We sit in the darkened theater with many strangers.

Chapter 8 THEATER

We sit in the darkened theater with many strangers. We sense an air of anticipation, an awareness of excitement. People cough, rustle about, then suddenly become still. Slowly the lights on the stage begin to come up, and we see actors moving before us, apparently unaware of our presence. They are in rooms or spaces similar to those that we may be in ourselves at the end of the evening. Eventually they begin speaking to one another much the way we might ourselves, sometimes saying things so intimate that we are uneasy. They move about the stage, conducting their lives in total disregard for us, only hinting occasionally that we might be there in the same space with them. At first we feel that despite our being in the same building with the actors, we are in a different world. Then slowly the distance between us and the actors begins to diminish until, in a good play, our participation erases the distance. We thrill with the actors, but we also suffer with them. We witness the illusion of an action that has an emotional impact for us and changes the way we think about our own lives. Great plays such as Hamlet, Othello, The Misanthrope, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Long Day’s Journey into Night can have the power to transform our awareness of ourselves and our circumstances. It is a mystery common to much art: that the illusion of reality can affect the reality of our own lives.

Aristotle and the Elements of Drama

Drama is a collaborative art that represents events and situations, either realistic and/or symbolic, that we witness happening through the actions of actors in a play on a stage in front of a live audience. According to the greatest dramatic critic, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the elements of drama are as follows:

1. Plot: a series of events leading to disaster for the main characters who undergo reversals in fortune and understanding but usually ending with a form of enlightenment—sometimes of the characters, sometimes of the audience, and sometimes of both

2. Character: the presentation of a person or persons whose actions and the reason for them are more or less revealed to the audience

3. Diction: the language of the drama, which should be appropriate to the action

4. Thought: the ideas that underlie the plot of the drama, expressed in terms of dialogue and soliloquy

5. Spectacle: the places of the action, the costumes, set designs, and visual elements in the play

6. Music: in Greek drama, the dialogue was sometimes sung or chanted by a chorus, and often this music was of considerable emotional importance; in modern drama, music is rarely used in serious plays, but it is of first importance in the musical theater

Aristotle conceived his theories in the great age of Greek tragedy , and therefore much of what he has to say applies to tragedies by such dramatists as Aeschylus (ca. 525–456 BCE), especially his trilogy, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Sophocles (ca. 496–406 BCE) wrote Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus; and Euripides (ca. 485–406 BCE), the last of the greatest Greek tragedians, wrote Andromache, Medea, and The Trojan Women. All of these plays are still performed around the world, along with comedies by Aristophanes (ca. 448–385 BCE), the greatest Greek writer of comedies. His plays include Lysistrata, The Birds, The Wasps, and The Frogs. These plays often have a satirical and political purpose and set a standard for much drama to come.

Plot involves rising action, climax, falling action, denouement . For Aristotle, the tragic hero quests for truth. The moment of truth—the climax—is called recognition . When the fortune of the protagonist turns from good to bad, the reversal follows. The strongest effect of tragedy occurs when recognition and reversal happen at the same time, as in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Figure 8-1).

The protagonist, or leading character, in the most powerful tragedies fails not only because of fate, which is a powerful force in Greek thought, but also because of a flaw in character (hamartia) , a disregard of human limitations. The protagonist in the best tragedies ironically brings his misfortune upon himself. In Oedipus Rex, for example, the impetuous behavior of Oedipus works well for him until he decides to leave “home.” Then his rash actions bring on disaster. Sophocles shows us that something of what happens to Oedipus could happen to us. We pity Oedipus and fear for him. Tragedy, Aristotle tells us, arouses pity and fear and by doing so produces in us a catharsis , a purging of those feelings, wiping out some of the horror.


FIGURE 8-1 Oedipus Rex. In the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre production, 1973, the shepherd tells Oedipus the truth about his birth and how he was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother.

Courtesy Guthrie Theater. Photo: Michael Paul

The drama helps us understand the complexities of human nature and the power of our inescapable destinies.

Dialogue and Soliloquy

The primary dramatic interchanges are achieved by dialogue, the exchange of conversation among the characters. In older plays, the individual speech of a character might be relatively long, and then it is answered by another character in the same way. In more-modern plays, the dialogue is often extremely short. Sometimes a few minutes of dialogue will contain a succession of speeches only five or six words in length. The following is an example of a brief dialogue between Algernon and his manservant, Lane, from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

1. Algernon: A glass of sherry, Lane.

2. Lane: Yes, sir.

3. Algernon: Tomorrow, Lane, I’m going Bunburying.

4. Lane: Yes, sir.

5. Algernon: I shall probably not be back till Monday. You can put up my dress clothes, my smoking jacket, and all the Bunbury suits—


1. Lane: Yes, sir. (Handing sherry.)

2. Algernon: I hope tomorrow will be a fine day, Lane.

3. Lane: It never is, sir.

4. Algernon: Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist.

5. Lane: I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.

In this passage, Algernon plans to visit an imaginary friend, Bunbury, an invention designed to help him avoid dinners and meetings that he cannot stand. The dialogue throughout the play is quick and witty, and the play is generally regarded as one of the most amusing comedies. As in most plays, the dialogue moves the action forward by telling us about the importance of the situations in which the actors speak. This example is interesting because, while brisk, its last line introduces an amusing irony, revealing the ironic soul of the entire play.

The soliloquy , on the other hand, is designed to give us insight into the character who speaks the lines. In the best of soliloquies we are given to understand that characters are speaking to themselves, not to the audience—the term “aside” is used to describe such speeches. Because the character is alone we can trust to the sincerity of the speech and the truths that it reveals. Hamlet’s soliloquies in Shakespeare’s play are among the most famous in literature. Here, Hamlet speaks at a moment in the play when the tension is greatest:

1. Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to. [3.1.57–64]

There is nothing superficial about this speech, nor the many lines that come after it. Hamlet considers suicide and, once having renounced it, considers what he must do. The many soliloquies in Hamlet offer us insight into Hamlet’s character, showing us an interiority, or psychological existence, that is rich and deep. In the Greek tragedies, some of the function of the modern soliloquy was taken by the Chorus, a group of citizens who commented in philosophic fashion on the action of the drama.


A soliloquy occurs when a character alone onstage reveals his or her thoughts. Study the use of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (3.3.73–96, 4.4.32–66) and in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (Tom’s opening speech, Tom’s long speech in scene 5, and his opening speech in scene 6). What do these soliloquies accomplish? Is their purpose different in these two plays? Are soliloquies helpful in all drama? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Archetypal Patterns

Theater originated from ancient rituals that had their roots in religious patterns such as death and rebirth. One such pattern is the ritual of sacrifice—which implies that the individual must be sacrificed for the commonweal of society. Such a pattern is archetypal —a basic psychological pattern that people apparently react to on a more or less subconscious level. These patterns, archetypes , are deep in the myths that have permeated history. We feel their importance even if we do not recognize them consciously.

Archetypal drama aims at symbolic or mythic interpretations of experience. For instance, one’s search for personal identity, for self-evaluation, a pattern repeated in all ages, serves as a primary archetypal structure for drama. This archetype is the driving force in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and many more plays—notably, but by no means exclusively, in tragedies. (As we shall see, comedy also often uses this archetype.) This archetype is powerful because, while content to watch other people discover their identities, we may find that we are not the people we want others to think we are.

