Reading Drama

Drama is a sensual medium: it is meant to be seen and heard. Plays are written, almost always, to be performed, not to be read. Thus, when you read a play, you must take the time to visualize the actions and the characters.

Think about plays and movies you have seen: the acting, the lighting, the sets, the music--all of these things are as important as the words the actors are speaking. A pause or a gesture often tells you more than a line of dialogue. So when you read, for example, Proof, it is important to imagine what is happening on the stage: what do the actors look like? What is their body language? When do they pause between words or lines? What are their facial expressions? How is the lighting affecting your perception of the actions? How is the music creating a mood? What is the setting telling you silently about the characters and their actions?

Another element to consider is symbolism. Just as in fiction and poetry, words, items, characters, and actions can be symbolic. In drama, music and light can also contain symbolism, as you will see in Almost, Maine. However, in drama, symbolism must be visual: it must appear in a concrete action, object, or sound, since few of those who see a play performed will have read it. So every clue as to the writer's intention must be visible or audible.

And, of course, this brings up the issue of theme: just as in fiction and poetry, the playwright is commenting on issues or ideas, using the play as a vehicle. When reading these plays, try to analyze the characters symbolically as well as individually. That is, try to figure out what the characters represent, as well as what motivates them as individuals.

A word about the relationship between movies and plays: some of the plays we are reading have been made into movies. It can't hurt to see the movies; just remember that film and drama are different media: a play is performed on a stage, and therefore the actions and movements of the characters are limited; a character on a stage, for example, cannot be transported to another planet unless the physical stage setting is changed. And plays face financial, practical, and stylistic limitations that movies often do not. Therefore, the audience of a play is asked to use its imagination far more than the audience of a movie. If a play is done well, this can create a great sense of participation and interaction.

For example, the play Steel Magnolias was set entirely in Truby's beauty parlor; there were no other sets. There were also no male cast members: the only actors were the women, and we knew about what the men were doing through the women's conversations. However, in the movie, there were many sets, and many more characters appeared on the screen than in the play. Therefore, although the movie and the play shared many elements, they were entirely different kinds of productions.

Writing About Drama

Writing about plays, as far as content goes, is the same as writing about fiction or poetry: you create a thesis, and then support it with specific examples and quotes from the play. There are a few points to consider regarding style, however.

First, when referring to a play, italicize the title: Almost, Maine.

Second, there a a couple of rules to observe when quoting from a play. If you are quoting a single line, and you mention the name of the character who is speaking in the text that introduces that line, it should all be typed as part of the same sentence. For example, "In Proof, Catherine says, 'I was right to keep him here'" (39). A page number should be cited after each quote, as well.

If you are quoting an exchange of dialogue between two or more characters, you should indent, as you would for a long quote, and use no quotation marks. For example:

CATHERINE: What about his remission? Four years ago. He was healthy for almost a year.
CLAIRE: And then he went right downhill again. (39)

Third, you should always cite a page number when quoting directly; and since we may not all be using the same edition of the play, you should add a "Work Cited" page at the end of the essay. (Ask if you have questions about how to do that.)


In a play, there is not usually a narrator to explain what happened or tell us about things we can't see. Instead, most of the information comes to us from the characters' actions and words. The plot (i.e., the events of the play) is helped along, also, by the lighting (which reveals mood or time of day), the props and scenery (moving objects or changing a set can reveal changes in a situation and passage of time), the costumes (a costume change can reveal passage of time, character, and mood), and music (which can set the tone or pave the way, for example, for a flashback).

The plot of a play usually follows a fairly standard structure:

Often, a less important plot is developed along with the main plot; this is called the subplot. It usually shares a common theme with the main plot. In Proof, for example, the main conflict is between Catherine and Hal; but the relationship between Catherine and her sister Claire provides important information about Catherine's motivation, and shares common themes with the main plot.

John Cariani

John Cariani was born in Brockton, Massachussetts; his family moved to Presque Isle, Maine when he was 8. He planned to be a teacher until he was cast in a high school production of Annie Get Your Gun. He had 3 lines. "I made the audience laugh really hard," recalled Cariani. "I thought: 'My gosh, this is cool.' "

He went on to Amherst College, where he was a member of the glee club and the a capella group. After graduating with a B.A. in history, he moved to New York to try to make it as an actor. He did off-Broadway plays, comercials, small t.v. spots, and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Then he was cast as Julian Beck, the forensic scientist, on Law and Order, and made his Broadway debut in Fiddler on the Roof, as Motel the Tailor. He received a Tony nomination for his work in the play. He is currently starring on Broadway in Something Rotten, a comedy about two brothers who try to compete with Shakespeare by creating the first musical. (I saw it this summer when I was in New York. If you get the chance, see it--it's AMAZING!)

He began writing plays almost accidentally: he needed comic monologues for auditions, but couldn't find any that weren't stale and overused, so he began writing his own. Eventually, a number of these monologues became Almost, Maine. The play was unsuccessful in its Off-Broadway debut, running for only 37 performances, but has since been performed in over 2500 theaters and has been translated into over 20 languages.

Cariani expresses himself in comedy, but he takes the theater seriously: "Every time I see Shakespeare, I notice people sit up for the love story and the fantastical elements...The politics, the big ideas, have some impact, but they're not what matters most. Contemporary plays have too many big ideas and not enough happening. We need to make theater less boring. I am interested in making people across the country gasp."