The ultimate desire for any writer is to create a dramatic story – whether in the form of a stage-play, script, or in prose – that will engage its audience. Through the action or plot of the story, and the character’s reactions and responses, the dramatic story can also entertain, inform, challenge, and amuse. The cause and effect chain is “the arc of action” (Taylor 57) and is an essential element of theatre in particular, where it is not possible to get inside a character’s head, as in prose. It brings insight to what makes characters tick without resorting to expositional dialogue. An audience engrossed in a character is empathetic, living the story as an insider not a spectator. Shakespeare was adept at linking the dramatic storyline with character development. Each ’cause’ subsequently has an effect on both the story itself and revealing the characters. Hamlet, is a protagonist who, though a prince, is flawed, yet basically a good honest man -qualities the audience immediately empathise with. Grief-stricken by his father’s death, Hamlet is told by the king’s ghost, that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius before he swiftly claimed the throne and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Our dramatic story now has a theme – revenge – and dramatic questions are raised. Will Hamlet seize the opportunity to strike down his father’s murderer immediately? He has the motive and the opportunity. But instead of immediate action, we are drawn into the grief-stricken Hamlet’s dilemma; he needs to avenge his father, but he is not a murderer. His sense of right and wrong demands he has proof to justify his actions – a useful plot device and ensuring dramatic purpose throughout. So until the travelling players present themselves as the perfect opportunity to expose his uncle’s guilt with Shakespeare’s favoured ‘play within a play’ format, more questions are raised and we become privy to the impact of Hamlet’s actions on those around him. Hamlet feigns madness, and diverts attention from his suspicions. This causes Polonius to think Hamlet is mad with love for his daughter Ophelia. It also sees his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enlisted to spy on him by his uncle, and ultimately dying for the cause. When Polonius spies on Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet kills Polonius mistaking him for his uncle, sending Ophelia mad and to her death, and drawing her brother Laertes back from France to seek revenge, ultimately killing Hamlet. Even this ‘final showdown’ has plot-twists and reversals, with poisoned swords and chalices killing the perpetrators as well as the victims – all far more complex, real, and riveting than a simple revenge story.
Characterisation is at the heart of every work a writer produces. Without the creation of believable characters, the audience is lost. Lajos Egri and Stanislavski recommended writing “specific biographies about their characters.” (Seger 48). As well as physical attributes, the social elements – education, religion, career, politics – build a picture of a person, as does information on personality, such as ambitions and abilities. Consider not only how characters can contrast with or compliment each other, but how as human beings we can have contradictory elements within our own lives. For example, a vegetarian who makes leather shoes, a paparazzo obsessed with his own privacy. An essential element of creating great characters is to make them memorable, and the writer needs to strike a balance between the believable and the mundane. The audience must accept that character as real, recognise him as plausible so by first allowing the audience to identify the type of character, a springboard is formed into the process of setting that character up. Once introduced, the audience must quickly be convinced he is more than just a type or stereotype, or they will not be drawn into his world. Characters are revealed to the audience through their actions and inter-actions, building a picture of their lives – whether or not their full back-story is revealed. The relationships between characters are the greatest tools of characterisation, but each character must be thoroughly conceived, revealing the contrasts and conflicts that make us human. A good example of this at work is in The Dresser a play by Ronald Harwood which explores just one day in the life of a touring theatrical company, and in particular the relationship between ‘Sir’, the tyrannical lead, and Norman, his long-suffering ‘dresser.’ These two characters are immediately given life through the tragic backdrop of a parallel ‘play within a play’- a useful tool employed by Shakespeare himself. In The Dresser, the company are performing ‘Lear’ and the Fool’s desperation to prevent the inevitable disaster of the King’s descent into madness is mirrored in the relationship between Sir and Norman. Sir and Norman are revealed and grow through their interactions with each other, and other characters. For instance, despite Sir’s tyrannical demands, we see there is a different side to this man who commands love from Norman, her Ladyship and Madge. Their affections for him come not just from admiration for the actor, but the man. The contrasts in and between these characters give opportunities to use conflict to reveal the inner lives of the players.