The power of the archetype derives, in part, from our recognition of a pattern that has been repeated by the human race throughout history. The psychologist Carl Jung, whose work spurred critical awareness of archetypal patterns in all the arts, believed that the greatest power of the archetype lies in its capacity to reveal through art the “imprinting” of human experience. Maud Bodkin, a critic who developed Jung’s views, explains the archetype this way:

The special emotional significance going beyond any definite meaning conveyed attributes to the stirring in the reader’s mind, within or beneath his conscious response, of unconscious forces which he terms “primordial images” or archetypes. These archetypes he describes as “psychic residua of numberless experiences of the same type,” experiences which have happened not to the individual but to his ancestors, and of which the results are inherited in the structure of the brain.1

The quest narrative (see Chapter 7) is an example of an archetypal structure, one that recurs in drama frequently. For instance, Hamlet is seeking the truth about his father’s death (Aristotle’s recognition), but in doing so, he is also trying to discover his own identity as it relates to his mother. Sophocles’s Oedipus is the story of a man who kills his father, marries his mother, and suffers a plague on his lands. He discovers the truth (recognition again), and doom follows (Aristotle’s reversal). He blinds himself and is ostracized. Freud thought the play so archetypal that he saw in it a profound human psychological pattern, which he called the “Oedipus complex”: the desire of a child to get rid of the same-sex parent and to have a sexual union with the parent of the opposite sex. Not all archetypal patterns are so shocking, but most reveal an aspect of basic human desires. Drama—because of its immediacy and compression of presentation—is, perhaps, the most powerful means of expression for such archetypes.

Some of the more important archetypes include those of an older man, usually a king in ancient times, who is betrayed by a younger man, his trusted lieutenant, with regard to a woman. This is the theme of Lady Gregory’s Grania. The loss of innocence, a variation on the Garden of Eden theme, is another


favorite, as in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and The Wild Duck. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia combines two archetypes: loss of innocence and the quest for knowledge. However, no archetype seems to rival the quest for self-identity. That quest is so common that it is even parodied, as in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

The four seasons set temporal dimensions for the development of archetypes because the seasons are intertwined with patterns of growth and decay. The origins of drama, which are obscure beyond recall, may have been linked with rituals associated with the planting of seed, the reaping of crops, and the entire complex issue of fertility and death. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye associates comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, irony and satire with winter. His associations suggest that some archetypal drama may be rooted in connections between human destiny and the rhythms of nature. Such origins may account for part of the power that archetypal drama has for our imaginations, for the influences that derive from such origins are pervasive in all of us. These influences may also help explain why tragedy usually involves the death of a hero—although, sometimes, as in the case of Oedipus, death is withheld—and why comedy frequently ends with one or more marriages, as in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with their suggestions of fertility.


1. Whether or not you do additional reading, consider the recurrent patterns you have observed in dramas—include television dramas or television adaptations of drama. Can you find any of the patterns we have described? Do you see other patterns showing up? Do the patterns you have observed seem basic to human experience? For example, do you associate gaiety with spring, love with summer, death with fall, and bitterness with winter? What season seems most appropriate for marriage?

Genres of Drama: Tragedy

Carefully structured plots are basic for Aristotle, especially for tragedies. The action must be probable or plausible, but not necessarily historically accurate. Although noble protagonists are essential for great tragedies, Aristotle allows for tragedies with ordinary protagonists. In these, plot is much more the center of interest than character. Then we have what may be called action dramas, never, according to Aristotle, as powerful as character dramas, other things being equal. Action dramas prevail on the popular stage and television. But when we turn to the great tragedies that most define the genre, we think immediately of great characters: Oedipus, Agamemnon, Prometheus, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear.

Modern drama tends to avoid traditional tragic structures because modern concepts of morality, sin, guilt, fate, and death have been greatly altered. Modern


psychology explains character in ways the ancients either would not have understood or would have disputed. Critics have said that there is no modern tragedy because there can be no character noble enough to engage our heartfelt sympathy. Moreover, the acceptance of chance as a force equal to fate in our lives has also reduced the power of tragedy in modern times. Greek myth—used by modern playwrights like Eugene O’Neill—has a diminished vitality in modern tragedy. It may be that the return of a strong integrating myth—a world vision that sees the actions of humanity as tied into a large scheme of cosmic or sacred events—is a prerequisite for producing a drama that we can recognize as truly tragic, at least in the traditional sense. This may be an overstatement. What do you think?

The Tragic Stage

Our vision of tragedy focuses on two great ages—ancient Greece and Renaissance England. These two historical periods share certain basic ideas: for instance, that there is a “divine providence that shapes our ends,” as Hamlet says, and that fate is immutable, as the Greek tragedies tell us. Both periods were marked by considerable prosperity and public power, and both ages were deeply aware that sudden reversals in prosperity could change everything. In addition, both ages had somewhat similar ideas about the way a stage should be constructed. The relatively temperate climate of Greece permitted an open amphitheater, with seating on three sides of the stage. The Greek architects often had the seats carved out of hillside rock, and their attention to acoustics was so remarkable that even today in some of the surviving Greek theaters, as at Epidaurus, a whisper on the stage can be heard in the farthest rows. The Elizabethan stages were roofed wooden structures jutting into open space enclosed by stalls in which the well-to-do sat (the not-so-well-to-do stood around the stage), providing for sight lines from three sides. Each kind of theater was similar to a modified theater-in-the-round, such as is used occasionally today. A glance at Figures 8-2 through 8-4 shows that the Greek and Elizabethan theaters were very different from the standard theater of our time—the proscenium theater.

The proscenium acts as a transparent “frame” separating the action taking place on the stage from the audience. The Greek and Elizabethan stages are not so explicitly framed, thus involving the audience more directly spatially and, in turn, perhaps, emotionally. In the Greek theater, the action took place in a circle called the “orchestra.” The absence of a separate stage put the actors on the same level as those seated at the lowest level of the audience.

Stage Scenery and Costumes

Modern theater depends on the scenery and costumes for much of its effect on the audience. Aristotle considered these ingredients as part of the spectacle, what we see when we are in the theater. Greek drama used a basic set, as seen in Figure 8-5, with an open space, the orchestra, and a building, the skene, against which the actors played.

Greek actors wore simple clothing and distinguished their parts by the use of elaborate masks, some of which included a megaphone to help project the voices. The paraskenion provided entrances and exits, and the skene usually represented a home or palace against which the action was set. The presence of the altar indicates the religious nature of the festival of Dionysus, during which plays were presented. Because the Greeks held their festivals in the daytime, no special lighting was necessary. Shakespearean and Elizabethan plays were staged in the afternoon and used little stage scenery. The words of the play established the place and time of the action.

Elaborate lighting and painted flats to establish the locale of the action became the norm in the late seventeenth century and after. Candlelight was used ingeniously in the late seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth century oil lamps replaced lights in the theater and onstage.

The Drury Lane Theatre in London was the most popular theater of its time. As seen in Figure 8-6, it made extensive use of artificial lighting, while the stage was decorated with detailed painted sets simulating the environment in which the actors moved. Such efforts at realistic staging had become the norm with impressive speed, and even today we expect the stage to produce a sense of realism.

