Drama Study Notes

Drama Study Notes


About Absurdist Plays

-depict humans as oppressed by ‘non-man’ and forces outside their control

-life is a ‘waiting period’ that is painful and monotonous and the only escape is either routine or fantasy

-nothing is absolute, everything is relative

Features of Absurdist Plays

-obscuring the distinction between humans and non-humans, suggesting humans and animals are interchangeable (e.g. Lucky)

-often using disconnected and non-communicative speech

-references to God abandoning the human race to isolation and alienation; the myths or illusion of an omnipresent being holding sway over the human race

-the idea that without hope, time and space are meaningless

-the idea that within the concept of time, everything had happened before

-idle songs, dances and jokes

-violence, sex and simple hygiene taken to hedonistic (no moral constraint) excess

-inanimate objects coming to life and taking on significance

-the suggestion that if humans are strong enough to face reality, they are left to the only certain escape – death - possibly through their last wilful choice – suicide


-a representation of something

-symbols are used to represent greater meanings

-anything we give special meaning to (object, picture, action)

-symbols are used everyday and play an important part in our experience of the world

-some have universal meaning which everyone understands (e.g. gold wedding ring = marriage and the emotional, legal and practical implications of being married)

-many symbols used in theatre are sounds and actions

-soundscapes create deeper meanings to actions (e.g. beating of a heart = symbol of life)

-music creates symbolic meaning (e.g. soft violins = romance)

-movement has symbolic meaning (e.g. shaking fist = threat)

-skilled designers use symbols to design sets, costume and lighting to convey meaning

-masks used in theatre (since ancient Greek times) symbolise aspects of character and emotion (e.g. commedia dell arte masks = medieval)

-the most important factor in conveying symbolic meaning is the character themselves in a play, characters have a symbolic dimension, expressing a particular idea belief or view on human experience

Symbolism and Expressionism

-the movement in theatre began in the early 20th century as playwrights began to use non-realistic form and styles in their plays

-the symbolists explored the world of the subconscious mind and dreams (ancient Greeks explored this in their myths e.g. Pandora’s box)

-symbolists believed in using subconscious memories and thoughts in drama by using symbols that would take the audience to a higher level of reality and understanding about everyday life as opposed to the simplicity of Realism and Naturalism

-their ideas were expressed in abstract forms


-Maurice Maeterlinck used symbolic techniques for his plays (e.g. “the intruder, the blind, the bluebird”)

-He believed that most dramatic movements onstage should be static and silent, with thought and mystery

-His plays are famous for sound interspersed silence, frequent vocal repetition and dreamlike colour combinations in lighting

-The plots and characters in Maeterlinck’s plays are bit based on realistic circumstances, they live on another plane, on a mystical level – in this world beyond reality his characters appear to move through a dream

-August Strindberg wrote plays that followed a pattern of dreams in which anything seemed possible and where time and space were reality

-He believed that by using imagination in combination with memory, fantasy, absurdity and improvisation, a playwright can create new patterns of existence

-His characters were not based in reality, but were split, doubled and multiplied, then vanished and reappeared in a dramatic structure held together by the dreamer (e.g. Ruby Moon)

-These playwrights were experimenting with new forms of drama. They would often reflect what was happening in society (e.g. technology, psychology and world events)

Artaud & Theatre of Cruelty

-a French theatre practitioner in the 1920’s

-described theatre in terms of ritual and myth

-expected the audience to experience trance and inspiration

-aimed to take the audience from the present to a more primitive past by eliminating words and script

-saw life and theatre as a “double”, one reflecting on the other, called this ‘Theatre of Cruelty’

-his cruelty was the psychological purging of the humans soul, freeing us from the bondage of discussion and logic

-believed theatre would have the power to disturb the audience so much that they would be impelled to take action and re-evaluate their lives

-to do the above he would use shocking and violent and sometimes pornographic techniques

-he wanted to reach the subconscious mind of the audience and subject them to emotional and primitive responses

Samuael Beckett

-born in Ireland, lived most of his life in Paris

-one of his most important plays is called ‘Waiting for Godot’

-when it first appeared on stage it provoked a storm of criticism

-nothing happens during the entire play, it does not even tell a story, its full of pauses and silences, strange uses of language and peculiar people

-In the play, 2 actors are waiting for God, it seems to hold out some hope of salvation yet that hope is very uncertain - Godot never appears and even if he did, what would he give them?

