WRITING ABOUT DRAMA

A complaint commonly made by academics is that much drama reviewing, the sort writing that appears in journals like Modern Drama, Educational Theatre Journal, and Comparative Drama, is vague and clumsy. The impression we get from this kind of writing (I call it "academic" writing) is that the writer is interested only in himself, i.e., in showing off his grasp of the latest critical trend, his analysis of modern man, his summation of the playwright's meaning, and so on.

For our purposes,

Performance is not some kind of exercise; performance is a kind of celebration. We should think of performance as the completion of the text. The following suggestions are meant to be guidelines, not inflexible rules.

We should note (first of all) that news items are generally written according to the inverted-pyramid form, i.e., so that they can be trimmed from the end as necessary. Arts reviews follow another format altogether. Often the major problem is to say something significant in the limited space available.

Reviewing the Traditional Play

We can consider the following remarks as a rule of thumb:

If the play is a new one, you will concentrate on the play itself, i.e., on how original and convincing it is.

If the play is an old one, you will concentrate on the performances. We should note that, in this instance, a synopsis of the action would insult the intelligence of your readers.

  1. Some textbooks advise you to begin your review just as you begin any newspaper report, i.e., with an attention-getting lead. I'd say that we should follow this piece of advice in spirit only. The reader will want to know what kind of play you are reviewing, and where he can see it. You may or may not want to indicate your judgment of the production.

  2. Give the reader a general idea of the quality and originality of the script. If the playwright is famous, you may want to mention his name only. If not, you may want to add a statement or two of explanation. Comment on (for example):

    a. the plot: Is the plot taut? Does it have universality?

    b. the characters: Are they true to life or are they caricatures?

    c. insight: Does the playwright write with insight? Does the playwright have something original to say about the human condition (say)?

    d. pace: Does the comedy or the tragedy move forward steadily or at an uneven pace?

    e. message: Whether the playwright is right or wrong in what she says, the important thing is: How well is the message conveyed?

  3. Summarise the plot briefly.

    The object here is to elucidate the structure of the play. The reviewer tells the reader only enough to give him an idea of what's going on.

  4. Evaluate, for example:

    a. individual performances. List the players in meritorious order. Although you have mentioned the star in the lead and in the synopsis, you have not described her performance fully. Mention subsidiary characters worth mentioning.

    Note: When mentioning characters and formulating the synopsis, do not mix the performers and the characters they play.

    b. technical credits, such as direction, setting, costumes, and lighting.

  5. The textbooks suggest that you conclude with a pithy comment. It should not repeat your lead, however.

Reviewing the Avant-Garde Play

It should go without saying that a play of this kind--altered or updated productions, black comedy, theater of the absurd, experimental theater and so on, including the work of Harold Pinter, Edward, and Edward Bond among others--is hard to understand and therefore hard to interpret.

You will have to determine how important the new freedom of language and of dress (or nudity) are to the total impact of the state production at hand. Obviously, a production of this kind seeks a new kind of reaction. Think of the work of Berthold Brecht or Peter Handke, which makes the audience feel uncomfortable in one way or another.

Perhaps the object of the performance is simply to raise the audience's consciousness about (say) an environmental issue. The following are some guidelines:

  1. In evaluating the content and the performance of an avant-garde play, the reviewer will apply many of the standards mentioned above, but only in part.

  2. Identify the message being conveyed.

  3. Retain a sense of objectivity or fairness, i.e., observe the audience and the effect of the evening as a whole.

  4. Remember, retain a sense of flexibility in judging modern theater.

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