In Shakespeare’s time, some of the most impressive and imaginative costumes were not on the public stage, but in the special entertainments at the courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James, as shown in Figure 8-7. They were called masques, entertainments with mythic narratives, elaborate music and costumes, and much dancing. Masques were very expensive to produce and were usually performed only once for special celebrations.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

For a contemporary audience, Romeo and Juliet is easier to participate with than most Greek tragedies because, among other reasons, its tragic hero and heroine, although aristocratic, are not a king and a queen. Their youth and innocence add to their remarkable appeal. The play presents the archetypal story of lovers whose fate—mainly because of the hatred their families bear each other—is sealed from the first. The archetype of lovers who are not permitted to love enacts a basic struggle among forces that lie so deep in our psyches that we need a drama such as this to help reveal them. It is the struggle between light and dark, between the world in which we live on the surface of the earth with its light and openness and the world of darkness, the underworld of the Greeks and the Romans, and the hell of the Christians. Young lovers represent life, the promise of fertility, and the continuity of the human race. Few subject matters could be more potentially tragic than that of young lovers whose promise is plucked by death.

The play begins with some ominous observations by Montague, Romeo’s father. He points out that Romeo, through love of a girl named Rosaline (who does not appear in the play), comes home late in the morning and locks “fair daylight out,” making for himself an “artificial night.” Montague tells us that Romeo stays up all night, comes home, pulls down the shades, and converts day into night. These observations seem innocent enough unless one is already familiar with the plot; then it seems a clear and tragic irony: that Romeo, by making his day a night, is already foreshadowing his fate. After Juliet has been introduced, her nurse wafts her offstage with an odd bit of advice aimed at persuading her of the wisdom of marrying Count Paris, the man her mother has chosen. “Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.” At first glance, the advice seems innocent. But with knowledge of the entire play, it is prophetic, for it echoes the day/night imagery Montague has applied to Romeo. Shakespeare’s details invariably tie in closely with the structure. Everything becomes relevant.

When Romeo first speaks with Juliet, not only is it night but they are in Capulet’s orchard: symbolically a place of fruitfulness and fulfillment. Romeo sees her and imagines her, not as chaste Diana of the moon, but as his own luminary sun: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” He sees her as his “bright angel.” When she, unaware he is listening below, asks, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” she is touching on profound concerns. She is, without fully realizing it, asking the impossible: that he not be himself. The denial of identity often brings great pain, as witness Oedipus, who at first refused to believe he was his father’s child. When Juliet asks innocently, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” she is asking that he ignore his heritage. The mythic implications of this are serious and, in this play, fatal. Denying one’s identity is rather like Romeo’s later attempt to deny day its sovereignty.

When they finally speak, Juliet explains ironically that she has “night’s cloak to hide me” and that the “mask of night is upon my face.” We know, as she speaks, that eternal night will be on that face, and all too soon. Their marriage, which occurs offstage as act 2 ends, is also performed at night in Friar Lawrence’s cell, with his hoping that the heavens will smile upon “this holy act.” But he is none too sure. And before act 3 is well under way, the reversals begin. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, is slain because of Romeo’s intervention. Then Romeo slays Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, and finds himself doomed to exile from both Verona and Juliet. Grieving for the dead Tybalt and the banished Romeo, Juliet misleads her father into thinking the only cure for her condition is a quick marriage to Paris, and Romeo comes to spend their one night of love together before he leaves Verona. Naturally they want the night to last and last—again an irony we are prepared for—and when daylight springs, Romeo and Juliet have a playful argument over whether it is the nightingale or the lark that sings. Juliet wants Romeo to stay, so she defends the nightingale; he knows he must go, so he points to the lark and the coming light. Then both, finally, admit the truth. His line is “More light and light—more dark and dark our woes.”

Another strange archetypal pattern, part of the complexity of the subject matter, has begun here: the union of sex and death as if they were aspects of the same thing. In Shakespeare’s time, death was a metaphor for making love, and often when a singer of a love song protested that he was dying, he expected everyone to understand that he was talking about the sexual act. In Romeo and Juliet, sex and death go together, both literally and symbolically. The first most profound sense of this appears in Juliet’s pretending death in order to avoid marrying Paris. She takes a potion from Friar Lawrence—who is himself afraid of a second marriage because of possible bigamy charges—and she appears, despite all efforts of investigation, quite dead.

When Romeo hears that Juliet has been placed in the Capulet tomb, he determines to join her in death as he was only briefly able to do in life. The message Friar Lawrence had sent by way of another friar explaining the counterfeit death did not get through to Romeo. And it did not get through because genuine death, in the form of plague, had closed the roads to Friar John. When Romeo descends underground into the tomb, he unwillingly fights Paris. After killing Paris, Romeo sees the immobile Juliet. He fills his cup (a female symbol) with poison and drinks. When Juliet awakes from her potion and sees both Paris and Romeo dead, she can get no satisfactory answer for these happenings from Friar Lawrence. His fear is so great that he runs off as the authorities bear down on the tomb. This leaves Juliet to give Romeo one last kiss on his still warm lips, then plunge his dagger (a male symbol) into her heart and die (Figure 8-8).

Earlier, when Capulet thought his daughter was dead, he exclaimed to Paris, “O son, the night before thy wedding day / Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him. / Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir.” At the end of the play, both Juliet and his real son-in-law, Romeo, are indeed married in death. The linkage of death and sex is ironically enacted in their final moments, which include the awful misunderstandings that the audience beholds in sorrow, that make Romeo and Juliet take their own lives for love of each other. And among the last lines is one that helps clarify one of the main themes: “A glooming peace this morning with it brings. / The sun for sorrow will not show his head.” Theatergoers have mourned these deaths for generations, and the promise that these two families will now finally try to get along together in a peaceful manner does not seem strong enough to brighten the ending of the play.


1. While participating with Romeo and Juliet, did you experience pity and fear for the protagonists? Catharsis (the purging of those emotions)?

2. Our discussion of the play did not treat the question of the tragic flaw (hamartia): the weakness of character that brings disaster to the main characters. One of Romeo’s flaws may be rashness—the rashness that led him to kill Tybalt and thus be banished. But he may have other flaws as well. What might they be? What are Juliet’s tragic flaws, if any?

3. You may not have been able to see Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps other tragedies are available. Try to see any of the tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Shakespeare; Ibsen’s Ghosts; John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea; Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Analyze the issues of tragedy we have raised. For example, decide whether the play is archetypal. Are there tragic flaws? Are there reversals and recognitions of the sort Aristotle analyzed? Did the recognition and reversal occur simultaneously? Are the characters important enough—if not noble enough—to excite your compassion for their sorrow and suffering?

4. If you were to write a tragedy, what modern figure could be a proper tragic protagonist? What archetypal antagonist would be appropriate for your tragedy? What tragic flaw or flaws would such a modern antagonist exhibit?

