This article introduces you to dramatic conventions. By the end of the article, you should be able to identify them in dramatic texts or explain why the dialogue of one play is in verse while another one is in prose and both of them are accepted.
Apart from the elements of drama and the dramatic technique discussed previously, there are also what we refer to as dramatic conventions. The knowledge you gain from this unit will enable you appreciate any play irrespective of the age in which it was written. It is also necessary for you to be familiar with these conventions so that you can identify them in your analysis or criticism of dramatic literature.
In drama, the playwright tries to present life as it is lived in the real world. However it is not possible to present real life on stage so he presents an illusion of reality. He needs certain devices to make this illusion as realistic as possible and the audience accepts the devices. In Shakespearean plays, sometimes a character talks to himself and this is called soliloquy. In real life people do not talk to themselves like that but since the public especially in that age accepted it, it becomes a convention.
Also in the Classical Age the convention was that the dialogue is presented in verse but in the modern convention in most plays the dialogue is presented in prose. Another good example of dramatic convention is in play production where the convention is that a room has three walls instead of the four walls and the action of a play in which the events take place in various places is presented on a single stage. In the words of Abrams, “conventions are necessary or convenient devices, widely accepted by the public, for solving problems imposed by a particular artistic medium in representing reality” (33).
There are also conventions in terms of style. Abrams explains further: “conventions are identifiable elements of subject matter, form, or technique which recur repeatedly in works of literature. Conventions in this sense may be recurrent types of character, turns of plot, forms of versification, kinds of diction and style.” It is not compulsory for every work to conform to preexisting conventions but what matters is how effectively an individual writer makes use of them.
This is the introductory part of the play. It could be an opening scene, a speech or an address. In most cases, it introduces the action and makes a statement on what the audience should expect in the play. In many plays the prologue foreshadows the events in the play and sometimes gives a background to the play as can be seen in the example below taken from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.
[Prologue] Enter Chorus.
Not marching in the fields of Trasimene
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In courts of kings where state is overturned,…
The form of Dr Faustus’ fortune, good or bad:
And now to patient judgments we appeal
And speak for Faustus in his infancy.
Now is he born of parents base of stock
In Germany within a town called Rhode;
At riper years to Wittenberg he went
Whereas his kinsmen chiefly brought him up.
So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’ heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach
And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow!
For falling into a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy:
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss—
And this the man that in his study sits.
This is the direct opposite of the prologue. It is presented at the end ofthe play. It sums up the action of the play and in some cases, makes a statement (an advice or a lesson to be learnt) on the action or events presented in the play. In Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, the chorus comments on the fall of Dr. Faustus and cautions those who “practice more than heavenly power permits.”
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may extort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
An interlude in a play is a short piece of entertainment that is presented between the acts or major scenes in a play. It is believed that the term came into drama during the Renaissance Period to describe the dramatic form of early Tudor Period. It was then referred to as Tudor Interlude. Queen Elizabeth loved entertainment, funfair and ceremonies so much that she was accompanied by extravagant display of affluence each time she made public appearance. These displays included some dramatic shows among which the interlude was most popular. It was a short dramatic presentation or a play performed indoors before a small audience. Most of the Mboguo in one of our texts for this course –The Marriage of Anansewa, is an example of interlude.