In this article, you will be introduced to how to analyze plays and appreciate their effectiveness as dramatic texts. The common approaches to the analysis of literary texts are content and form. Content deals with the theme and subject matter. Form comprises such stylistic features as plot, characterization, setting, language and other dramatic devices used in the play.
Critical analysis in drama is the evaluation of a written play. In the evaluation, you are expected to read the play very well and highlight how effectively or otherwise the playwright has utilized the elements and devices of drama in the composition of his play. The dramatic techniques used are also discussed. As you analyze a play, you are expected to identify the theme, how appropriate the characters are, if they are consistent and their actions are properly motivated. The language is another area that needs attention as you determine if there is consistency. The relationship between the message of the play and the method used to relay the message is also examined. You can take the following steps for an effective textual analysis:
- Read it again and again to fill in the gaps and ensure that you have obtained the required information.
- Read the play for the first time and enjoy the story.
- Read the play again with your notebook and dictionary by your side. Use the dictionary to find out the meaning of the words you are not familiar with and form notes on the plot, theme,characterization and other relevant information.
- Rewrite your note properly, and revise it as many times aspossible.
In the analysis of a play, the first issue that comes to mind is the theme. Theme is the main idea in a play that permeates the entire play. How do you identify the theme of a play? Themes are identified through the dialogue, actions and manifestations in the actions of the major characters as they interact with other characters in the play. The interpersonal relationships of the characters help to highlight and advance that particular idea. Themes in drama include corruption, love, revenge, and many others. The theme is the message which the playwright wants to send across to his audience and a play could have more than one theme.
The playwright could draw his germinal idea from an incident or event in his contemporary society. It could also be drawn from history, legend, myth or folklore but the important factor is that there is a message he sends to the audience. Most playwrights try to make their societies better through the exploration of the negative impacts of these ideas in the societies. A playwright is normally influenced by his background and this is reflected in his plays. In Nigeria many contemporary playwrights explore the themes like military dictatorship, insecurity unemployment, bad leadership, bribery and corruption. You will agree with me that these and more are the vices that plague the contemporary Nigerian society.
The playwright is said to be the conscience of his society, a teacher and an entertainer. He therefore strives to educate, inform and entertain his audience. This explains why he presents his theme through an interesting story and chooses the most appropriate dramatic form. For example, Bernard Shaw decides to dramatize the themes of love and war through comedy, while Shakespeare presents his theme of revenge through tragedy.
The theme of the story is what gives it significance because without a recognizable and definable theme, a story will be trite and pointless. A clearly focused theme is the story’s “motivating force”. In Oedipus Rex for instance, the theme is man’s quest for his identity. The sub-theme is man’s helplessness in the hands of fate or the gods. If we take the main theme, we will see that Oedipus’ search for his true parents leads him to kill his father and marry his mother, while his search for the cause of the plague in his kingdom and the murderer of King Laius leads to his search for his own identity. The search for his own identity leads to his doom. Everyman explores the summons of death for mankind and man’s readiness to meet his creator. In explicating this theme, the play dramatizes the struggle between virtue and vice for supremacy in a man’s life. The question of man’s ultimate fate is also explored.
It concludes with the fact that only man’s good deed is important for his salvation. Consciously or unconsciously, every playwright has his theme in mind in choosing the style to adopt. The characters, the setting, the language, the plot, are chosen in such a way that should advance the major theme of the story. However, you must bear in mind the fact that a story may have one or more themes. It is also possible that each reader may discover a different theme or a multiplicity of themes in the same play.
You should not worry about this. Literature is open to different interpretations and as literary students, you should be able to identify your position and substantiate it with facts from the play. You can see that in the example of Oedipus above, I used the first theme of man’s search for his identify. If I decide to use the theme of man’s helplessness as the major theme, I will state how Oedipus was born and there was a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother.
His parents believe that they can avert the curse by killing him. Unfortunately the servant who was asked to kill him gives him to a shepherd who in turn hands him over to his childless master. Oedipus is brought up in Corinth but unfortunately, he tries to run away from the same curse (fate) when he realizes that he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. In running away from fate, he fulfills that prophecy.
The theme of a play could be given in one word but ideally it is presented in sentence or statement. A play could be complex and it might be difficult to give the theme or the central idea in one word.
However, you should realize that whether it is in one word or in one sentence, you must explain it further based on the play. You should also be in a position to identify other themes, if the play has other themes.
Usually the theme is identified after you must have read the entire play. Finally, theme is the controlling idea in a play which the reader extracts consciously as he reads the text. It could be literal or symbolic. It is that idea or message which the playwright wants to share with or convey to his audience. In most cases, the theme emerges after the exploration of the entire play. Some plays have more than one theme. The major one which stands out is the main theme while the others are called the sub-themes.
The subject matter is the topic of discussion in the play. It is easier to get the subject matter from the title of the play. Theme is the central idea of the play while the subject matter is the object of discussion from which the theme is extracted. It is means therefore that the theme is subsumed in the subject matter. In The Lion and the Jewel, for instance, the subject matter is the fame of Sidi (the Jewel) a young and beautiful girl and her seduction by the Bale (the Lion) who is sixty two years old.
In The Marriage of Anansewa, the theme is love but the subject matter is the marriage of Anansewa. From the two examples, we conclude that the subject matter is indeed the object of discussion which other events and incidents in a text or work help to highlight.
This is the statement the play makes about the social world. In most cases, plays treat common human problems and make statements that have universal validity or relevance for all ages. Each playwright treats any of these human problems from his own perspective to give it a touch of originality and uniqueness. This is the style.
Characters are the persons in a dramatic work. The playwright endows them with moral and dispositional qualities which are expressed in their words and actions. The reasons for the character’s action, his speech, his temperament constitute his motivation. In textual analysis, one could evaluate the character though the stage direction where some playwrights have some comments on the character’s disposition, his age, his physical attributes, his mode of dressing and other information that could be found there.
The next thing is to evaluate his interactions with other characters through which you discover whether he is a flat or round character. A flat character remains unchanged in his outlook and dispositions from the beginning to the end but a round character could undergo a gradual or radical change which is brought about by events in the play. It is difficult to predict the actions of a round character because he is usually very close to real human beings.
Anything you write about a character must be contained in the text. You should therefore not infer, guess or suggest a characteristic moral disposition or physical attribute that cannot be identified in the text. For instance, you can rightly say that Baroka in The Lion and the Jewel is a crafty rogue who excels in self-indulgence. One of the characters said that about him and his action too in the scene where his current wife is pulling the hairs in his armpit and also in his seduction of Sidi. We have analysed the plays that are recommended for this course in subsequent units and we discussed some of the characters.