Another aspect to look at when analysing time in drama, as well as narrative, is the concept of order (see also order in prose). How are events ordered temporally? Does the temporal sequence of scenes correspond with the temporal order of events and actions in the presented story?

Flashback and Flashforward

Like narrative, drama can make use of flashback (analepsis) and flashforward (prolepsis). In flashbacks, events from the past are mingled with the presentation of current events, while in flashforwards, future events are anticipated. While flashforwards are not as common since they potentially threaten the build-up of the audience’s suspense (if we already know what is going to happen, we can at best wonder how this ending is brought about), flashbacks are frequently used in order to illustrate a character’s memories or to explain the outcome of certain actions.

An example for a flashforward is the prologue in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where the audience is already told the gist of the subsequent play. Examples of flashbacks can be found in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, where the unemployed and desolate salesman Willy Loman remembers his happy family life in the past. Flashbacks also occur frequently in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, where they represent Alan’s recollections of the events that led up to his blinding of the horses. Equus is interesting in that a linear presentation of Alan’s therapy is juxtaposed with a non-linear presentation of the story of his outrageous deed. Thus, the play’s play with order and chronology invites the audience to view more critically conventional notions of cause and effect, which is one of the crucial themes of the play, e.g., when Dysart doubts his ability ever to get to the heart of a strange obsession like Alan’s.

Beginnings: Ab ovo, in medias res, in ultimas res

Three terms which are often used in the context of discussions of chronology and order are the three basic types of beginnings: ab ovo, in medias res and in ultimas res. These terms refer to the point of time of a story at which a play sets in and they are thus closely related to the amount of information viewers are offered at the beginning of a play:

ab ovo:
the play starts at the beginning and provides all the necessary background information concerning the characters, their circumstances, conflicts, etc. (exposition)
in medias res:
the story starts somewhere in the middle and leaves the viewer puzzled at first
in ultimas res:
the story begins with its actual outcome or ending and then relates events in reverse order, thus drawing the audience’s attention on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of the story. Plays which use this method are called analytic plays.

While in narrative analysis, the terms ab ovo and in medias res are also used to distinguish between beginnings where the reader is introduced to the plot by means of preliminary information mostly conveyed by the narrator (ab ovo) and beginnings where the reader is simply thrust into the action of the narrative (in medias res, see also beginnings in narrative prose), plays by definition always already present the viewer with some action unless there is a narrative-like mediator (chorus, commentator, etc.). Since in that sense plays are usually always in medias res because they present viewers directly with an interaction among characters, it might be more appropriate to use the more narrow definition given above for drama, which is limited to the timing of beginnings and does not focus so much on the mode of presentation.


Another facet of time worth analysing is the concept of frequency, i.e., how often an event is presented. Although the categories proposed by Genette for narrative texts (see Genette 1980, compare frequency in narrative prose) are not directly applicable to drama, one can nevertheless identify similar structures. According to Genette, there are three possible types of reference to an event:

singulative: an event takes place once and is referred to once
repetitive: an event takes place once but is referred to or presented repeatedly
iterative: the same event takes place several times but is referred to only once

The singulative representation of events can be found whenever scenes in a play contain single actions and these actions are represented once. This mode is mostly found in linear plots where the main aim is to delineate the development of a conflict. Traditional plays usually adopt this mode. Thus, Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, for example, presents its plot in fast-moving actions where no scene replicates previous scenes. Iterative representation occurs when characters refer to the same or similar events that have already happened. The guards in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, discuss during their night shift what had happened during the previous night and thus the apparition of the ghost is presented as repetitive action. An repetitive representation of events is more difficult to imagine in drama since, strictly speaking, it would involve the same scene to be played several times in exactly the same way. While a complete overlap of scenes is not feasible as it would probably cause boredom, especially modern plays frequently make use of the repetition of similar events/interactions or parts of dialogues. A good example is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where Vladimir and Estragon repeat actions and verbal exchanges throughout the play and where, most significantly, the two acts are structured in parallel, culminating in the announcement of the imminent appearance of Godot (who never shows up) and Vladimir’s and Estragon’s inaction. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger employs a similar strategy by presenting the first and the third act in a similar fashion, the only difference being that Alison has been replaced by Helena. This repetition of events (Helena standing there in Jim’s shirt, ironing clothes, and Jim and Cliff sitting in their arm-chairs) is obviously used to suggest that there is no real change or development in Jim’s own life despite the fact that he constantly rages against the establishment and against other people’s passivity.



ab ovo beginning
in medias res
in ultimas res