Exam Bites

2 May

No! Not “exams bite!”; “exam bites” – tasty, bite-sized ideas for you to review as you work towards your paper 2.

The purpose of these ideas is to keep you thinking about the four Part 3 texts and extend your knowledge of our weakest text, The Crucible. I have designed regular, tasty treats on this post that will take you (usually) around 20 minutes to digest. Each bite will start with a review of a particular concept and will then ask you to begin linking your knowledge together. Linking questions will be highlighted in bold.

Bite 1: Plot

Review: We have discussed at depth the concept of “unity of action” where the plot is complete and does not rely on unexpected or “out of the blue” characters or events to resolve the conflict.  Nobody likes a story that is resolved by the hero finding the magic sword just in time to defeat the evil… you get the picture. The Greek playwrights were meticulous in designing their plots as evidenced in Oedipus the King. Each event logically enacted the following event. When coincidences are unavoidable Aristotle suggested that they must have an air of design about them. In Oedipus, the messenger arrives in time to provide a key piece of information (a coincidence) though he is also the same character who saved Oedipus from his childhood fate (design). For practical reasons, a strong, united plot is also important as it helps keep the audience on track. Long, complicated plots and interweaving sub-plots are difficult to squeeze into a two hour production and still leave the audience clear about what they have just witnessed.

A clever way to set this chain of events off is to ensure that there is no question in the audience’s mind as to the ‘credibility’ of the early events. This is commonly achieved through the exposition where events that occurred prior to the play beginning are recounted. Sophocles achieved this through the recounts of Oedipus’ tragic past. None of these events can be questioned as they happen before the play began. Soyinka uses a similar technique with the story of the stranger.

Links: Miller’s plot is equally as united. Each event logically enacts the proceeding event.  Which events have already occurred before the beginning of the play that serve as a catalyst that sparks off the chain of events in the play? Miller seems to allude directly to the idea that, to use a metaphor, once the fire is lit, there is nothing stopping it. In act 2, on page 18 of our text, Herrick pants,  “In God’s name, John, I cannot help myself. I must chain them all”, an eerie allusion to the idea that the characters don’t have the free will to stop the denouncing and consequent murder. It’s worth re-reading the last part of this act as the “it’s inevitable” effect is quite strong. Even by this stage, the audience is provided with clues as to the inevitable outcome of the plot. How is the outcome of the play suggested early on?

I hope you enjoy your first ‘tasty bite!’

Bite 2: Dialogue

Review: It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the importance of dialogue in a play. Every idea must be conveyed through the voice and actions of the characters, and at times, a narrator. In each the part three plays we have studied, dialogue is used for a variety of effects. Dialogue can be used for exposition, to show the emotional state of a character, to increase the pace and consequently tension of a scene, develop mood, and to communicate subtext to the audience.

As an aside, we should also recognize that monologue is frequently used to achieve the above effects. Consider Oedipus’ lengthy pronouncements often made directly to the audience, though also so at times directed at the other character on stage (keep in mind that Oedipus usually deals with only one character at at time).

Exposition is commonly developed through the opening dialogue of the play. This is most evident in The Crucible where we learn of the dancing in the forest through the facts that each character understands. We learn a little through the initial conversations between Abigail and Parris though the audience recognises that this must be unreliable. Later, the conversation between Abigail and Mercy and Mary reveals a little more of the truth (p. 10 on the google doc text). Its also interesting to acknowledge here that the audience is ‘let in on’ the secret, that in fact the girls are lying!

Link: Review how exposition is developed in the other three plays. Do they use dialogue or rely on some other technique?

Review: The pace of a play is often developed through the use of dialogue. This is clearly linked with the emotional state of characters though it is worth considering in isolation. Typically pace is increased with the use of short, sharp conversation, often in clear contrast to lengthier statements nearby. Look at the way the dialogue between Jim and Laura evolves over pages 62-67. What is the effect of the changes in dialogue length? How does the audience perceive the evolving relationship here? This effect is a little unexpected as the pace does increase through these passages. We often expect an increase in pace to coincide with heightened emotion (anger). Link: compare the change of pace at the end of Act 2 in the Crucible to see how an increase in pace, corresponds with the heightened emotion. 