Comedy: Old and New

Ancient Western comedies were performed at a time associated with wine making, thus linking the genre with the wine god Bacchus and his relative Comus—from whom the word “comedy” comes. Comedy, like tragedy, achieved institutional status in ancient Greece. Some of the earliest comedies, along with satyr plays, were frankly phallic in nature, and many of the plays of Aristophanes, the master of Old Comedy , were raucous and coarse. Plutarch was offended by plays such as The Clouds, The Frogs, The Wasps, and especially Lysistrata, the world’s best-known phallic play, concerning a situation in which the women of a community withhold sex until the men agree not to wage any more war. At one point in the play, the humor centers on the men walking around with enormous erections under their togas. Obviously Old Comedy is old in name only, since it is still present in the routines of nightclub comedians and the bawdy entertainment halls of the world.

In contrast, the New Comedy of Menander, with titles such as The Flatterer, The Lady from Andros, The Suspicious Man, and The Grouch, his only surviving complete play, concentrated on common situations in the everyday life of the Athenian. It also avoided the brutal attacks on individuals, such as Socrates, which characterize much Old Comedy. Historians credit Menander with developing the comedy of manners, the kind of drama that satirizes the manners of a society as the basic part of its subject matter.

Old Comedy is associated with our modern farce, burlesque, and the broad humor and make-believe violence of slapstick. New Comedy tends to be suave and subtle. Concentrating on manners, New Comedy developed type characters , for they helped focus upon the foibles of social behavior. Type characters, such as the gruff and difficult man who turns out to have a heart of gold, the good cop, the bad cop, the ingenue, the finicky person, or the sloppy person—all these work well in comedies. Such characters can become stereotypes —with predictable behavior patterns—although the best dramatists usually make them complex enough so that they are not completely predictable.

The comic vision celebrates life and fecundity. Typically in comedy, all ends well; conflicts are resolved; and, as often in Shakespeare’s comedies, the play concludes with feasting, revelry, and a satisfying distribution of brides to the appropriate suitors. We are encouraged to imagine that they will live happily ever after.

PERCEPTION KEY Type Characters

1. In The Odd Couple, Felix Unger, a finicky opera-loving neatnik, lives with Oscar Madison, a slob whose life revolves around sports. What is inherently funny about linking different type characters like them?

2. Type characters exist in all drama. What types are Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence? How close do they stay to their types?

3. To what extent is Hamlet a type character? Is it possible that the character of Hamlet actually created the dark-hued melancholiac as a type that did not exist before Shakespeare created him?

4. What type characters do you remember from your experiences with drama? What are the strengths of such characters? What are their limitations?

Comedy, like tragedy, may use archetypal patterns. A blocking character, personified by a parent or controlling older person, is often pitted against the younger characters who wish to be married. The “parent” can be any older person who blocks the younger people, usually by virtue of controlling their inheritance or their wealth. The blocking character, for social or mercenary reasons, schemes to stop the young people from getting together.

Naturally, the blocking character fails. But the younger characters do not merely win their own struggle. They usually go on to demonstrate the superiority of their views over those of the blocking character. For example, they may demonstrate that true love is a better reason for marrying than is merging two neighboring estates. One common pattern is for two lovers to decide to marry regardless of their social classes. The male, for instance, may be a soldier or a student but not belong to the upper class to which the female belongs. But often at the last minute, through means such as a birthmark (as in The Marriage of Figaro) or the admission of another character who knew all along, the lower-class character will be shown to be a member of the upper class in disguise. Often the character himself will not know the truth until the last minute in the drama. This is a variant of Aristotle’s recognition in tragedy, although it does not have the unhappy consequences. In all of this, New Comedy is usually in tacit agreement with the ostensible standards of the society it entertains. It only stretches the social standards and is thus evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Blocking characters may be misers, for example, whose entire lives are devoted to mercenary goals, although they may not be able to enjoy the money they heap up; or malcontents, forever looking on the dark side of humanity; or hypochondriacs, whose every move is dictated by their imaginary illnesses. Such characters are so rigid that their behavior is a form of vice. The effort of the younger characters is often to reform the older characters, educating them away from their entrenched and narrow values toward accepting the idealism and hopefulness of the young people who, after all, are in line to inherit the world that the older people are reluctant to turn over. Few generations give way without a struggle, and this archetypal struggle on the comic stage may serve to give hope to the young when they most need it, as well as possibly to help educate the old so as to make the real struggle less terrible.

Tragicomedy: The Mixed Genre

On the walls beside many stages, especially the ancient, we find two masks: the tragic mask with a downturned mouth and the comic mask with an upturned mouth. If there were a third mask, it would probably have an expression of bewilderment, as if someone had just asked an unanswerable question. Mixing the genres of tragedy and comedy in a drama may give such a feeling. Modern audiences are often left with many unanswered questions when they leave the theater. They are not always given resolutions that wrap things up neatly. Instead, tragicomedy tends, more than either tragedy or comedy, to reveal the ambiguities of the world. It does not usually end with the finality of death or the promise of a new beginning. It usually ends somewhere in between.

The reason tragicomedy has taken some time to become established as a genre may have had something to do with the fact that Aristotle did not provide an analysis—an extraordinary example of a philosopher having great influence on the arts. Thus, for a long time, tragicomedy was thought of as a mixing of two pure genres and consequently inferior in kind. The mixing of tragedy and comedy is surely justified, if for no other reason than the mixture works so well, as proved by most of the marvelous plays of Chekhov. This mixed genre is a way of making drama truer to life. As playwright Sean O’Casey commented to a college student, “As for the blending ’Comedy with Tragedy,’ it’s no new practice—hundreds have done it, including Shakespeare…. And, indeed, Life is always doing it, doing it, doing it. Even when one lies dead, laughter is often heard in the next room. There’s no tragedy that isn’t tinged with humour, no comedy that hasn’t its share of tragedy—if one has eyes to see, ears to hear.” Much of our best modern drama is mixed in genre so that, as O’Casey points out, it is rare to find a comedy that has no sadness to it or a tragedy that is unrelieved by laughter.

A Play for Study: Riders to the Sea

Riders to the Sea (1904, see Figure 8-9) was John Millington Synge’s first success with the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It follows some of the Aristotelian demands for tragedy. It is enacted in one day in the time it takes to play. The primary character, Maurya, while not royalty, is ennobled and heroic because of her stoicism. Moreover, the power of fate, a Greek force, seems to be at work in this modern age, despite the allusions to Christianity in the form of the young priest who carelessly assures Maurya that God will not let her be left without any men to look after her. Maurya—whose name is close to the Greek moira, fate—is a powerful figure whose final speeches are among the most lyrical and moving in all of Irish drama. The setting is on one of the the remote Aran islands, off the west coast of Ireland in the Atlantic. The passage from the island to the coast is treacherous, which is why so many of the men have died trying to make a living on the water. Even today the islanders use the old-fashioned boats to make the trip, sometimes towing animals in the water behind them. While it seems that the play carries the weight of doom throughout, the point Synge makes is that life in the remote spaces of Ireland demands resourcefulness and a transcendent grace in the women who survive.


John Millington Synge

Persons in the Play MAURYA (an old woman)

BARTLEY (her son)

CATHLEEN (her daughter)

NORA (a younger daughter)


SCENE: An Island off the West of Ireland.

(Cottage kitchen, with nets, oil-skins, spinning wheel, some new boards standing by the wall, etc.

Cathleen, a girl of about twenty, finishes kneading cake, and puts it down in the pot-oven by the fire; then wipes her hands, and begins to spin at the wheel. NORA, a young girl, puts her head in at the door.)

