him, a stream ofblack smoke is coming from the barbecue.Another function of setting that may perform an important role in the lifeof a play is its ability to suggest the mood of the environment and/or revealaspects of the character’s or characters’ interior emotions. Note Lorraine Hansberry’s use of personification in her description of the Younger household atthe start of A Raisin in the Sun, a description that provides you with an insightinto the emotional tenor of the occupants.Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature nowis that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many peoplefor too many years—and they are tired. . . . Now the once loved pattern ofthe couch upholstery has to fight to show itself from under acres of crocheteddoilies and couch covers . . . but the carpet has fought back by showing itsweariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.Thus, the setting mirrors the Younger family’s life circumstances and theirinterior lives as well, and at the same time provides an introduction to theplay that may rivet your attention and make you want to read more.The description of setting that introduces Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman produces a similar effect in providing an analogy between Willy’s homeand its environs and Willy’s state of mind in relationship to his environment.It is interesting to note that Miller’s original title for the play was “The Insideof His Head.”We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on allsides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; thesurrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As more light appears, wesee a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home.An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.StagingPlays are meant to be performed and for audiences to view the performances.If you’ve ever read a play and then gone to see it performed, you probably became aware of the difference between the two experiences. Seeing a performance of a play is what makes it complete. While you can ascertain certainthings from reading plays that you would be hard pressed to do from a performance, for example, arcane references in the dialogue, subtleties of style,camouflaged symbols and the like, being present at a performance of a playadds a dimension to your understanding and appreciation of drama that isimpossible from reading.In staging a…

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