Bite 2.5

The emotional state of a character is frequently evident through the use of dialogue. As shown above, this can often be linked with pace where short, sharp statements between characters might indicate an increase in tension or anger. Lines that are cut-off, often indicated with an elipsis (…) or emdash (–) might indicate a state of confusion or uncertainty. Long and considered lines might indicate a sense of clarity in the speaker. Of course, this is all dependent on the content of the dialogue so look carefully at what is being said and the relationship between the two characters before making your judgment. Look at the early conversation between Danforth and Giles in Act 3 (page 2 on google docs). What do the incomplete lines indicate about Giles emotional state. Don’t forget to consider the power relationship and the content here. Try looking for further examples of the emotional states of characters.

Something new: Communicate subtext

Dialogue is also frequently used to communicate subtext. Subtext is quite simply an underlying tone, attitude or idea that exists underneath the surface dialogue or action. I am sure we have all experienced times when we have said one thing but been thinking another — perhaps when a friend has cooked something particularly horrible but you don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Look at Abigail and Parris’ opening conversation in Act 1 (pg. 5). What message is Abigail saying to Parris? What message is she sending the audience?

Subtext frequently operates as a way of letting the audience in on the thoughts and feelings of a character. It will often communicate directly to the audience, to let them in on some aspect of the play that is to be revealed to the other characters. Link: Where is this evident in The Lion and the Jewel (think about who holds a secret or a trick to play?). 

Link: how is the concept of dramatic irony in Oedipus related to subtext?

Bite 3: Language and Style

I’m sure you have noticed that language and style (and genre to a certain extent) are related. In our study of Shakespeare we noticed that elevated language in iambic pentameter was meant used to express deep emotion whereas prose was used for base discussions or for the fools. We can observe similar effects in some of the part 3 plays we have studied. First consider Oedipus, the text with the least accessible language: Sophocles employs language that shifts between elevated and profound to language that is base and rough. Consider the shift between the lengthy monologues of Oedipus and Tiresias contrasted with their arguments. Most obvious, you will see a shift in line length (from almost monologue, to sharp dialogue). Review: re-read these passages. What is the effect of this shift in language structure? Do you also notice a shift in diction?

Interestingly, you can quickly identify a difference in style with a quick look at ancient Greek comedy. Lysistrata is a humorous story of how the Athenian women witheld sexual privileges with their men until they stopped fighting the Pelopennesian war. You don’t need to study this text (obviously) but you can take a quick look at the line structure and notice that dialogue is used more consistently (as opposed to the sharp monologue/dialogue contrast of Oedipus). This suggest a the more humorous and base topic in Lysistrata is presented with less elevated language.

Sophocles language can easily be compared to the language structure employed by Soyinka. The Lion and The Jewel features quite an interesting poetic structure unusual in modern plays. However, this is not unexpected if we consider the context that Soyinka wrote. A topic that goes beyond the scope of our course is postcolonial studies. Briefly, this is simply the view that writers and theorist begin re-writing the stories of the colonized to more accurately reflect their history and culture, as opposed to history and culture reflected in the writing of the colonizers prior to the mid 20th century. Frequently, this writing will adopt elements from both the European literary tradition and the cultural tradition of the writer; in this case British and Nigerian. To follow this thinking, one of the features of Yoruba Masque theatre is poetry so it stands to reason that this was Soyinka’s attempt to blend the two traditions: elements of modern drama (British) and elements of Yoruba literary tradition. Link: How is the structure of language similar and different in the writing of Sophocles and Soyinka (think purpose).

Another interesting use of language can be found in The Crucible. Here Miller has attempted to imitate the voice of 17th century puritans. You’ll notice that this has been written into the script, rather than simply suggested by way of accent. Review: Take a small chunk of dialogue and ‘translate’ it into modern English. Do you notice much of a change? One critic suggested that the context of the play, presumably supported by the language, made the story inaccessible and therefore irrelevant to modern audiences. We have already discussed The Crucible as an allegory for the McCarthy witchhunts of the 1950’s. What is your opinion? Does the language of play make it inaccessible?


Image: ‘Cooooookie Crisp Cereal!


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