NORA (In a low voice.): Where is she?

CATHLEEN: She’s lying down, God help her, and may be sleeping, if she’s able.

(Nora comes in softly, and takes a bundle from under her shawl.)

CATHLEEN (Spinning the wheel rapidly.): What is it you have?

NORA: The young priest is after bringing them. It’s a shirt and a plain stocking were got off a drowned man in Donegal.

(Cathleen stops her wheel with a sudden movement, and leans out to listen.)

NORA: We’re to find out if it’s Michael’s they are, some time herself will be down looking by the sea.

CATHLEEN: How would they be Michael’s, Nora. How would he go the length of that way to the far north?

NORA: The young priest says he’s known the like of it. “If it’s Michael’s they are,” says he, “you can tell herself he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God, and if they’re not his, let no one say a word about them, for she’ll be getting her death,” says he, “with crying and lamenting.”


(The door which Nora half closed is blown open by a gust of wind.)

CATHLEEN (Looking out anxiously.): Did you ask him would he stop Bartley going this day with the horses to the Galway fair?

NORA: “I won’t stop him,” says he, “but let you not be afraid. Herself does be saying prayers half through the night, and the Almighty God won’t leave her destitute,” says he, “with no son living.”

CATHLEEN: Is the sea bad by the white rocks, Nora?

NORA: Middling bad, God help us. There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind. (She goes over to the table with the bundle.) Shall I open it now?

CATHLEEN: Maybe she’d wake up on us, and come in before we’d done. (Coming to the table.) It’s a long time we’ll be, and the two of us crying.

NORA (Goes to the inner door and listens.): She’s moving about on the bed. She’ll be coming in a minute.

CATHLEEN: Give me the ladder, and I’ll put them up in the turf-loft, the way she won’t know of them at all, and maybe when the tide turns she’ll be going down to see would he be floating from the east.

(They put the ladder against the gable of the chimney; Cathleen goes up a few steps and hides the bundle in the turf-loft. Maurya comes from the inner room.)

MAURYA (Looking up at Cathleen and speaking querulously.): Isn’t it turf enough you have for this day and evening?

CATHLEEN: There’s a cake baking at the fire for a short space. (Throwing down the turf) and Bartley will want it when the tide turns if he goes to Connemara.

(NORA picks up the turf and puts it round the pot-oven.)

MAURYA (Sitting down on a stool at the fire.): He won’t go this day with the wind rising from the south and west. He won’t go this day, for the young priest will stop him surely.

NORA: He’ll not stop him, mother, and I heard Eamon Simon and Stephen Pheety and Colum Shawn saying he would go.

MAURYA: Where is he itself?

NORA: He went down to see would there be another boat sailing in the week, and I’m thinking it won’t be long till he’s here now, for the tide’s turning at the green head, and the hooker tacking from the east.

CATHLEEN: I hear some one passing the big stones.

NORA (Looking out.): He’s coming now, and he’s in a hurry.

BARTLEY (Comes in and looks round the room. Speaking sadly and quietly.): Where is the bit of new Rope, Cathleen, was bought in Connemara?

CATHLEEN (Coming down.): Give it to him, Nora; it’s on a nail by the white boards. I hung it up this morning, for the pig with the black feet was eating it.

NORA (Giving him a rope.): Is that it, Bartley?

MAURYA: You’d do right to leave that rope, Bartley, hanging by the boards (Bartley Takes the rope). It will be wanting in this place, I’m telling you, if Michael is washed up to-morrow morning, or the next morning, or any morning in the week, for it’s a deep grave we’ll make him by the grace of God.

BARTLEY (Beginning to work with the rope.): I’ve no halter the way I can ride down on the mare, and I must go now quickly. This is the one boat going for two weeks or beyond it, and the fair will be a good fair for horses I heard them saying below.

MAURYA: It’s a hard thing they’ll be saying below if the body is washed up and there’s no man in it to make the coffin, and I after giving a big price for the finest white boards you’d find in Connemara.

(She looks round at the boards.)

BARTLEY: How would it be washed up, and we after looking each day for nine days, and a strong wind blowing a while back from the west and south?

MAURYA: If it wasn’t found itself, that wind is raising the sea, and there was a star up against the moon, and it rising in the night. If it was a hundred horses, or a thousand horses you had itself, what is the price of a thousand horses against a son where there is one son only?

BARTLEY (Working at the halter, to Cathleen.): Let you go down each day, and see the sheep aren’t jumping in on the rye, and if the jobber comes you can sell the pig with the black feet if there is a good price going.

MAURYA: How would the like of her get a good price for a pig?

BARTLEY (To Cathleen): If the west wind holds with the last bit of the moon let you and NORA get up weed enough for another cock for the kelp. It’s hard set we’ll be from this day with no one in it but one man to work.

MAURYA: It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drownd’d with the rest. What way will I live and the girls with me, and I an old woman looking for the grave?

(BARTLEY lays down the halter, takes off his old coat, and puts on a newer one of the same flannel.)

BARTLEY (To Nora.): Is she coming to the pier?

NORA (Looking out.): She’s passing the green head and letting fall her sails.

BARTLEY (Getting his purse and tobacco.): I’ll have half an hour to go down, and you’ll see me coming again in two days, or in three days, or maybe in four days if the wind is bad.

MAURYA (Turning round to the fire, and putting her shawl over her head.): Isn’t it a hard and cruel man won’t hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea?

CATHLEEN: It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?

BARTLEY: (Taking the halter.) I must go now quickly. I’ll ride down on the red mare, and the gray pony’ll run behind me . . . The blessing of God on you. (He goes out.)

MAURYA (Crying out as he is in the door.): He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again. He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the world.

CATHLEEN: Why wouldn’t you give him your blessing and he looking round in the door? Isn’t it sorrow enough is on every one in this house without your sending him out with an unlucky word behind him, and a hard word in his ear?

(MAURYA takes up the tongs and begins raking the fire aimlessly without looking round.)

NORA (Turning towards her.): You’re taking away the turf from the cake.

CATHLEEN (Crying out.): The Son of God forgive us, Nora, we’re after forgetting his bit of bread. (She comes over to the fire.)

NORA: And it’s destroyed he’ll be going till dark night, and he after eating nothing since the sun went up.

CATHLEEN (Turning the cake out of the oven.): It’s destroyed he’ll be, surely. There’s no sense left on any person in a house where an old woman will be talking for ever.

(Maurya sways herself on her stool.)

CATHLEEN (Cutting off some of the bread and rolling it in a cloth; to Maurya.): Let you go down now to the spring well and give him this and he passing. You’ll see him then and the dark word will be broken, and you can say “God speed you,” the way he’ll be easy in his mind.

MAURYA (Taking the bread.): Will I be in it as soon as himself?

CATHLEEN: If you go now quickly.

MAURYA (Standing up unsteadily.): It’s hard set I am to walk.

CATHLEEN (Looking at her anxiously.): Give her the stick, Nora, or maybe she’ll slip on the big stones.

NORA: What stick?

CATHLEEN: The stick Michael brought from Connemara.

MAURYA (Taking a stick Nora gives her.): In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.

(She goes out slowly. Nora goes over to the ladder.)

CATHLEEN: Wait, Nora, maybe she’d turn back quickly. She’s that sorry, God help her, you wouldn’t know the thing she’d do.

