How To Understand a Play Text

Reading and understanding a play is different to a novel. A novelist often describes the world and the people they are writing about in a lot of detail. Often there are physical details of people, places and things. They do a lot of work for you so that you can access a full visual picture. They also explore the emotional and psychological lives in order to depict 3D characters.

Playwrights focus, in particular, on what it is to be human and on motivations to create drama. Drama is all about conflict. So when you are reading a play script you need to look in depth at who the characters really are and why they do what they do.

Unless you are an Actor or Director, opening the pages of a play can seem a bit confusing. How can you know what is going on when most of what you see on the page is a bunch of dialogue lines? Where are the clues? Where are the descriptions? Who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they doing it?

THERE’S NO SPECIAL SECRET. IT’S ALL ABOUT ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS…

Let’s break down a play in the way that an Actor or Director does. After all, it’s the job of Actors and Directors to get it up on its feet and stage it for an audience. They are the people most qualified to help you to access the characters, details and themes in a play.

PHYSICAL CLUES AND LOCATION

Read the stage directions. Don’t skim through these. A playwright has taken great care over what they have included to set the scene. Because stage directions are short and to the point they are extremely useful clues. The playwright has included exactly what they think is crucial for the audience to know about the world they are being introduced to. Take note of what they have written to give you access to the world of the play.

Where are they? Are there descriptions of a room? Furniture? Lighting states? Is it an exterior scene? How is this described? Why has the playwright set the play here? Why have they started the play here? Have they told you anything that gives you a clue to the period in time that the play is set?

Does the playwright tell you what people are wearing? This can give you an indication of social class, character type, history, time of day, weather, if it is exterior or interior, or even a clue to the action of the scene or what has gone before.

Do you know where the characters have they just come from? This will tell you something about their physical and emotional state.

What time is it? Is it light or dark?

If there aren’t many specific stage directions or descriptions included then see what is said within the dialogue to give you the clues you need.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

This will give you the social context of the world in which the characters live. Throughout history there have been different laws and ways of behaviour that affect what people do, how they behave, what they believe, what their aspirations and options might be. Sometimes a character in a play breaks those social rules to create drama but every character is affected by these aspects in some way. How much does each character conform and how much do they break from the normal rules of behaviour of that particular time and period in history?

PROTAGONIST

Who is the PROTAGONIST? Or, in other words, who is the main character? When you find this out you can discover the main the theme of the play. A playwright will have chosen the protagonist very carefully for this reason. The protagonist is the character around which the central story revolves. Everything the protagonist does will give you an indication of the main theme of the play. This is the message that the playwright wanted to get across. This is the reason they wrote the play.

OBJECTIVE/WANT

What is their OBJECTIVE? What does each character WANT? Look at each scene and find out exactly what they are DOING in it. What a character says they want or what say they are doing is not necessarily what they are really doing or what they really want. Look carefully and piece these details together and you will get the overall objective of each character in the play.

It is crucial to know what each character wants and then to look at how difficult it is for them to get what they want. What are the obstacles to them getting it?

Actors and Directors describe what a character wants as ‘To….’ followed by a strong and active verb, a DOING word.
So, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s overall OBJECTIVE or WANT is ‘To make Macbeth The King’. In a play like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time the overall OBJECTIVE OR WANT of the protagonist Christopher is ‘To discover who killed the dog’. Everything that a character DOES in a play furthers their main OBJECTIVE or WANT. Along the journey to what they want things happen that develop the characters and the relationships and create the plot and drama of the play.

CHARACTER/MOTIVATION

Award winning Actress Dame Judi Dench says, “You have to find out WHY does that person say those lines in answer to something somebody else has said? What is it in that persons make up that makes them react that way”?

Why do they want what they want? This is their MOTIVATION and it tells you about the true CHARACTER of the person. What is it about them, their psychological make-up, their history, their needs and their aspirations that makes them want what they want?

How do they go about getting what they want? What things do they DO to get what they want? What ways do they choose to take to get what they want? Are they successful in getting what they want? If they are successful how do they react? If they aren’t then how do they react?

What does the character say about themselves? Go through the script and write down anything they say about themselves. Then ask yourself if what they are saying is true or could it be false? Are they trying to impress or lie or pretend to be something they are not? Or they could even be telling themselves something they need to believe about themselves.

RELATIONSHIPS

Theatre is all about drama. The drama in a play is created by the interaction between characters within a set of circumstances and events. Look for the subtext underneath the relationships within a play. What is really being said beneath the lines and why?

