Dramatic elements The 6 Basic Elements of Theatre
The 6 Basic Dramatic Elements There are six basic elements of Theatre. They are: Dialogue Sight Sound Plot Theme 3. Character
Plot • Plot is the story, or plan of action, in a literary work. The plot must be believable, workable, and well structured. The major conflict must have minor crises building toward the final climax, where either the protagonist or the antagonist wins and resolves the conflict. • If we break the conflict down further, it has additional parts. Like the major dramatic elements, these additional parts of a conflict are much more evident in some plays than in others.
Beginning Balance There is a certain form of stability for the protagonist (hero) at the beginning of a play. This is referred to as beginning balance. Life may be imperfect and strained at this time with some foreshadowing of future conflict, like the calm before the storm, but the characters are able to live within the framework of this balance.
An important part of the beginning balance is the exposition, which tells us who the characters are and how they got that way. The best exposition is sprinkled in small doses between the action segments of the earlier parts of the play. It is often given as important news to other characters. Another popular way to give exposition is through flashback, where a scene is portrayed from a characters memory.
Inciting Incident At some point in the play, usually early on, an action occurs in the plot that upsets the beginning balance. This is the inciting incident. The rest of the play is spent trying to restore the balance as well as possible. Short plays often start with the inciting incident and gradually let us know, through exposition, what the balance was in the “scenes” before the play started. Once the Inciting Incident happens, two more extremely important elements loom into view: • Objective: The goal, perhaps the beginning balance, which the protagonist tries to achieve • Obstacle: The main stumbling block that prevents the protagonist from reaching his goal.
Rising Course of Action After the objective and obstacle are established, the protagonist decides on a course of action to follow in order to overcome the obstacle and reach the objective. This is the part of the plot between the Inciting Incident and the climax. The course of action, as you can guess, becomes an obstacle course, cluttered with the various challenges and setbacks. It is called the “Rising” Course of Action because the closer the course is to the climax, the more intense it usually becomes.
The Rising Course of Action can be broken down into smaller parts: Subplot(s) Complications Crisis Anything (trouble, new information, etc.) that happens with in the plot which causes a change in the course of action is considered a complication. Complications give the protagonist new problems to solve, or make the main goal harder to reach. The most effective complications are believable, but unexpected. Any time two forces are engaged in active conflict a crisis occurs. The crisis may build to a climax, but it doesn’t resolve the major conflict. It only heightens the suspense toward it. Each crisis is intense, either the actual protagonist, antagonist, or both are involved. Most good literary works have subplots, or less important stories that are related to the main plot. Each subplot’s climax occurs either before or during the major climax, and its results should be connected to the main plot.
Climax The climax comes when the Beginning Balance is either restored to a great extent by the protagonist or else permanently destroyed by the antagonist. Either way, the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist or antagonist wins. The climax is the highest point of interest or excitement.
There are two spin-off parts of the Climax: Resolution Denouement • The degree to which the play’s beginning balance is resolved by the climax. • Quickly taking care of any untold secrets or unfinished business the audience needs to know so the play or story can end. It is the “unraveling” of the problem. Often the climax itself is the end, and there is no additional denouement.
Theme Theme is the main, dominating idea of a play. It is usually an abstract concept which becomes concrete through the characters’ speeches and actions, through symbols and images within the play, and through theatrical conventions. Just as the theme in a musical work keeps recurring, so a play’s theme often keeps coming back in various ways on drama. Sometimes the theme is obvious, especially when the play is tightly woven around it. Henrik Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright, would decide on a certain theme then build a play around it. The theme of corrupt city government developed into his play The Pillars of Society; the women’s rights theme brought forth A Doll’s House.
Discovering THEME through the CHARACTER Often characters refer directly to the theme through what they say and do. Consider Hamlet’s famous line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” He is deciding whether to avenge his father’s death, commit suicide, or take the easier road of pretended ignorance of the murder. When the widow Dolly Levi decides to get married again in Hello Dolly!, she exclaims “I’ve decided to rejoin the human race” then sings, “Before the parade passes by, I’m gonna get in step while there’s still time left.”
Discovering THEME through the SYMBOLS A literary symbol is an object, character, or incident used to represent something abstract. A well used symbol can take the place of several pages of dialogue. It can quickly add complexity and texture to the play. There are several types of symbols commonly used in theatre: Symbolic Object or Action; Metaphor; Allegory; and Motif
Symbolic Object or Action A concrete object can be used to represent something abstract. For example, the silk stockings in Death of a Salesman symbolize Willy’s lack of loyalty to Linda. Another symbol that has gained significance since the time of the original production is Willy’s Studebaker. The car was becoming extinct, just like him. Other symbolic objects include Laura’s glass menagerie, in The Glass Menagerie, and the adversarial windmill in Man of La Mancha. A song or action can also become symbolic. “The Telephone Hour” in Bye Bye Birdie and countless symbolic dances, such as “Chava’s Soliloquy” in Fiddler on the Roof reinforce themes through symbolism.
Metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech or image in which one thing represents another that is actually quite different. An example is Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage.” The world is not literally a stage, figuratively, though, the metaphor works perfectly.
Allegory Allegory is an extended metaphor, a symbolic story which represents a truth outside the framework of that story. Allegories are especially effective in musical theatre where the story can be told through song or dance as well as through speech. Examples of allegory in musical theatre are “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in The King and I, and Tony and Maria meeting at the dance in West Side Story.
Motif The prevailing theme or subject of a piece of art is called a motif. They are similar to symbols, but not quite the same. While a symbol stands for something else, a motif stands for itself. A motif is totally suggestive (and therefore rather vague) and must be repeated in order to have impact. Motifs are usually more important to plays than are symbols. A motif in Death of a Salesman is that man needs to feel important, almost as desperately as he needs air, water, and food.