NORA: Is she gone round by the bush?

CATHLEEN (Looking out.): She’s gone now. Throw it down quickly, for the Lord knows when she’ll be out of it again.

NORA (Getting the bundle from the loft.): The young priest said he’d be passing to-morrow, and we might go down and speak to him below if it’s Michael’s they are surely.

CATHLEEN (Taking the bundle.): Did he say what way they were found?

NORA (Coming down.): “There were two men,” says he, “and they rowing round with poteen before the cocks crowed, and the oar of one of them caught the body, and they passing the black cliffs of the north.”


CATHLEEN (Trying to open the bundle.): Give me a knife, Nora, the string’s perished with the salt water, and there’s a black knot on it you wouldn’t loosen in a week.

NORA (Giving her a knife.): I’ve heard tell it was a long way to Donegal.

CATHLEEN (Cutting the string.): It is surely. There was a man in here a while ago—the man sold us that knife—and he said if you set off walking from the rocks beyond, it would be seven days you’d be in Donegal.

NORA: And what time would a man take, and he floating?

(Cathleen opens the bundle and takes out a bit of a stocking. They look at them eagerly.)

CATHLEEN (In a low voice.): The Lord spare us, Nora! Isn’t it a queer hard thing to say if it’s his they are surely?

NORA: I’ll get his shirt off the hook the way we can put the one flannel on the other (she looks through some clothes hanging in the corner.) It’s not with them, Cathleen, and where will it be?

CATHLEEN: I’m thinking Bartley put it on him in the morning, for his own shirt was heavy with the salt in it (pointing to the corner). There’s a bit of a sleeve was of the same stuff. Give me that and it will do.

(Nora brings it to her and they compare the flannel.)

CATHLEEN: It’s the same stuff, Nora but if it is itself aren’t there great rolls of it in the shops of Galway, and isn’t it many another man may have a shirt of it as well as Michael himself?

NORA (Who has taken up the stocking and counted the stitches, crying out.): It’s Michael, Cathleen, it’s Michael; God spare his soul, and what will herself say when she hears this story, and Bartley on the sea?

CATHLEEN (Taking the stocking.): It’s a plain stocking.

NORA: It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them.

CATHLEEN (Counts the stitches.): It’s that number is in it (crying out.) Ah, Nora, isn’t it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?

NORA (Swinging herself round, and throwing out her arms on the clothes.): And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher, but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?

CATHLEEN (After an instant.): Tell me is herself coming, Nora? I hear a little sound on the path.

NORA (Looking out.): She is, Cathleen. She’s coming up to the door.

CATHLEEN: Put these things away before she’ll come in. Maybe it’s easier she’ll be after giving her blessing to Bartley, and we won’t let on we’ve heard anything the time he’s on the sea.

NORA (Helping Cathleen to close the bundle.): We’ll put them here in the corner.

(They put them into a hole in the chimney corner. Cathleen goes back to the spinning-wheel.)

NORA: Will she see it was crying I was?

CATHLEEN: Keep your back to the door the way the light’ll not be on you. (Nora sits down at the chimney corner, with her back to the door. Maurya comes in very slowly, without looking at the girls, and goes over to her stool at the other side of the fire. The cloth with the bread is still in her hand. The girls look at each other, and NORA: points to the bundle of bread.)

CATHLEEN (After spinning for a moment.): You didn’t give him his bit of bread?

(Maurya begins to keen softly, without turning round.)

CATHLEEN: Did you see him riding down? (Maurya goes on keening.)

CATHLEEN (A little impatiently.): God forgive you; isn’t it a better thing to raise your voice and tell what you seen, than to be making lamentation for a thing that’s done? Did you see Bartley, I’m saying to you?

MAURYA (With a weak voice.): My heart’s broken from this day.

CATHLEEN (As before.): Did you see Bartley?

MAURYA: I seen the fearfulest thing.


CATHLEEN (Leaves her wheel and looks out.): God forgive you; he’s riding the mare now over the green head, and the gray pony behind him.

MAURYA (Starts, so that her shawl falls back from her head and shows her white tossed hair. With a frightened voice.): The gray pony behind him.

CATHLEEN: (Coming to the fire.) What is it ails you, at all?

MAURYA (Speaking very slowly.): I’ve seen the fearfulest thing any person has seen, since the day Bride Dara seen the dead man with the child in his arms.


(They crouch down in front of the old woman at the fire.)

NORA: Tell us what it is you seen.

MAURYA: I went down to the spring well, and I stood there saying a prayer to myself. Then Bartley came along, and he riding on the red mare with the gray pony behind him (she puts up her hands, as if to hide something from her eyes.) The Son of God spare us, Nora!

CATHLEEN: What is it you seen.

MAURYA: I seen Michael himself.

CATHLEEN (Speaking softly.): You did not, mother; it wasn’t Michael you seen, for his body is after being found in the far north, and he’s got a clean burial by the grace of God.

MAURYA (A little defiantly.): I’m after seeing him this day, and he riding and galloping. Bartley came first on the red mare; and I tried to say “God speed you,” but something choked the words in my throat. He went by quickly; and “the blessing of God on you,” says he, and I could say nothing. I looked up then, and I crying, at the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it—with fine clothes on him, and new shoes on his feet.

CATHLEEN (Begins to keen.): It’s destroyed we are from this day. It’s destroyed, surely.

NORA: Didn’t the young priest say the Almighty God wouldn’t leave her destitute with no son living?

MAURYA (In a low voice, but clearly.): It’s little the like of him knows of the sea…. Bartley will be lost now, and let you call in Eamon and make me a good coffin out of the white boards, for I won’t live after them. I’ve had a husband, and a husband’s father, and six sons in this house—six fine men, though it was a hard birth I had with every one of them and they coming to the world— and some of them were found and some of them were not found, but they’re gone now the lot of them . . . There were Stephen, and Shawn, were lost in the great wind, and found after in the Bay of Gregory of the Golden Mouth, and carried up the two of them on the one plank, and in by that door.

(She pauses for a moment, the girls start as if they heard something through the door that is half open behind them.)

NORA (In a whisper.): Did you hear that, Cathleen? Did you hear a noise in the north-east?

CATHLEEN (In a whisper.): There’s some one after crying out by the seashore.

MAURYA (Continues without hearing anything.): There was Sheamus and his father, and his own father again, were lost in a dark night, and not a stick or sign was seen of them when the sun went up. There was Patch after was drowned out of a curagh that turned over. I was sitting here with Bartley, and he a baby, lying on my two knees, and I seen two women, and three women, and four women coming in, and they crossing themselves, and not saying a word. I looked out then, and there were men coming after them, and they holding a thing in the half of a red sail, and water dripping out of it—it was a dry day, Nora—and leaving a track to the door.

(She pauses again with her hand stretched out towards the door. It opens softly and old women begin to come in, crossing themselves on the threshold, and kneeling down in front of the stage with red petticoats over their heads.)

MAURYA (Half in a dream, to Cathleen.): Is it Patch, or Michael, or what is it at all?

CATHLEEN: Michael is after being found in the far north, and when he is found there how could he be here in this place?

