What is the best way to go about reading dramatic literature? At first, the student might feel as if she is reading a set of instructions. Most plays contain dialogue along with cold, calculating stage directions. Yet, a play can be a moving literary experience.
Dramatic literature presents several challenges to a student, making the reading experience different than poetry or fiction. Here are some tips for students to make the most out of reading a play.
Read with a Pencil
Mortimer Adler wrote a terrific essay titled "How to Mark a Book." To truly embrace the text, Adler believes the reader should jot down notes, reactions and questions directly onto the page or in a journal. Students who record their reactions as they read are more likely to remember the characters and various subplots. Best of all, they are more likely to actively participate in class discussion and ultimately earn a better grade.
Visualize the Characters
Unlike fiction, a play does not usually offer a lot of vivid detail. Typically, a playwright will briefly describe a character as he or she enters the stage. After that point, the characters might never be described again. Therefore, it is up to the reader to create a lasting mental image. What does this person look like? How do they sound? How do they deliver each line?
Many students relate to movies rather than literature. In this case, it might be fun to mentally cast contemporary actors into the roles. What current movie star would be best to play Macbeth? Hellen Keller? Don Quixote? For an entertaining class activity, instructors should have the students work in groups to write a movie trailer for the play.
Contemplate the Setting
High school and college English teachers select plays that have stood the test of time. Because many classic dramas are set in a wide range of different eras, it will behoove students to have a clear understanding of the story’s time and place.
For one, readers should try to imagine the sets and costumes as they read. They should consider whether or not the historical context is important to the story.
Sometimes the setting of a play seems like a flexible backdrop. For example, A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in the mythological age of Athens, Greece. Yet most productions ignore this, choosing to set the play in a different era, usually Elizabethan England. In other cases, the setting of the play is vitally important.
Research the Historical Context
If the time and place is an essential component, students should learn more about the historifc details. Some plays can only be understood when the context is evaluated. The play adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the tumultuous deep South during the 1930s. Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love deals with the social constraints and academic struggles during England's Victorian Period. Without knowledge of the historical context, much of the story’s significance could be lost.
With a little bit of research into the past, students can generate a new level of appreciation for the play they are studying. (And the internet makes this easier than ever before!)
Sit in the Director’s Chair
Here comes the truly fun part. To visualize the play, the student should think like a director.
Some playwrights provide a great deal of specific movement. However, most writers leave that business to the cast and crew.
It begs the question: What are those characters doing? Students should imagine the different possibilities. Does the protagonist rant and rave? Or does she remain eerily calm, delivering the lines with an icy gaze? The reader makes those interpretive choices.
So, get comfortable in that director’s chair. Remember, to appreciate the dramatic literature, a student must imagine the cast, the set, and the movements. That is what makes reading dramatic literature a challenging yet invigorating experience.