Discovering THEME through DRAMATIC CONVENTIONS • There are many dramatic conventions which the playwright can use to help present and emphasize the theme. These conventions were used extensively in the theatre until the Age of Realism came into vogue in the late nineteenth century. Theatre of Realism however sought to establish an imaginary “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience. Rather than speak directly to the audience as they had before, actors attempted to create a “slice of life,” as if the audience were not there. • Two of the most common conventions used through the centuries to present and emphasize theme are: Asides and Soliloquies.
Asides Asides, speeches by a character which are supposedly heard only by the audience, were always an integral part of theatre until Realism. Now, when they are used, it is either with considerable subtlety, or when a “narrator” speaks to the audience, as Tom in The Glass Menagerie, or the Stage Manager in Our Town. Musical theatre is allowed more leeway than non-musicals in using asides. Some of the most famous musical characters speak directly to the audience, such as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Dolly in Hello Dolly, and the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Many of the songs are also sung directly to the audience, as a form of asides.
Soliloquies Soliloquies are speeches by a character spoken as if to himself. These too, are not used as much, and certainly not as obviously as in previous ages, although they are still very present. An example of a subtle soliloquy from Death of a Salesman is when Willy speaks of forgetting where he was while driving to his sales route. In actuality, he is speaking to Linda, but his attention drifts away from her to his memories. There are several other examples, too. Like the aside, soliloquies are more present in musical theatre, for example when Tony sings “Tonight” in West Side Story. Since the soliloquies and asides are not usually realistic, but rather seek to break the “fourth wall” and establish direct contact with the audience, they are not ordinarily used in Theatre of Realism. They have flourished, however, in more non-realistic theatre forms, such as musical theatre and abstract theatre.
Character Drama is the art form most concerned with human beings, their behavior, and their relationships. Characters are the central elements in almost ALL drama.
Characterization General rules the playwrights try to follow for their characterizations are: 1. Each character should function to further the action of the play toward the climax. By the time the climax is reached, every character should line up on either the protagonist’s or antagonist’s side. 2. The major characters should be especially believable, well developed, and interesting. Each major character should exhibit one or more dominant traits, or qualities, whether good or bad. 3. In most cases, the most important character trait of both the protagonist and the antagonist is volition, the ability to make decisions and the daring to carry them out, right or wrong.
The Protagonist (Hero) The protagonistis usually the one who is affected the most by the Inciting Incident, so he tries the hardest to restore the balance. He is usually the “good guy,” but not always. The best protagonists are volatile; they make things happen once the disturbance has come. Some general principles playwrights follow in developing their protagonists are: 1. Throughout the play, the protagonist should grow and develop in wisdom, strength, insight, love, spirituality, etc., but the obstacle should also be enlarging in strength and power. The stakes of winning and losing this conflict should be high. Finally, either the protagonist should be able to overcome the obstacle, or else the obstacle destroys him. 2. The protagonist and his friends must be interesting and empathetic. They must be appealing enough that the audience will care about what happens to them, thereby caring what happens in the play. 3. If the protagonist is romantically involved, it usually helps to have him/her and the one he/she is romantically involved with as opposites to an extent. They can be contrasting in key items such as attitudes, interests, culture, or education. Resolving these differences makes an excellent subplot, and is sometimes the main plot.
The Antagonist (Villain) The antagonist is the person or force that causes the inciting incident to upset the balance, then continues to set major obstacles in the way of restoring the balance. The most believable antagonist is one who isn’t necessarily mean for the sake of being mean, but is trying so hard to reach his own objective that he doesn’t care what happens to anyone or anything else.
Dialogue • Dialogue is simply the conversation in a play. However, well-written dialogue is much different from everyday conversation; it is compressed. Virtually every line in a well-structured play has the purpose of developing the plot or a character. • Dialogue and action are the two things that move a play along and help it progress. Action performs this, obviously, through what the characters do; dialogue performs it by what the characters say. Dialogue can also reveal plot, theme, and character development.
Sight Drama is a performing art, meant to be played before an audience, not read alone from a book. A play’s impression is as visual as it is vocal, and in some respects, even more so. We see things and perceive them immediately; we hear things and we need to sort them out in our minds. In life, many of our strongest memories come visually: a look, an expression, a handshake, or some other larger action. In theatre, as in life, sight communicates setting, action, thoughts, relationships and feelings to the audience. Therefore, theatre artists rely extensively upon visual images. Most of the technical production is for the visual effect: scenery, lighting, costumes, make-up, and props. The director’s staging and the actors’ characters and actions are communicated to the audience visually.
Sound While we visually perceive things faster and remember them longer, many things cannot be communicate visually. We need to hear key words, thoughts, and other sounds. There are ways of communicating feelings and emotion through music and other sounds that are impossible to reveal any other way. There are three main parts of theatre sound: Voice, Music, and Sound Effects.
Voice The voice can convey a great deal: Words, thoughts and emotions. A trained voice can convey its wishes exactly. British actors often win the America’s Academy Awards because their voices are better trained. The voice is such an expressive instrument that we need to work with it much more than we presently do.
Music Music is rightly called “the International language.” Music can convey moods and feelings even if the listener can’t understand the lyrics. That is why opera has lasted for centuries and why musicals are so popular today.
Sound Effects Sounds that are neither voice nor music can also communicate strongly in key places. Whether the sound is a crash, a roll of thunder, a creak, or a growl, the well-placed sound effect can sometimes communicate better than anything else.