Text and Theatre

When one deals with dramatic texts one has to bear in mind that drama differs considerably from poetry or narrative in that it is usually written for the purpose of being performed on stage. Although plays exist which were mainly written for a reading audience, dramatic texts are generally meant to be transformed into another mode of presentation or medium: the theatre.

For this reason, dramatic texts even look differently compared to poetic or narrative texts. One distinguishes between the primary text, i.e., the main body of the play spoken by the characters, and secondary text, i.e., all the text ‘surrounding’ or accompanying the main text: title, dramatis personae, scene descriptions, stage directions for acting and speaking, etc.

Depending on whether one reads a play or watches it on stage, one has different kinds of access to dramatic texts. As a reader, one receives first-hand written information (if it is mentioned in the secondary text) on what the characters look like, how they act and react in certain situations, how they speak, what sort of setting forms the background to a scene, etc. However, one also has to make a cognitive effort to imagine all these features and interpret them for oneself. Stage performances, on the other hand, are more or less ready-made instantiations of all these details. In other words: At the theatre one is presented with a version of the play which has already been interpreted by the director, actors, costume designers, make-up artists and all the other members of theatre staff, who bring the play to life. The difference, then, lies in divergent forms of perception. While we can actually see and hear actors play certain characters on stage, we first decipher a text about them when reading a play script and then at best ‘see’ them in our mind’s eye and ‘hear’ their imaginary voices. Put another way, stage performances offer a multi-sensory access to plays and they can make use of multimedia elements such as music, sound effects, lighting, stage props, etc., while reading is limited to the visual perception and thus draws upon one primary medium: the play as text. This needs to be kept in mind in discussions of dramatic texts, and the following introduction to the analysis of drama is largely based on the idea that plays are first and foremost written for the stage.

The main features one can look at when analysing drama are the following:



primary text

• secondary text
dramatis personae