How to Read and Enjoy a Dramatic Play

Reading the Written Work Can Enhance Comprehension of a Play

Actor holding skull on stage
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In order to understand and appreciate a play, it's important not only to watch it being performed but to read it. Seeing actors' and directors' interpretations of a play can help create a more fully-formed opinion, but sometimes the nuances of stage directions on the written page can inform as well. From Shakespeare to Stoppard, all plays change with each performance, so reading the written work either before or after viewing a performance can help further enjoyment of dramatic plays.

Here are some suggestions for how to closely read and fully enjoy a dramatic play.

What's in a Name?

The title of a play can often provide insight about the play's tone, and hints to the playwright's intention. Is there symbolism implied in the play's name? Find out something about the playwright, or their other works, and the historical context of the play. You can usually learn a lot by finding out what elements and themes are in the play; these aren't necessarily written on the pages, but inform the work nonetheless.

For instance, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is indeed about a family who loses their home and its cherry orchard. But a close reading (and some knowledge of Chekhov's life) suggests the cherry trees are symbols of the playwright's dismay at the deforestation and industrialization of rural Russia. In other words, it often helps to see the forest for the (cherry) trees when analyzing a play's title.

The Play's the Thing

If there are parts of the play that you don't understand, read the lines aloud. Visualize what the lines would sound like, or what an actor would look like speaking the lines. Pay attention to stage directions: Do they enhance your comprehension of the play, or make it more confusing?

Try to determine if there is a definitive or interesting performance of the play you can watch. For example, Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet won an Academy Award for Best Picture and he won Best Actor. But the film was considered highly controversial, in literary circles especially, because Olivier eliminated three minor characters and cut Shakespeare's dialogue. See if you can spot the differences in the original text and Olivier's interpretation.

Who Are These People?

The characters in the play can tell you a lot if you're paying attention to more than just the lines they speak. What are their names? How does the playwright describe them? Are they helping the playwright convey a central theme or plot point? Take Samuel Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot, which has a character named Lucky. He's an enslaved man who is badly mistreated and eventually, mute. Why, then, is his name Lucky when he would seem to be just the opposite?

Where (and When) Are We Now?

We can learn a lot about a play by examining where and when it is set, and how the setting affects the overall feel of the play. August Wilson's Tony Award-winning 1983 play Fences is part of his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays set in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. There are numerous references throughout Fences to Pittsburgh landmarks, even though it's never explicitly stated that that's where the action takes place. But consider this: Could this play about a Black family struggling during the 1950s have been set elsewhere and had the same impact?

And Finally, Go Back to the Beginning

Read the introduction before and after you read the play. If you have a critical edition of the play, also read any essays about the play. Do you agree with the essays' analysis of the play in question? Do the authors of various analyses agree with each other in their interpretation of the same play?

By taking a little extra time to examine a play and its context, we can glean a much better appreciation of the playwright and their intentions, and thus have a complete understanding of the work itself.

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Lombardi, Esther. "How to Read and Enjoy a Dramatic Play." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lombardi, Esther. (2023, April 5). How to Read and Enjoy a Dramatic Play. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "How to Read and Enjoy a Dramatic Play." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).