Drama Introductory



  • Read both parts
  • Remember that words shown in boldface may be on the self-assessments.
  • Hint:  As you work online, if you encounter vocabulary you are unfamiliar with, you can get a definition and pronunciation by looking the word up at http://www.miriamwebster.com



Defining drama

Trifles--the elements of Drama



Defining drama--

You know a lot about drama because you see so much of it--tv, movies, videos, live drama (high school or professional productions).  Several years ago I asked my class to list all the dramas they had seen in the last two weeks.  My plan was to define "drama" inductively.  That is, by starting with what we felt was drama, we would come up with an inclusive definition based on our own reality.  Try that now:  jot down a list of the dramas you have seen in the last two weeks.


When I heard the list of my students, I had no problem with examples of movies, tv shows, videotapes, and on-stage drama.  The definition that resulted was something like:  a story with characters acting out a conflict that is resolved.  It didn't matter whether the story was on a stage or filmed.  It could even be a street theater like those I'd read about sponsored by the charity Save the Children to spread the word in Nepal among a largely illiterate population about the dangers of AIDS.  It could be a tv series such as West Wing with multiple story lines but usually only one resolution per episode. 


But I realized that some of my students were working with a definition of drama that challenged mine.  And that conflict made me want to sharpen my definition, even though I learned from their example.


Would you include #1?  One student talked about seeing an argument at work between two co-workers.  As the student explained the episode, I could see how it fit a broad definition of drama:  it was a conflict and it was resolved by the characters involved.  If you really care about the READER/AUDIENCE in interpreting literature, then my student was right.  He created the drama by noticing it as a drama.  But I was unhappy including this example.  I wanted a drama to have meaning from an AUTHOR.  I wanted it to be shaped to have a meaning, so that it wasn't just an inkblot that I could read meaning into--whatever I wanted it to mean.  Even if I didn't infer (figure out) the same meaning as the author implied (that is, suggested), I wanted the drama to have a reality that I could check with someone else.  And that meant that it had to be scripted in some way so that it was replicable, replayable--so I could discuss it with someone else.  See FAQ1 to understand how people can hold different "reasonable" interpretations. 


Yet I realized how important the student's example was.  Surely the power of drama on stage (tv/moviehouse/video) comes from the basic human instinct to understand the life we live (or wish for or fear) by taking it out of our real life setting and putting it into a frame.  In the case of drama, that frame is a stage of some sort.  That is, at least in my definition, a playwright does in literature what my student had done as an AUDIENCE to a real-life episode.


Would you include #2?  Another student included in her list the funeral of England's Princess Diana which she had seen on television that week.  It was clearly "staged" in a particular order, with much of what was said predictable based on the liturgy of the Anglican Church, with characters such as Diana’s brother and the presiding clergyman.  When questioned about conflict, the student said it was between the grief of the participants and their belief that the deceased had gone to a better place.  And it was replicable because it was filmed and could be shown again. 


Yet there was something in the example that didn't seem to fit.  I remembered a broad definition of play as "rule-governed behavior without serious consequences" (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens [Boston:  BeaconP, 1955]).  This definition covered drama as well as football games.  What was it about the funeral that made it seem weird to think of it as drama and almost disrespectful to think of calling it a play?  I would call the funeral a ritual, but not a play.  A ritual has a script but the main character changes with each time it is performed, and the results--on the main character and the audience--are serious in emotional, spiritual or legal results, whether at a wedding, a baptism, oath taking in a court of law or taking office as president. Drama is pretended; ritual is scripted, but real, with the main parts not played by actors. 


New question:  So is Survivor or other "reality TV" shows a drama?  Is a quiz show?


At the end of the discussion, I realized that we all may have somewhat different definitions of drama.  The one I finally formulated was this:

A drama is a scripted story of characters in a conflict that gets resolved to make a point, and this script can be repeated when actors perform a staged version (whether on stage, in a film or television production).



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The Elements of Drama:  Trifles


Definitions are only useful if they help us see or do more.  So let's see what a definition can help us see with the one-act play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.  . 