-The play can be seen as an expression of Satre’s existential theory, the actors cannot bear to face the truth that there is nothing to wait for, no purpose or meaning in their lives

-The play is fundamentally about human existence, our struggle to understand our lives and the conflict between freedom and necessity

The Comic and Tragic Merge in Beckett’s Plays

-any line spoken in one of his plays can provoke either laughter or despair

-actions, characters, dialogue and stage business are a tragicomedy commentary on the infinite complexities of our daily lives

The Elements of Theatrical Design


–has 2 different meanings in both set and costume design

–costume: refers to the shape or silhouette of the costume design, different designs emphasise the horizontal or vertical line and shapes of a costume, can also address some of the historical needs of the design

–set: used to give definition to boundaries with the hope of evoking an emotional response, this contributes to the mood or atmosphere (e.g. straight lines suggest stability, horizontal suggest calmness and tranquillity, vertical indicate dignity, height, hope and power, curved lines create romantic appearance, lagged lines connote chaos, injustice and pain and diagonal imply conflict or uncertainty)


-identifies shape, size and gives feelings of weight

-important in set designs for tragedy (e.g. thick, horizontal mass creates a sense of oppression, vertical gives impression of power and dominance, a dark mass on stage appears heavier than light coloured objects)

-in costumes mass is used to emphasise a characters bulk, size or stature


-stimulates the visual senses so as to produce different emotional reactions, helps establish moods and atmosphere

-costumes: gives focus to particular character and makes them stand out, also differentiates one group of characters from another, a dominant colour scheme can be effective in strengthening the mood and atmosphere

Appropriate for emotion scenes and comedies / Appropriate for dramas and tragedies / Appropriate for serious drams, sombre scenes
RED – passionate, bloody; danger, death
ORANGE – lively
YELLOW – cheerful
PINK - romantic / BLUE – tranquil, cold, spiritual
GREEN – jealous, evil, supernatural, also youthful
PURPLE – regal, mystic, mournful / GREY – sombre
BROWN – earthy, poverty
BLACK – tragic, gloomy; death
WHITE – innocent, pure, peaceful


-Touch or feel of a material, distinctive look and feel, communicates social class and economic conditions, influences atmosphere and mood (hardship and poverty portrayed using roughness and graininess of Hessian, rope, tin and logs – wealth, prosperity and royalty portrayed using the smoothness and richness of satin, velvet, marble and polished wood)


-set: add information on status, be used to authenticate particular historical periods (paintings, curtains, carpets, couches, desks)

-costume: give rank/status, wealth or symbols of office (badges, crowns, earrings, beads, hats)


-overall performance area

-director: use of staging space formed as result of set design, how actors are placed on the stage (placement of actors in lines evokes order and randomly a more naturalistic state, tight performance spaces imply intimacy)

-set: shape and form of the space, different spaces suggest different moods and ideas (large minimal sets imply desolation, loneliness and isolation, tight small spaces imply poverty)


-refers to historical time placements of the production, affect by whether its realistic or non-realistic in style

-for realistic, costume set etc would be based on existing historical designs or reinterpretation


-viewpoint of the audience

-realistic perspective: objects are realistic in size, style most used

-non-realistic perspective: sets are smaller or larger then they would appear in comparison with actors (e.g. CATS, INTO THE WOODS)

Balance and Harmony

-balance: attained by various means both through the grouping of actors and the design of the set

-symmetrical: one side of the stage mirrors the other

-asymmetrical: where items on stage are placed irregularly, yet the stage still attains a state of balance

-harmony: how well each component of the design works together

-E.g. do the colours work with the lighting and costumes, does the design of the set work with the chosen furniture etc.


