Responding to plays

Responding to plays

This week Insight writer and English teacher Anja Drummond outlines what you should be looking for when analysing a play for English, EAL or Literature.

Regardless of whether you are studying English, EAL or Literature, you will probably be required to analyse a play at some point. To craft a quality response to a play, you need to pay close attention to the elements that are unique to this text type. Consider the following features to give more depth to your analysis of how meaning is created in a play.


Know the form and genre

Pay attention to the form and genre of your play. With any play, you need to recognise that the playwright carefully crafts the various elements to be performed by actors in front of an audience.

Beyond this, you need to know the genre of the play, as this will influence the narrative shape employed by the playwright. For example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is considered a comedy, as the narrative is resolved with an end to the confusion and a restoration of relationships.

The play you are studying may be a tragedy, a well-made play, a morality play or even an example of the theatre of the absurd. Take the time to learn about the genre and its main conventions, as this will help you to understand the purpose beyond the drama.

TIP: No matter how much detail the playwright puts into their stage directions and dialogue, these will be interpreted in different ways by actors and directors. Think about how the delivery of certain lines or a variation in staging might change the focus on a particular theme or character. This will give you alternative ways of interpreting the text and lead to a more nuanced response.


Think about structure

As already mentioned, genre influences structure. When analysing the structure of a play, think about the following.

  • How has the text been put together – what happens at the beginning, middle and end?
  • How does the structure help to present the themes?
  • What is the effect of this structure on the audience?

A great example of a playwright manipulating the structure of the play for a desired effect is Euripides’ Medea. The ending of Medea has caused debate for thousands of years because, in defiance of the conventions of tragedy, it seems to let Medea get away with murder. Does Euripides wish to express sympathy for the plight of women in his time by letting Medea fly away? Or is he pointing to wider social problems that prevent justice from being achieved? It is important that you ask yourself these questions, for they will lead you towards a more complex understanding of your text.

TIP: Key terms you need to employ when discussing structure include turning point, climax, denouement and resolution. Identify these structural elements in your text and practise incorporating some discussion of them into your essays.


Understand the world of the play and the context in which it was created.

As with any text, you should have a strong understanding of the time and place in which the events of a play occur. Avoid thinking about the setting too simplistically; consider minute details and what they suggest. Settings can have symbolic significance and will often reveal much about a character’s mental state or social situation. For example, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House it is worth noting that Nora never enters her husband’s study, as it is his domain – which reveals much about the dynamics of gender and power between the couple.

The context in which a playwright creates their text cannot be overlooked, and you should consider whether the play’s setting might have been chosen to hold up a mirror to the society in which the audience of the play lives. For example, the setting of The Crucible is 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, when the witch trials took place, but Miller’s play subtly critiques the communist witch-hunts of 1950s America that he was living through.

TIP: Dedicate some time to learning about both the play’s and the playwright’s contexts. If there is a study guide for your text, don’t overlook the notes about the context of the text and its creation. A strong analytical response will demonstrate an understanding of the world of the text and the playwright’s purpose in presenting it in a certain way.


Read the dialogue and the stage directions

The first time you read your play, it is likely that you will focus on the dialogue. However, you also need to pay close attention to the stage directions. Stage directions, which are conventionally italicised in the print text, will describe much of the physical layout and appearance of the stage, as well as aspects of performance such as gestures or tone of voice. They will detail the costumes and props to be used by the main characters – think about how these elements add meaning. In some plays, the playwright will describe the lighting and any changes to lighting during the play. Does a change of lighting affect mood and atmosphere? Finally, if music is part of the play, think about what it suggests about characters, themes, setting and context.

TIP: When examining the elements introduced in the stage directions, consider whether they have symbolic significance. In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick’s broken ankle and reliance on his crutch reflects his damaged psyche and his use of alcohol as a psychological crutch.


And finally …

Enjoy the drama! The best way to understand a play is to see it performed. See if there is a performance of your text that you can go and see, or a recording of it that you can watch at home or in class. Think about how the world of the play is brought to life and use your reflections to create some fantastic writing.


Not sure how to approach your text essay? Insight has at least one Insight Sample Essay for each List 1 text and List 2 text comparison. Each high-level essay features annotations identifying the elements of the essay that work and areas for improvement, as well as tips on how to approach the essay topic and appropriate strategies for analysis, all for just $3.95.

Insight Sample Essays are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

Photo credit: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

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