Most definitions [hjs1] contain at least the following five elements:

  • action--the events that are shown or mentioned in the story
  • plotting/scripting--the ordering of actions in the story to make a point.  In drama, this starts with the introduction of the conflict (called the exposition), to increasing complication (called rising action) to a turning point (sometimes called the climax), followed by falling action that leads to a resolution of the conflict.  A simple way to think of this story line is to ask:  from what situation?  through what? to what?
  • world--the setting (time, place, country) and mode (realistic, science fiction, fantasy)
  • characters--the people (or cartoon characters or animals) who are shown to be involved in the conflict
  • staging--decisions about setting, costuming, lighting, movement of characters (called blocking) that body forth the drama in a production based on a script.


What do we gain from using these definitions?  Well, what do we gain from having commonly accepted understanding of what a strike is in baseball, or a home run, or a double?  That is, we can talk to each other more precisely and clearly about our reactions and interpretations. 


Action:  For example, in Trifles, if someone asked you what it was about, you might say it's about how a woman murders her husband.  Certainly the most sensational part of the play is the strangling of Mr. Wright.  But writing a summary of the action shows the drama is not a murder but the detection of a murder: Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters discover a motive for Minnie Wright's murder of her husband and decide to hide the evidence from the authorities (the county attorney and the sheriff, Mrs. Peters' husband). 


Plotting:  The way the story is put together deals with the plotting or scripting of the story.  And the plotting helps explain why the women act as they do.  In Aspects of the Novel (1927), the novelist E.M. Forster defined the difference between plotting and story (what we're calling action) with an example:  Story is: the king died and the queen died.  Plotting is:  the king died and then the queen died of grief.  Plotting helps explain why; action just explains what happens.  In a drama, it is useful to notice the way the author puts the action together in presenting and resolving the central conflict of the drama in the plot structure.


1.       introduction of the conflict (exposition)

2.       rising action or complication

3.       turning point (climax)

4.       falling action

5.       resolution


Try formulating your own list.  The editors of the Norton Anthology give one listing on pp.1029-1030, but that is not the only answer.  If you want to see a different formulation from the editors' explanation, click  here [hjs2] .  (If you're interested in exploring the question of why people come up with different interpretations, click FAQ2.)  What did you decide was the turning point?  For example,

·         finding the bird?

·         Mrs. Peters saying a cat got the bird?

·         Mrs. Hale taking out the messy stitches? 

It seems to me that the reader sees a slightly different focus for the story depending on the choice.  If you are willing to play with me--take a minute to think through or jot down your agreement or disagreement, either before or after you check out my reasoning by clicking here[hjs3] . 


Our definition also stresses an author ordering elements of the story to produce effects in the audience.  To check this out, consider the order in which certain props are discovered.  There are two lists below:  the one on the left is the order of presentation in the play, the one on the right is a re-ordering.  What is lost by the re-ordering?



Actual Order

Scrambled Order

Mr. Henderson criticizes the dirty roller towel.

Henderson says he's searching for a motive--to explain the strangling method.

Mrs. Peters finds the quilting basket and Mrs. Hale notices one block of quilt with irregular stitching..

Mrs. Peters finds the birdcage with a broken door.

Mrs. Peters finds the birdcage with a broken door.

Mrs. Hale finds the bird.

Mrs. Hale finds the bird.

Mrs. Peters finds the quilting basket and Mrs. Hale notices one block of quilt with irregular stitching..

Henderson says he's searching for a motive--to explain the strangling method.

Mr. Henderson criticizes the dirty roller towel.


If you saw the play in the scrambled order, would that change your opinion of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters?  Do you think a different order might have changed what they thought and did?  I must confess that I tried to re-do the order so that Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters find evidence of a link to the murder (strangulation of bird) and a possible motive before they find the evidence that makes them identify with Mrs. Wright's plight.  Glaspell has ordered the story elements in such a way that the women--and the audience--understand Mrs. Wright's life before they get the final piece of evidence--the dead bird.


The detective story deals with what people can infer from evidence.  For example, the men check whether any of the windows have been tampered with.  When they find no evidence of breakage or broken locks, they infer that Mr. Wright was not murdered by a person who gained illegal entry to the house and this inference strengthens the case against Mrs. Wright.  The women see different kinds of evidence and are able to make inferences from their knowledge of a woman's life and values and their sympathy for her.  Remember, authors involve the audience in the play when they don’t simply tell what something means but SHOW it to imply something. Authors often give evidence indirectly through implications because audiences believe more fully if they figure something out for themselves.  Authors are often advised:  show, don't tell. 