-involves responding spontaneously positively to a given stimulus, so that you make up a scene as you go along

-is spontaneous and unrehearsed

-can be used in a role play, to explore realistic situations, to provide another way of exploring a text, to develop ideas in a script, to provide a way of getting a cast to work together on common ground, to develop the skill of observation, listening, concentrating, group cooperation, imaginative thinking and quick thinking

-requires the actor to respond to a new situation instantly and positively without hesitating or being embarrassed

-is not a competitive game, is a tool the actor can use to develop performance skills

-is about teamwork, giving and receiving offers

-offering is the process of providing an action to begin or to keep a scene progressing, should be clear and specific so other performers can keep a clear picture, becomes the focus of the performance and the audience, performers must contribute to the focus at all times

-accepting is saying yes the an offer that comes from another performer, so the offer can be developed for the benefit of the scene and advance the action, accepting is also saying yes to the impulses you feel personally so that you can also make offers

-advancing involves the actor accepting the offer and then contributing a new idea or focus to the scene, advancing moves the narrative forward to its next stage

-stalling occurs when a performer refuses to take responsibility for the development of the scene, it is unhelpful, uncreative and does not add to or advance the scene, asking too many questions or answering an offer with a question is a form of stalling

-gagging is another form of stalling the action that involves responding to an offer with irrelevant jokes or gags, which have not derived from the narrative of the scene but are just made for a laugh - gags cause performers to lose belief in a scene

-blocking occurs when an offer is rejected or ignored, the performer says no to an offer and so stops the scene and breaks the belief which has been established, blocking prevents the improvisation from developing

-stealing occurs when an actor does not share the responsibility of the scene with other performers but rather persists in dominating the scene by selfishly maintaining the focus of the audience’s attention to the detriment of the improvisation’s development

-a good improviser makes offers, accepts offers, is specific, avoids stalling, always contributes to the focus, shares the responsibility for the scene with other actors, extends the focus before advancing the idea, never blocks, listens and concentrates

Stanislavski’s System

-a system that allows actors to follow a detailed programme of work designed to lift their performances to a higher artistic plane

-he believed that the actor should play absolute truth of emotion and thought, and by doing this enact the physical reality of the character, the character must live through the actor, actors must draw on their own past experiences and memories to build a life for each character they play, actors must be prepared to draw on all aspects of their own experience

-Stanislavski proposed that is was possible to learn to act, and set about finding a way to train actors. He borrowed from other disciplines, so to develop the actor’s voice he used singing exercises and concentrated on projection and articulation. He knew actors needed both grace and strength in their movement, but most of all he wanted actors to be able to control their movement and to be aware of their bodies. To achieve this, he drew on the principles of mime and dance. Partly as a result of Stanislavski’s great influence in the field of actor training, we now take it for granted that actors must work on their voices and bodies throughout their careers.

Units of Action

-a play is divided into acts and scenes, but these can be further divided into units of action

-each unit of action is defined and controlled by one objective within it, these push the story onwards

-when the objective ends, so does the unit

-new units indicate a change of objective and are sometimes marked by exits and entrances of characters

-changes in the objective act as signposts on the journey through the actions of the character


-once all units of action have been recognised, they can be broken down further into even shorter sections known as beats

-beats are the individual thoughts or moments that create the rhythmic changes in the unit

-each actor needs to keep the rhythm of the characters actions distinct from the rhythm of other characters on stage, this helps to create dramatic tension

Fundamental Questions

-these questions are about the character and the play, the answers are to be found in the text of the play but once all relevant information there has been found, supplement it using your imagination

Who am I? Think about what your character is like in terms of personality, appearance, age, family background, beliefs, prejudices, interests and so on

What time is it? Consider the century, the year, the season, the day of the week, the month, the date and the time in which the action of the play takes place

Where am I? Consider the setting of the play. Does it take place in the country or the city? What kind of house do the characters live in? What kind of neighbourhood? What part of the room does the action occur?

What surrounds me? Consider your environment. Are there people around you? Is so, are there many or few? What are they like? Know what furniture, colours, smells, textures and sounds are around you.

What are the given circumstances? Your given circumstances include the details of your recent past (what happened to you yesterday, today and five minutes ago), how you are feeling now, what are about to happen to you and any other relevent details of your present situation. A character’s given circumstances change from moment to moment; they are not constant

What are my relationships? Consider your relationships to other characters, to events and to the things that surround you.

What is my objective? Know what you want n each scene, what your motivation, or reason for action is.

What is the obstacle? Know what problems you are encountering and what problems you must attempt to overcome in order to achieve your objective. The obstacles that stand in the way of the character reaching an objective give rise to the conflict in the play.

What is the action? The action is what you are doing to get what you want. You need to know what physical and verbal action you are playing to reach your objective. All action is the result of the objective; you play an action because you want to achieve your objective.

What is my super-objective? This is your main goal in the whole play, the overriding action of the play.