MAURYA: There does be a power of young men floating round in the sea, and what way would they know if it was Michael they had, or another man like him, for when a man is nine days in the sea, and the wind blowing, it’s hard set his own mother would be to say what man was it.

CATHLEEN: It’s Michael, God spare him, for they’re after sending us a bit of his clothes from the far north.

(She reaches out and hands MAURYA the clothes that belonged to Michael. Maurya stands up slowly, and takes them into her hands. NORA looks out.)

NORA: They’re carrying a thing among them and there’s water dripping out of it and leaving a track by the big stones.

CATHLEEN (In a whisper to the women who have come in.): Is it Bartley it is?

ONE OF THE WOMEN: It is surely, God rest his soul.

(Two younger women come in and pull out the table. Then men carry in the body of Bartley, laid on a plank, with a bit of a sail over it, and lay it on the table.)

CATHLEEN (To the women, as they are doing so.): What way was he drowned?

ONE OF THE WOMEN: The gray pony knocked him into the sea, and he was washed out where there is a great surf on the white rocks.

(Maurya has gone over and knelt down at the head of the table. The women are keening softly and swaying themselves with a slow movement. Cathleen and Nora kneel at the other end of the table. The men kneel near the door.)

MAURYA (Raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her.): They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. (To Nora). Give me the Holy Water, Nora, there’s a small sup still on the dresser. (Nora gives it to her.)

MAURYA (Drops Michael’s clothes across Bartley’s feet, and sprinkles the Holy Water over him.): It isn’t that I haven’t prayed for you, Bartley, to the Almighty God. It isn’t that I haven’t said prayers in the dark night till you wouldn’t know what I’ld be saying; but it’s a great rest I’ll have now, and it’s time surely. It’s a great rest I’ll have now, and great sleeping in the long nights after Samhain, if it’s only a bit of wet flour we do have to eat, and maybe a fish that would be stinking.

(She kneels down again, crossing herself, and saying prayers under her breath.)

CATHLEEN (To an old man.): Maybe yourself and Eamon would make a coffin when the sun rises. We have fine white boards herself bought, God help her, thinking Michael would be found, and I have a new cake you can eat while you’ll be working.

THE OLD MAN (Looking at the boards.): Are there nails with them?

CATHLEEN: There are not, Colum; we didn’t think of the nails.

ANOTHER MAN: It’s a great wonder she wouldn’t think of the nails, and all the coffins she’s seen made already.

CATHLEEN: It’s getting old she is, and broken.

(Maurya stands up again very slowly and spreads out the pieces of Michael’s clothes beside the body, sprinkling them with the last of the Holy Water.)

NORA (In a whisper to Cathleen): She’s quiet now and easy; but the day Michael was drowned you could hear her crying out from this to the spring well. It’s fonder she was of Michael, and would any one have thought that?

CATHLEEN (Slowly and clearly.): An old woman will be soon tired with anything she will do, and isn’t it nine days herself is after crying and keening, and making great sorrow in the house?

MAURYA (Puts the empty cup mouth downwards on the table, and lays her hands together on Bartley’s feet.): They’re all together this time, and the end is come. May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley’s soul, and on Michael’s soul, and on the souls of Sheamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn (bending her head)); and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of every one is left living in the world.

(She pauses, and the keen rises a little more loudly from the women, then sinks away.)

MAURYA (Continuing): Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.

(She kneels down again and the curtain falls slowly.)

EXPERIENCING Riders to the Sea

1. Plot: What happens in this drama? Who changes in what way?

2. Ideas: What ideas are important in this drama? Could this be said to be a drama of ideas rather than a drama of action?

The plot of Riders to the Sea is virtually a straight line in that the question at the beginning of the play, whether Michael has been found dead, is answered step by step through the inquiry of the bundle the young priest brings. The shirt and stocking are ordinary enough, but through the analysis of the stitching Michael’s death is confirmed quickly. Then the question is whether Bartley will risk his life now that he is the only man left in the family. Of course, we feel his sense of need to prove himself and he becomes the archetype of the reckless youth seeking his identity on the sea. The plot has a sense of inevitability about it, but that does not make it any less painful to watch because the result of the action of the drama is the abandonment of the women who must live on.

If this is a drama of ideas, it is about the idea of fate at work in the modern world. Here fate takes the form of the wild environment. The Aran islands are harsh and the poverty of the people who live on them is cruel. To raise a family and to live even for a short time in this part of Ireland has always been known to be daunting, challenging even the most dutiful of people. In some ways, too, the play is about the relationships of men and women. Maurya reels off a litany of the men who have perished, leaving their women behind them. Synge lived on one of the Aran islands for a time and knew the characters that he portrayed. He knew the recklessness of the men and the stoic patience and hopefulness of the women. Riders to the Sea is his hymn to a people for whom he had great admiration.

3. Character: Are there type characters in this play? Are the men types? Are the women type characters?

4. Setting: Where is the action set? Why is the setting of critical importance to the ideas in the drama?

5. Genre: What qualifies this play as a tragedy? Is it, for you, a satisfying drama? Does Maurya qualify as a tragic heroine?

FOCUS ON Musical Theater: Hamilton

Most of the plays discussed so far do not emphasize music, but in The Poetics, Aristotle includes it as an essential part of the dramatic experience: “a very real factor in the pleasure of the drama.” The great Greek tragedies were chanted to musical instruments, and the music had a significant effect on the audiences. Most of the great Elizabethan plays included music, some of which came at important moments in the action. Shakespeare’s plays especially are noted for numerous beautiful and moving songs.

In modern times, the Broadway musical theater represents one of the most important contributions made by the United States to the stage. The musical plays that have developed since the early part of the twentieth century have been produced around the globe, and today they are being written and performed in many nations abroad. The Broadway musical is now an international drama that is in most cases more popular than standard drama. In the twenty-first century, musical plays attract much greater audiences over


longer runs than virtually any straight drama. The Fantasticks, for example—a simple love story featuring a blocking character and two young lovers—ran for forty-two years with a piano accompaniment and essentially one hit song, “Try to Remember That Night in September.”

Unlike most famous musicals, the Pulitzer Prize musical Hamilton (Figures 8-108-11, and 8-12) did not derive its narrative from a novel or play, but from a biography by a historian. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had written an earlier successful hip-hop musical, In the Heights, set in the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, read the biography of Hamilton and realized he shared many of his qualities, especially that of having been an outsider.

Alexander Hamilton, apart from being on the ten-dollar bill in honor of his having established sound banking procedures after the American Revolution, took an important part in the Revolution itself. He hoped to lead a military contingent in the 1770s, but George Washington needed him in his camp with him as his aide. He performed great service to Washington and was rewarded with important responsibilities in the new government, including helping to shape the relationship between the federal and state responsibilities.

Alexander Hamilton’s life was filled with adventure and achievement, so it provided a thrilling basis for the musical. He was born out of wedlock, with a father who disappeared and a mother who died when he was a teenager. He was orphaned in the British West Indies and found his way to New York, where he became part of the movement for independence. After the war he was named Secretary of the Treasury and took part in politics. He opposed Aaron Burr, also a brilliant young man, when Burr ran against Jefferson for the presidency. Their competition annoyed Burr because Hamilton succeeded where he failed. Ultimately, they took part in a duel across the river in New Jersey. Hamilton fired in the air, but Burr shot and killed him.