For example, when the women find the dead bird in the pretty box, Mrs. Hale “suddenly puts her hand to her nose” and “Mrs. Peters bends nearer, then turns her face away” (p. 960). The stage directions imply that the bird has begun to smell from decomposition after death. Remember that the body of Wright was found the day before and that the house has been cold enough overnight to freeze the bottled fruit, breaking the jars.  So what do you infer about the time the bird’s death took place?  Click here [HS4] for an answer.


Characters:  Understanding the experience, personalities and values of the characters in the story helps us to understand the story. 

  • Why does Mrs. Hale identify with Mrs. Wright?
  • What about Mrs. Peters pushes her to share evidence with the authorities?  what pulls her to withhold evidence?
  • What is Mr. Wright like?--according to Mr. Hale? Mrs. Hale?
  • What is the County Attorney, Mr. Henderson, like?  He is described as sarcastic in court, and we see this in his belittling of the women's concern over whether the quilt was knotted or stitched.  I would argue that his condescension influences the women to protect Mrs. Wright from him (as I argue a bit later).


World:  We might know someone like Mr. Henderson today, but the world of the play is different from our world in some important respects.  Written in 1916 and published in 1920, the play was later refashioned into a short story "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917), available on-line at http://www.learner.org/exhibits/literature/story/fulltext.html .    The short-story title echoes the provision in U.S. law that a person tried before a jury must have a "jury of his peers."  Yet at the time of the short story and the play, women did not have the right to vote or (in most states) to sit on juries.  Therefore, Minnie Foster Wright's jury would not include any women--people who might look at the evidence as Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters did.  Why is the short story called "A Jury of Her Peers" and not "A Jury of His Peers"?  What sense does the play's title have?  What is a trifle?  (As you read on-line, you may find it useful to look up unknown words in http://www.miriamwebster.com .)  Who uses the word?


Staging:  All the elements discussed so far--action, plotting, characters and world--apply to fiction or poetry that tells a story.  But only drama has staging.  You are not told by the narrator how to take things, but must infer them from what you see and hear --either on a stage, in a movie or in the drama you create in your head as you read.  The language is not a narration but talk that is overheard.  Sometimes stage directions will help you "see," but at other times you will have to understand by reading “between the lines”—that is, by understanding the subtext that is implied. 


Example 1:  Something is going on in the course of the stage directions in the following passage about the quilt blocks the women have discovered. 


MRS. HALE:  Mrs. Peters, look at this one.  Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing!  All the rest of it has been so nice and even.  And look at this!  It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about! [After she has said this they look at each other, then start to glance back at the door.  After an instant MRS. HALE has pulled at a knot and ripped the sewing.]

What is each woman thinking as she looks at the other?  Why do they glance back at the door?  What does it mean that Mrs. Hale pulls a knot and rips out the sewing?


Example 2:  When Mrs. Hale opens the box with the dead bird, she puts her hand to her nose.  After Mrs. Peters bends nearer, she also turns away.  What does it mean that the bird in the cold house has begun to smell[hjs5] ? 


Example 3:  When the women realize the bird's neck has been wrung, the Sheriff and County Attorney return.  At what point does Mrs. Peters decide to lie, and why does she do so?  If you were playing Mrs. Peters or directing the actress, how would you explain what's happening inside Mrs. Peters and how would you communicate this to the audience by her actions and tone of voice?


MRS. PETERS:  Somebody--wrung--its--neck.  [Their eyes meet.  A look of growing comprehension, of horror.  Steps are heard outside.  MRS. HALE slips box under quilt pieces, and sinks into her chair.  Enter SHERIFF and COUNTY ATTORNEY.  MRS. PETERS rises.]


COUNTY ATTORNEY:  [As one turning from serious things to little pleasantries.]  Well, ladies, have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?


MRS. PETERS:  We think she was going to--knot it.


COUNTY ATTORNEY:  Well, that's interesting, I'm sure.  [Seeing the bird-cage.]  Has the bird flown?


MRS. HALE:  [Putting more quilt pieces over the box.]  We think the--cat got it.


COUNTY ATTORNEY:  [Preoccupied]  Is there a cat?


[MRS. HALE glances in a quick covert way at MRS. PETERS.]


MRS. PETERS:  Well, not now.  They're superstitious, you know.  They leave.