Are the relationships in the play all that they seem? Is this really a loving family? Are these really true friends? Do these people really love each other? Don’t take this a face value. Find what is going on underneath the relationships and you’ll find the key to the drama of the play.

What is the history between characters? What has gone on before the play starts?

How does one character feel about another? How are they the same? How are they different? How easily do they express feelings about another character?

What do characters say about each other? Once again, are these things true or false? If they are false then why is that character lying? Or do they just misunderstand each other?

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…SEE THE PLAY

If you are studying a play and you get the chance to see it live on the stage, GO! Plays are written to be seen. Even if you see a production you don’t think is great there is no substitute for experiencing it off the page. And even if you can’t see a live production go on YouTube. There are many clips and full length productions that have been uploaded on there.

If you are able to see a production of the play you are studying ask yourself these questions…

What are the three moments that most stood out for you?

Why? What happened? Which characters were involved?

Why did the playwright create these moments to move the drama on?

How did those moments move the story on?

Who was affected in those moments and how?

What did the characters do after those moment in the play?

What happened at the end of the play, in the final moments?

What did you think or feel about the main character (protagonist) and the final moment of the play?

“THEATRE IS THE ART OF LOOKING AT OURSELVES”

This is how Augusto Boal (Nobel Prize nominee, Actor, Director and Playwright) described the meaning of Theatre. Just as in real life, a play is a snapshot of time and of people in a particular set of circumstances. What those people want and how they try to get it. What happens on that journey creates the drama and the plot of the play.

There is nothing like live theatre. It’s no accident that it’s been a key form of expression for human beings since the beginning of time. Go and see some. Ask the questions I’ve laid out for you. Theatre is an active, exciting and provoking experience. The more you see, whether it’s Shakespeare or a modern play, the more you will be able to become engaged in reading and understanding a play script by unlocking the human drama the playwright has created.

Additional resources:

A-level Theatre Studies Revision Tips
Future in Performing Arts
Deep Thinking

We Are Here To Help

We have hundreds of tutors available right now to help you improve and succeed. From a one hour session online to a full academic
year of face to face lessons, all it takes is five minutes for us to take down your information. We can then find you the most suitable tutors.