Miranda took the material of Hamilton’s extraordinarily adventurous and responsible life and dramatized it in a way that was specifically novel, using a mixed cast of actors singing and dancing in a hip-hop style that was thought by some to be inappropriate for the musical theater. However, Hamilton became an instant hit, selling out all the seats in the Public Theater and then doing the same on Broadway. It became a must-see for all theater goers in its first year on the stage. Miranda performed some of the songs at the White House in a special appearance.

What made Hamilton different was the use of hip-hop lyrics, which depend on music, rapping dialogue, and intense and surprising rhymes. A typical passage is this, from the song “My Shot”: “If we win our independence / Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed begin an endless / Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?” Miranda saw that rap was the voice of his generation and the people he hoped to reach in his drama. The surprise was that he reached not only those people but also audiences that never credited hip-hop and rap as serious art. Miranda, though he came late to the art, is known as one of the best freestyle rappers.

Of course, musical theater has been successful for years. Cats, based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, stayed on Broadway for almost 7,500 performances, longer than Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, which lasted for 6,137 performances. Other contemporary long-running musicals are The Phantom of the Opera (8,700 on Broadway, 9,500 in London), Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, and The Lion King. A number of musical plays in addition to Hamilton have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Of Thee I Sing (1932); South Pacific (1950); A Chorus Line (1976); Sunday in the Park with George (1985); and Rent (1996).

Most musicals include extensive choreography, often by celebrated modern dancers, such as Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma!, Jerome Robbins in The King and I, Gower Champion in 42nd Street, and Bob Fosse in Chicago, Dancin’, and All That Jazz.

The musical theater can be especially rich in spectacle, with massed dance scenes and popular songs that have a life outside the drama, as in the case of musicals by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers. But some musicals also treat serious subjects, as in Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, which comes closer to being a drama than a musical in part because of its treatment of slavery in the South. It was adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel, and partly through the powerful song “Ol’ Man River,” it has become one of the most moving of musicals. One interesting aspect of Broadway musicals is that they have often been successfully transformed into excellent films, bringing them to audiences around the world.

PERCEPTION KEY Musical Theater: Hamilton

1. If possible, see Hamilton on stage or snippits online in video clips. Comment on the dynamics of the presentation and the language. Comment, too, on the question of the ideas in the drama.

2. The American revolution is part of the subject matter of Hamilton, but Miranda uses the musical to praise immigrants and to argue for justice today. How effective is his use of ideas in the service of justice?


3. Has Lin-Manuel Miranda discovered a new archetype in the portrayal of the homeless orphan immigrant who comes to a new country and makes good? Or is this just the archetype of the American Dream?

4. If you have the chance to see either a live or filmed version of one of the musicals mentioned above, explain what you feel has been added to the drama by the use of music and song.

5. If possible, compare Hamilton with its source, Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton.

6. Given that people generally do not communicate with one another in song, how can we consider musicals as being realistic and true to life? If not, why are musicals so powerful and popular among audiences? Isn’t realism a chief desirable quality in drama? Does the hip-hop style make the songs more or less realistic?

7. Try reading the book and lyrics of Hamilton. How effective do you think this work would be on the stage if there were no music with it? What is missing besides the music?

8. Musical comedy dominates the popular stage. There is no obvious musical tragedy (Oedipus Rex or Hamlet, for example). However, given that Alexander Hamilton is killed at the end of Hamilton, does that make it a musical tragedy?

Experimental Drama

We have seen exceptional experimentation in modern drama in the Western world. Samuel Beckett wrote plays with no words at all, as with Acts without Words. One of his plays, Not I, has an oversized mouth talking with a darkened, hooded figure, thus reducing character to a minimum. In Waiting for Godot, plot is greatly reduced in importance. In Endgame (Figure 8-13), two of the characters are immobilized in garbage cans. Beckett’s experiments have demonstrated that even when

FIGURE 8-13 Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Elaine Stritch, Nell, and Alvin Epstin, Nagg, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Spring 2008 production. First produced in 1957, Endgame continues to be performed worldwide. Nell and Nagg are parents of Hamm, played by John Turturro. Ostensibly, the play suggests the end of the world, with characters who are unable to move or change.

©Richard Termine


the traditional elements of drama are de-emphasized or removed, it is still possible for drama to evoke intense participative experiences. Beckett has been the master of doing away with everything inessential.

Another important thrust of experimental drama has been to assault the audience. Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” has regarded audiences as comfortable, pampered groups of privileged people. Peter Weiss’s play—The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (or Marat/Sade)—obviously was influenced by Artaud’s radical antiestablishment thinking. Through a depiction of insane inmates contemplating the audience at a very close range, it sought to break down the traditional security associated with the proscenium theater. Marat/Sade ideally was performed in a theater-in-the-round with the audience sitting on all sides of the actors and without the traditional fanfare of lights dimming for the beginning and lighting up for the ending. The audience is deliberately made to feel uneasy throughout the play. The depiction of intense cruelty within the drama is there because, according to Weiss, cruelty underlies all human events, and the play attempts a revelation of that all-pervasive cruelty. The audience’s own discomfort is a natural function of this revelation.

Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ’69 also did away with spatial separation. The space of the theater was the stage space, with a design by Jerry Rojo that made players and audience indistinguishable. The play demanded that everyone become part of the action; in some performances—and in the filmed performance—most of the players and audience ended the drama with a modern-day orgiastic rite. Such experimentation, indeed, seems extreme. But it is analogous to other dramatic events in other cultures, such as formal religious and celebratory rites.

PERCEPTION KEY Experimental Drama

Should you have the chance to experience a drama produced by any of the directors or groups mentioned above, try to distinguish its features from those of the more traditional forms of drama. What observations can you add to those made above? Consider the kinds of satisfaction you can get as a participant. Is experimental drama as satisfying as traditional drama? What are the differences? To what extent are the differences to be found in the details? The structure? Are experimental dramas likely to be episodic or organic? Why?


The subject matter of drama is the human condition as represented by action. By emphasizing plot and character as the most important elements of drama, Aristotle helps us understand the priorities of all drama, especially with reference to its formal elements and their structuring. Aristotle’s theory of tragedy focuses on the fatal flaw of the protagonist. Tragedy and comedy both have archetypal patterns that help define them as genres. Some of the archetypes are related to the natural rhythms of the seasons and focus, in the case of tragedy,

on the endings of things, such as death (winter) and, in the case of comedy, on the beginnings of things, such as romance (spring). The subject matter of tragedy is the tragic—sorrow and suffering. The subject matter of comedy is the comic—oddball behavior and joy.

Comedy has several distinct genres. Old Comedy revels in broad humor. New Comedy satirizes the manners of a society; its commentary often depends on type and stereotype characters. Tragicomedy combines both genres to create a third genre. The ambiguity implied by tragedy joined with comedy makes this a particularly flexible genre, suited to a modern world that lives in intense uncertainty. Musical drama sometimes veers toward social commentary, or even social satire. The success of musical drama in modern times suggests that Aristotle was correct in assuming the importance of music in drama on an almost equal footing with its other elements. The experiments in modern drama have broken away from traditional drama, creating fascinating insights into our time. The human condition shifts from period to period in the history of drama, but somehow the constancy of human concerns makes all great dramatists our contemporaries.

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