Often authors involve us in their drama through dramatic irony.  Imagine that you hear a character state an intention or opinion and you know from the plotting that is not the case.  At the end of the play, when Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale have hidden the dead bird in the box, the County Attorney says, "Oh, I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out [to take away to Mrs. Wright]."  If you are sitting there saying something like, "Dummy!  If you only knew!" then you have understood the dramatic irony of the situation.  Dramatic irony tends to involve us because, like inference, it is something we have figured out. 


Look at the scene quoted above for dramatic irony, especially Mr. Henderson's line,  " Well, that's interesting, I'm sure.  [Seeing the bird-cage.]  Has the bird flown?"


Authors also imply meaning through the use of symbolism.  Symbols are real things that have an ordinary or literal meaning, but have also come to have a figurative or symbolic meaning attached to them.  The American flag is a piece of cloth that waves in the breeze, but it symbolizes the United States.  There is a star for each state and 13 red and white stripes commemorating the original 13 states that united to form the country.  In Trifles, consider the dead bird.  It is a pet dear to Mrs. Wright in a lonely setting and the women infer that Mr. Wright has deliberately killed the bird by wringing its neck.  What would be lost if Glaspell had used one of the following instead of a canary?

  • a cricket in a cage
  • a cat

On a literal level, we see that a bird is just right for showing callousness.  A cricket is a bug that doesn't seem too cuddly to most people.  And a cat is big enough for its murder to seem like deliberate cruelty.  It is important for the conflict in the play to realize that Mr. Wright is not evil.  As Mrs. Hale says, he is a "good man"--that is, "he didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, . . . and paid his debts.  But he was a hard man."  But is that enough to cover up Mrs. Wright's deliberate strangling of him?  You may think that nothing justifies the coverup by Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, but if it is at all understandable to you, it is because the author has made the bird symbolic of Mrs. Wright.  For example, a canary sings (unlike a cricket or a cat), and Minnie Wright used to sing in the choir before she married.  Mrs. Hale even says, "Come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself--real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery.  How--she--did--change." 



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 [hjs1]My working definition is " A drama is a scripted story of characters in a conflict that gets resolved to make a point, and this script can be repeated when actors perform a staged version (whether on stage, in a film or television production)."


 [hjs2]introduction:  Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters (the sheriff's wife) accompany their husbands to the Wright farm as the men investigate who killed Mr. Wright, starting with Mr. Hale's description of discovering the murder.

rising action:  The importance of a motive is stressed, but also Henderson condescends to the women, even as they discover motives and evidence (dead bird).

turning point:  Henderson sees the birdcage but Mrs. Hale lies about the bird and Mrs. Peters backs her.  (They could still tell all.)

falling action: Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale explore justice issues.  Mrs. Peters identifies more with Mrs. Wright and decides not to mention the bird. 

resolution:  Henderson says it's clear except for motive.  Stage business shows both Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale are now actively involved withholding evidence.

 [hjs3]  Finding the bird gives concrete support to the motivation Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are constructing for Mrs. Wright's murder of her husband.  That means that the play is about the detection of a murder by women who have been dismissed as concerned with "trifles."

Mrs. Peters knows Mrs. Wright is upset by cats and therefore doesn't have one at home, yet she backs up Mrs. Hale's lie that a cat got the bird from the broken cage.  This is the turning point because we see the first outright lie to the authorities, and neither woman mentions the dead bird they have just found.  The falling action shows their deepening commitment to the decision to protect Mrs. Wright first made here, ending with shared responsibility for withholding crucial evidence.

Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters deduce from the stitching that Mrs. Wright was suddenly made upset.  They exchange glances Mrs. Hale takes out the bad stitching, and the dialog shows both women suspect this could be considered as tampering with evidence.  This is a turning point because Mrs. Peters could now turn in Mrs. Hale.  The falling action shows Mrs. Peters commits to feminist loyalty despite her loyalty to her husband and her duty to the law.

 [HS4]The bird’s death occurred before Wright’s murder.  If the setting were a tropical island, the implication might be that the bird’s death occurred AFTER Wright’s death.

 [hjs5]I think it shows that the murder of Mr. Wright is pre-meditated.  The bird carcass has begun to decompose, even in the cold house.  Therefore, some hours or perhaps even a day passed between the killing of the bird and the strangling in bed of John Wright.