A widely accepted definition of irony concludes that “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” (Fowler 143) Dramatic irony has another fundamental requirement. For dramatic irony to succeed the audience needs to have superior knowledge to at least one of the characters, often the protagonist. The contrast between the two levels of understanding means the audience sees the story unfold from a different perspective. As the protagonist expresses his knowledge or understanding, the audience is acutely aware that they know more than he does. This understanding crucially heightens the suspense and drama of the story, more greatly involving the audience in a scene rather than as mere spectators. In Romeo and Juliet, the audience can foresee the climax that results in the death of both ‘star-crossed’ lovers. Aware that Juliet has taken a potion to simulate the effects of death, the audience can only await the inevitable outcome with horror as Romeo makes the presumption that his love is truly dead and takes his own life. Worse is yet to come, though, as the audience can foresee that when Juliet awakes to the horror of a dead Romeo, she will take her own life. This is a scene of tragic irony, and one that remains timeless; it was successfully transposed, albeit with a surviving ‘Juliet’, in the contemporary musical version West Side Story, where feuding families became city gangs, and balconies are exchanged for fire escapes. Irony as a tool for the dramatist comes in several guises. The irony of a situation results in a disparity between the intended and actual result, so in one sense Juliet’s demise can also be viewed as a situational irony. Another example is in Act 2 when Mercutio teases Romeo as he goes behind the Capulet house, with Mercutio presuming he is seeking out Rosaline when in fact Romeo is looking for Juliet. In a sense, this is also a scene with comic irony. Verbal irony, where someone says one thing but means another, can be seen in Act 3 when Mercutio describes a wound as ‘a scratch’ when he is aware he has been fatally wounded. There is also ‘cosmic’ irony – the inevitability of things being in the lap of the gods, which lends itself to the Greek origins of the word ‘irony’, meaning hypocrisy. With Romeo and Juliet referred to as ‘star-crossed lovers’, there is a sense of cosmic irony to their story as well.
THE PLAY AS A COMEDY
As with all drama, comedy is about conflict. It is the manner in which the conflict unravels and is ultimately resolved that makes it comedic rather than a drama, or tragedy. Whereas the protagonist in a tragedy will inevitably meet his demise as a result of the conflict, in comedy he will grow, learn and overcome it. Whilst a drama can have elements of comedy – particularly in a sub-plot – the order and structure of the story telling for a dramatic comedy is generally very different to that of the traditional drama genre. Molière broke with the traditional enslavement to Aristotle and his rules when he declared, “pleasing the audience is the only rule that cannot be broken.” (Calder 3).
The origins of comedy in the theatre can be found in ancient Greece where political satire became a hugely influential medium. This form of comic irony has been adopted through the ages to challenge issues and authority and has often pushed the boundaries of tolerance. Molière’s Tartuffe highlights religious hypocrisy, and when first performed in 1664 at Versailles, the religious establishment was outraged. The play is also a classic example of the fundamentals of comedy – the juxtaposition of good and evil, opposites pitted against one another in a comic, or amusing fashion. Though the genre is often considered to be merely light and amusing, comedy is often laced with hidden subtext and meaning. In this way although the play is a comedy, Molière nevertheless uses the character Tartuffe to point the finger at those religious souls who do not practice what they readily preach. Like Orgon, protagonists in comedy tend to be a part of the world around them, happy to share and take from society in contrast to the tragic protagonist who often falls prey to his problems through his own isolation. Whilst the traditional tragic drama generally starts off positively, and ends in a bad way, a comedy will generally start badly before eventually coming good. Tartuffe is a fine example of this, where to begin with, Tartuffe’s targets – Orgon and his mother – are easily captivated but their family is not so easily taken in. With the audience sharing this superior knowledge, the plot swings from what looks set to be a triumph for Tartuffe at Orgon’s expense, to Tartuffe’s ultimate imprisonment.