Transmission of Information

Although in drama information is usually conveyed directly to the audience, there are instances where a mediator comparable to the narrator of a narrative text appears on stage. A theatrical movement where this technique was newly adopted and widely used was the so-called epic theatre which goes back to the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and developed as a reaction against the realistic theatrical tradition (Kesting 1989; Russo 1998). At the centre of Brecht’s poetics is the idea of alienating the audience from the action presented on stage in order to impede people’s emotional involvement in and identification with the characters and conflicts of the story (alienation effect or estrangement effect). Instead, spectators are expected to gain a critical distance and thus to be able to judge rationally what is presented to them. Some of the ‘narrative’ elements in this type of theatre are songs, banners and, most importantly, a narrator who comments on the action. One must not forget that some of these elements existed before. Thus, ancient Greek drama traditionally made use of a chorus, i.e., a group of people situated on stage who throughout the play commented on events and the characters’ actions. The chorus was also used in later periods, notably the Renaissance period. A famous example is the beginning of Shakespeare's Henry V, where the chorus bids the spectators to use their imagination to help create the play. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet also starts with a prologue spoken by a chorus (in the Elizabethan theatre the chorus could be represented by only one actor):

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Prologue)

As far as information is concerned, the main function of this chorus is to introduce the audience to the subsequent play. We learn something about the setting, about the characters involved (although we are not given any names yet) and about the tragic conflict. In actual fact we are already told what the outcome of the story will be, so the focus right from the start is not on the question 'What is going to happen?' but on 'How is it going to happen?'. However, the chorus does more than simply provide information. The fact that the prologue is actually in sonnet form underlines the main topic of this tragedy, love, and a tragic atmosphere is created by semantic fields related to death, fate and fighting ("fatal loins", "foes", "star-cross’d", "death-mark’d", "rage", etc., see isotopy). At the same time, the audience is invited to feel sympathetic towards the protagonists ("piteous", "fearful"), and they are reminded of the fact that what is following is only a play ("two hours’ traffic of our stage", "our toil"). One can say that information is conveyed here in a rather condensed form and the way this is done already anticipates features of the epic theatre, notably the explicit emphasis on acting and performance.

Perspective

Introductory information and narrative-like commentary need not necessarily be provided by a figure outside the actual play. In another of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III, for example, the main protagonist frequently comments on the events and reveals his plans in speeches spoken away from other characters (so-called asides). At the very beginning of this history play, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, informs the audience about the current political situation and what he has done to change it:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our House
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums change’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front:
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber,
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
[…]
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be-
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes.
Shakespeare, Richard III, I, 1: 1-41)

Richard tells the audience about his dissatisfaction with the current sovereign and he takes the audience into confidence as far as his plot against his brother Clarence is concerned. Throughout the play, Richard always comments on what happened or what his next plan is, which also means that most of the play is presented from Richard’s perspective. This is another important aspect to bear in mind when discussing the mediation of information: Whose perspective is adopted? Are there characters in the play whose views are expressed more clearly and more frequently than others’? And finally, what function does this have? These questions are reminiscent of the discussion of focalisation in narrative texts and can be treated in similar ways. In Richard III, the undeniably vicious character of Richard is slightly modified by the fact that we get to know this figure so well. We learn that Richard is also tormented by his ugliness and we may thus be inclined to take that as an excuse for his viciousness. At the same time, we indirectly also become ‘partners-in-crime’, since we always know what will happen next, while other characters are left in the dark. Thus, whether we want it or not, we are taking sides with Richard to some extent, and the fact that he is such a brilliant orator might even give us a gloating pleasure in his cunning deeds and plots.

Dramatic Irony

The way information is conveyed to the audience and also how much information is given can have a number of effects on the viewers and they are thus important questions to ask in drama analysis. The discrepancy between the audience’s and characters’ knowledge of certain information can, for example, lead to dramatic irony. Thus, duplicities or puns can be understood by the audience because they possess the necessary background knowledge of events while the characters are ignorant and therefore lack sufficient insight. Narrators in narrative texts often use irony in their comments on characters, for example, and they can do that because they, like the audience of a play, are outside the story-world and thus possess knowledge which characters may not have (see narrative voices).

In the play The Revenger’s Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, irony is created because the audience knows about Vindice’s plans of revenge against the Duke, who poisoned Vindice’s fiancée after she resisted his lecherous advances. Vindice dresses up the skull of his dead lady and puts poison on it in order to kill the Duke, who in turn expects to meet a young maiden for a secret rendezvous. Vindice’s introduction of the putative young lady is highly ironic for the viewers since they know what is hidden beneath the disguise:

A country lady, a little bashful at first,
As most of them are; but after the first kiss
My lord, the worst is past with them; your Grace
Knows now what you have to do;
Sh’as somewhat a grave look with her, but–
(Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy, III, 3: 133-137)

The pun on ‘grave’ (referring both to the excavation to receive a corpse and to the quality of being or looking serious) is very funny indeed, especially since the Duke himself does not have the least suspicion that anything is wrong here. The irony is pushed even further by the appearance of the Duke’s wife and Spurio, his bastard son, who are secret lovers and who made an appointment at the same place. They appear on stage while the Duke is still in the process of dying and thus fully aware of their presence, and they discuss possible ways of killing the Duke, albeit in a playful manner, not knowing that the duke is dying at that very moment. The irony becomes particularly poignant for the audience when Spurio and the Duchess talk about poisoning and stabbing the Duke, which is exactly what happened to the Duke just a minute before they appeared on stage. Thus, the audience’s surplus of knowledge makes the scene incredibly ironic and potentially funny.

In contrast to this, lack of vital information can lead to confusion but it also contributes to a sense of suspense. As long as the audience is not fully informed about characters, their motives, previous actions, etc., the questions 'How did all this happen?', 'What is going on here?' and 'What’s going to happen next or in the end?' become crucial.


Key-Terms:


epic theatre

alienation effect /   estrangement   effect
chorus
semantic field
aside
history play
perspective
dramatic irony