This article introduces you to another element of drama which is action. You will learn the importance of action in drama. You will also find out if there is a difference between dramatic action and action the way you understand it. The story in drama is presented through the interaction of characters as they talk to one another- dialogue. However, you know that dialogue alone (two people just talking to each other) does not constitute drama.
Dramatic action is simply the activities which the characters are involved in any dramatic piece. This includes movements, gestures, and other expressions used to communicate the message of the play to the audience. Ideally, dramatic action should be properly motivated and presented in a logical order. However, there are some cases where illogical action is used in some aspects of the play or for the entire play. This is usually for a purpose. Action in drama could be with or without words hence we have mime and pantomime.
In simple terms, action is the process of doing something or the performance itself. If somebody slaps you and you retaliate, there is an action. The series of events that constitute the plot in any literary work isreferred to as action It includes what the characters say, do, think and in some cases, fail to do. Action involves activity. This activity becomes more pronounced in drama where the action is presented in concrete form as the actors present the story to the audience for entertainment and education. In drama, especially during performance, you see the characters moving around to perform certain tasks, talk to one another, laugh, cry, fight, shoot or do any thing according to the needs of the moment. All these are dramatic actions. In the novel, you read the story as is told by the novelist and see the action in your imagination but in drama the dramatist presents the action through what the characters do or say. In fact it involves all the activities of all the characters in the play.
Drama is the only genre of literature in which the story is presented in dialogue from the beginning to the end. However, dialogue alone does not constitute dramatic action. What makes it drama is the action that is involved. Dramatic action includes facial expression, gestures and movements. So, what makes dialogue dramatic is the presence of action. It is only through action that the playwright can portray the human situations he chooses to dramatize.
It is the action that propels the plot and helps to advance the theme. In simple terms drama is a story told in action by actors who impersonate the characters in the story on a stage. Dramatic action is a “…series of incidents that are logically arranged by the playwright to achieve specific response like joy, pity, fear, indignation, ridicule, laughter, thoughtful contemplation, from the audience”. (Brocket 68) Each character is specially created to fulfill the specific design of the dramatist. In The Marriage of Anansewa, for instance, Efua Sutherland deliberately created Ananse to be an intelligent, witty, crafty and easy-going man. His nature helps him to get not only a rich husband for his daughter but also ensures that the man who marries his daughter actually loves her. The playwright also advances her theme of excessive materialism and ostentation in Ghana through the easy-going nature and action of Ananse. If you have read the play, you will recall that Ananse, decides to go to church only when he became rich. It shows that people go to church to show off and display their wealth; according him:
Yes, tomorrow, I go church,To deposit with the best of spenders.
He also decides to attend the memorial services ‘which promises to draw the biggest crowds’. This helps to highlight the playwright’s view on the ostentatious nature of the society.
You remember that in our discussion of plot in Unit 4, we talked about causality and logical arrangement of incidents. What is causality? Is there any relationship between causality and dramatic action? Yes. According to Oscar Brocket, “the cause to effect arrangement of incidents sets up the situation; the desires and motivations of the characters out of which the later events develop” (32). This logical arrangement of incidents presupposes that the action must be presented in such a way that it should make sense to the audience. Any action performed by any character must be as a result of an earlier action. Thus in the play The Marriage of Anansewa, Ananse is poor so decides to take an action that will help him to get rich. What does he do? He decides to give his daughter out in marriage and in the process make money for himself. He writes to four wealthy chiefs. The effect of this action is that they send money and gifts to him. The effect of this is that he becomes rich. The effect of the wealth is that he pays her daughter’s school fees and renovates his house.
The action in drama is usually organized in a climatic order with the scenes increasing in interest by increasing suspense and emotional intensity. In the play, from Ananse’s action in the opening scene, when it appears that Ananse wants to sell his daughter Anansewa like ‘some parcel to a customer’, your interest is aroused. The next thing is to find out how he is going to do it. As the play progresses, and Ananse entangles himself in the mess, the suspense and emotional intensity is heightened. You can see now that dramatic action is constructed in such a way that it answers the suspenseful question, ‘what happened’. Action in drama involves gestures, facial expressions, inflexion of voice and movement. Some gestures and expressions actually present more actions than words.
Dramatic action also includes what the character fails to do. In Hamlet, the popular quote ‘to be or not to be’ refers to the action. Hamlet is contemplating on the proper action to take against his uncle who he suspects killed his father. He does not want to act until he is sure of it. He therefore organizes a play and presents a similar experience in the play. Luckily, he gets the desired effect as Claudius’ reaction points to his guilt. It would have been possible for Hamlet to kill Claudius’ immediately but that would have been the end of the play. So, Hamlet’s inaction helps to increase the suspense and emotional intensity of the play.
You can see that all the actions mentioned here are logical. For the action to be logical, the characters must be well- motivated.
Motivation is the drive behind every action a character takes in a play. In The Marriage of Anansewa, poverty drives Ananse to ‘sell’ his daughter. In The Lion and the Jewel, the girls are excited as they discuss the magazine that contains Sidi’s pictures. Their excitement is motivated by the fact they have never seen the picture of anybody from their community in a magazine. Also in the play, Baroka’s motivation for marrying Sidi is to subdue her and prevent her from being more popular than him. What this means is that there must be a reason for any action taken by every character in the play. In drama, because the action is presented in dialogue and the playwright does not have the space to explain the action like the novelist, some of the actions that cannot be incorporated in dialogue are presented in the stage direction. The explanation of the action in the stage direction helps the reader to enjoy the action and also helps the director in the blocking of the play during rehearsals before the performance.
Types of Dramatic Action
In the drama could be presented in the following three forms:
(a) Physical Action;
(b) Reported Action; and
(c) Mental Action.
The physical action in drama refers to the movements made by a character in the play. It is visible and may or may not involve dialogue. Physical action could in form of movements/gestures, mime or pantomime. These are explained in details below.
This includes the steps taken by the character while he is speaking or in the process of undertaking other tasks. Movement is used to describe mainly the actual movements like walking, running, pacing, kneeling, lying down, standing or sitting. Movement is simply the process of moving, change of place, position, or passing from one place to another. It involves the activities or whereabouts of a character or a group of characters. These movements are usually accompanied by dialogue. This differentiates it from mime and pantomime which are actions without words. Closely related to movement is gesture. Generally, gesture refers to body movements like position, posture, and expressions. Gestures are used by characters to express their thoughts, feelings, or as a rhetorical device. It could be used as a symbol to indicate intentions or evoke a response. Characters also use gesture a signal, motion, or an indication for his feelings or an action to taken by another character. In plays, you identify the movements and gestures through the dialogue and the stage direction. Can you identify the movement/gesture in this excerpt from The Marriage of Anansewa:
AYA: [Entering to find him in this state] My son, is this weeping you’re weeping? What is the matter?
ANANSE: [Wringing out the handkerchief,] Mother!
AYA: My stalwart son.
ANANSE: Mother. [He returns the handkerchief and acting like a man in conflict.
Yells out:] Destroyers! Evil-doers! They won’t rest until they have ruined me. Enemies whose outward appearance makes you think they are not enemies.
AYA: [Wide-eyed with confusion] Enemies? It’s that woman Christy, isn’t it? The minute I met that woman here I felt instinctively that trouble marches alongside people of her kind.
ANANSE: [Bursting into fears afresh] Handkerchief! (Act 3, p52)