A photograph of children running through a sprinkler in a park

Source: Playing in the water, theqspeaks, Flickr

The play’s the thing . . .

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet

A painting of the ancient Greek comedy and drama masks in front of a waterfall

Source: drama masks & waterfall, grasshopperkm, Flickr

When you hear the word “play,” a lot of different associations may come to mind. You might think of playing as a way to have fun or to take part in a game. A play that a playwright writes is an exciting form of literature because we indeed have fun reading a play, watching the actors play various roles, or perhaps even acting in a play.

In some ways, watching or reading a play is much like watching or playing a game. The actors or teams take turns speaking or performing some kind of move, and we never know how it all will turn out until the very end. Whether in a play on a stage or in a game on a field, we can expect action, drama, and suspense. Watch this short video of a game full of surprises.

Source: (Almost) Craziest play of the year, Bk Razor, YouTube

Part of the excitement of watching a game, like the one in the video, is to find out what happens at the end. In a dramatic play, the playwright has special ways of creating characters whose actions become fascinating, so much so that you want to watch the play to its end in order to find out what happens to the characters.

A photograph of an empty stage with some props visible on the edges of the stage

Source: Lafayette Steampunk Fest 2012 Theater Empty 1, Infrogmation of New Orleans, Wikimedia

Unlike novelists or short story writers, playwrights do not often use a narrator, and they do not write long passages to describe the setting or characters. Instead, we learn about characters, particularly the protagonist and antagonist, in other ways. The playwright develops these characters through dialogue, the lines spoken between them, and through staging that includes stage directions, set design, lighting, costumes, and props. Let’s get started on understanding how playwrights use these strategies!

In this lesson, you will analyze how different playwrights characterize, or develop, their protagonists and antagonists through the dialogue and staging of their plays.