Information Flow

Since in drama there is usually no narrator who tells us what is going on in the story-world (except for narrator figures in the epic theatre and other mediators), the audience has to gain information directly from what can be seen and heard on stage. As far as the communication model for literary texts is concerned (see the Communication model in Basic Concepts), it can be adapted for communication in drama as follows:

Real author

Play
   
author of sec. text

Story-world

Character Character

reader of secondary text
 

Code / Message
Real spectator

In comparison with narrative texts, the plane of narrator/narratee is left out, except for plays which deliberately employ narrative elements. Information can be conveyed both linguistically in the characters’ speech, for example, or non-linguistically as in stage props, costumes, the stage set, etc. Questions that arise in this context are: How much information is given, how is it conveyed and whose perspective is adopted?

Amount and Detail of Information

The question concerning the amount or detail of information given in a play is particularly important at the beginning of plays where the audience expects to learn something about the problem or conflict of the story, the main characters and also the time and place of the scene. In other words, the audience is informed about the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of the story at the beginning of plays. This is called the exposition. Consider the first act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience learns about where the play takes place (Athens and a nearby forest) and it is introduced to all the characters in the play. Moreover, we realise what the main conflicts are that will propel the plot (love triangle and unrequited love for Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius). Different variations of love immediately become obvious as the prominent topic in this play. Thus, we are confronted with Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s mature relationship, young love in Lysander and Hermia, and love sickness and jealousy in Helena. The audience learns about Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s approaching wedding and the workmen’s plan to rehearse a play for this occasion, about Lysander’s and Hermia’s plan to elope and Helena’s attempt to thwart their plan. Generally speaking, the audience is well-prepared for what is to follow after watching the first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience is given answers to most of the wh-questions and all that remains for viewers to wonder about is how the plot is going to develop and what the results will be.

Sometimes, the information we get is not as detailed as that and leaves us with a lot of questions. Consider the following excerpt from the first scene of Edward Bond’s Saved:

LEN. This ain’ the bedroom.
PAM. Bed ain’ made.
LEN. Oo’s bothered?
PAM. It’s awful. ‘Ere’s nice.
LEN. Suit yourself. Yer don’t mind if I take me shoes off? [He kicks them off.] No one ‘ome?
PAM. No.
LEN. Live on yer tod?
PAM. No.
LEN. O.
[Pause. He sits back on the couch.]

Yer all right? Come over ‘ere.
PAM. In a minit.
LEN. Wass yer name?
PAM. Yer ain’ arf nosey.

(Bond, Saved, Scene 1)

The characters’ conversation strikes one as being rather brief and uninformative. We are confronted with two characters who hardly seem to know each other but apparently have agreed on a one-night stand. We can conjecture that the scene takes place at Pam’s house and later in that scene we are given a hint that she must be living with her parents but apart from that, there is not much in the way of information. We do not really get to know the characters, e.g., what they do, what they think, and even their names are only abbreviations, which makes them more anonymous. Although we can draw inferences about Len’s and Pam’s social background from their speech style and vocabulary, their conversation as such is marked by a lack of real communication. After watching the first scene, the audience is left with a feeling of confusion: Who are these people, what do they want? What is the story going to be about? One is left with the impression that this is a very anonymous, unloving environment and that the characters’ impoverished communication skills somehow reflect a general emotional, educational and social poverty. This is reinforced by the barrenness of the living-room presented in the stage directions as follows:

The living-room. The front and the two side walls make a triangle that slopes to a door back centre.
Furniture: table down right, sofa left, TV set left front, armchair up right centre, two chairs close to the table.
Empty.
(ibid)

If one bears in mind that the empty stage is the first thing the audience sees, it becomes clear that information is conveyed visually first before the characters appear and start talking. This is obviously done on purpose to set the spectators’ minds going.

 


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