Eyup Ozcan
Eyup Ozcan
14:43 24 Feb 20
In the beginning of university terms I was struggling with a few assignments (statistics and research methods specifically). I had contacted many tutoring companies but non of them were able to meet my requirements i.e. some of them were just looking to get their money, some had conditions of how many session you could book and some didn't have the necessary qualifications that were suited for my needs.I had then found Tavistock tutors, they put me through with one of their best statistical tutors they had. I got an email straight away from her and we started working on the assignment and in a few sessions, the assignment was all up to date and I was ready to submit it with great confidence.Tavistock tutors is an amazing company that is worth the investment, they provide you with top class tutors, continuous support outside your lessons as well as being able to match you up with the correct tutor. whenever I need a tutor, all I do is message them on WhatsApp with my requirements and in a day or two, they've found me a perfect tutor.So far I've had great success with tutors in the fields of statistics and research methods as well as medicine related. Really happy with the services I've been given, don't be put of by the membership price, its worth it ;).read more
Muna Ali
Muna Ali
11:48 29 Jan 20
Great service, friendly staff and prompt customer service. Highly qualified selection of tutors and decent price for security and piece of mind.
natalie kanfer
natalie kanfer
15:32 21 Jan 20
By far the best tutoring agency I have ever worked with!
Elena Serena Piccardi
Elena Serena Piccardi
11:26 19 Oct 19
I have been working with Tavistock Tutors for 3 years.I tutor undergraduate and postgraduate students disciplines such as research methods/advanced research methods, SPSS, data analysis, psychology and I also offer support to clients interested in pursuing an academic career (cv and interview preparation).My experience with Tavistock Tutors has been exceptionally good since the very beginning. Each member of the team is striving to provide the best and most personalised service to both students and tutors. This approach helps students achieve their goals and be inspired by tutors, whilst supporting tutors' growth and development of teaching/tutoring skills.Each member of the Tavistock Tutors team is exceptionally passionate about the incredible work they do to help students succeed. Their organisation is fantastic across all the stages of the process: from informing tutors about potential tutoring requests, to communicating any additional personalised requests students might have, to dealing with requests from tutors themselves. Further, their communication is always so friendly and positive: I love interacting with each of them! 😊Overall, I believe this is the finest tutoring agency in London (and probably beyond London!). The tutors are exceptionally talented and a true inspiration for students! As one of the tutors, I cannot be happier I made the decision to join the team a few years ago! They truly made me a better person and supported my personal growth as an individual and as an educator.read more
Melodie Argi
Melodie Argi
08:14 18 Oct 19
Tavistock tutors is by far the best tutor agency is London. The tutor selection is of the highest quality. Handpicked from the British intellectual elite in all sorts of disciplines. The staff is wonderfully helpful as well as being extremely attentive to feedback.read more
Henry Smith
Henry Smith
22:27 17 Oct 19
I have been employed as a tutor with Tavistock Tutors for over 5 years. I tutor mathematics and also help people with job preparation for different career routes (cv, cover letter, interview preparation and online test prep). They are simply a wonderful team of individuals who work collectively and strive to deliver the best possible service to both clients and their tutors. They work doggedly to achieve results. They are particularly honest and their feedback to tutors on how to improve is tailored, concise and always highly constructive. Even after 5 yrs, they only put me forward as a tutor if they think I am the absolute best they can find otherwise they are honest with me and explain why I was not put forward. I think this transparency is a huge reason for their success and keeps the best tutors on their books for years. Their communication on what a client wants is also clinically precise and effective and the team go out of their way to provide potential interests/passions of the client to help the tutor prepare accordingly for the lessons and nurture that interaction. Simply the finest agency and I have tutored with some of the best. World-class tutors and utmost confidentiality with respect to their clientele. I cannot be happier to work for them, a dream job with a team whose capacity for kindness, empathy and boundless intellect never ceases to amaze me. Their work ethic inspires me to relentlessly push myself to be a better tutor with their encouragement and constructive feedback.read more
Albert Tam
Albert Tam
20:50 17 Oct 19
Best tutors in London! Great experience and amazing customer service. Highly recommend, my tutors were all fantastic and a huge help. Really recommend Tavistock Tutors as I never had to worry about not getting the highest quality tutors unlike other agencies and online tutors.read more
I ME
I ME
16:13 17 Oct 19
I’ve used Tavistock multiple times and they never disappoint!I used them for myself secondary school, whilst at university and even now whilst working. Their service is second to none as are their tutors.I highly recommend them to anyone looking to better themselves academically or personally.read more
STAVROS MOUSLOPOULOS
STAVROS MOUSLOPOULOS
13:22 06 Oct 19
Why most reviewers have one contribution, namely to the Tavistock Tutors?High standards ? Mate get a real job rather than living off other's qualifications.Reality Check(See photos attached - that is the owner “looking for me” 1.5 years after leaving London and while my name and photo was on first page of Tavistock Tutor website...)read more
Jonathan Aaron
Jonathan Aaron
16:39 01 Aug 19
Amazing experience, the tutor was reliable, knowledgeable and reasonably priced and the company was both professional and reliable. Definitely will be using them again!read more
David T
David T
16:34 01 Aug 19
I used Tavistock for some Corporate Finance and Financial Modelling training at my firm. They were extremely helpful and the trainer, Simon, was of top quality, experience and charged a fair price. Thank you!read more
Olivia Pluss
Olivia Pluss
11:05 13 Jun 19
I had a fantastic experience with my tutor Elena and Tavistock Tutors. They were very well organized and made the entire experience so seamless and easy for me. I passed my assignment with great marks and the experience was much less stressful than if I had tried to complete the assignment without Elena's help.read more
J Mathews
J Mathews
11:27 22 May 19
My child used Glenda for HL biology. Glenda was outstanding. I would not hesitate to recommend her. Extremely intelligent, always prepared, knows how to teach/very helpful, and also just a nice person. Also, I would use Tavistock again for sure because we had such success with Glenda.read more
Alan Radford
Alan Radford
09:34 09 May 19
Tavistock Tutors were a delight to deal with, and highly professional at all times. They provided my daughter with an excellent tutor at very short notice - after my having approached them on a Thursday urgently requesting a tutor for that weekend. Tavistock Tutors immediately gave the matter their attention; they appreciated the urgency and responded quickly and efficiently, and helped to set my daughter up with exactly the right sort of tutor. Fantastic!read more
Sophie Taieb
Sophie Taieb
12:55 29 Mar 19
Very happy with Tavistock tutors services. They provide a wide range of tutors, from all backgrounds and for all types of needs. My uni son needed some help in research and methodology. We found a perfectly suited tutor in less than 3 days. He is very knowledgeable, punctual, open minded and brings the support needed to my son. I would definitely recommend Tavistock tutorsread more
Next Reviews

How to analyse form in an English essay (13+/GCSE/A-level)

Stuck on analysing form in literature? Tavistock Tutors are here to help…
Whether one is helping a student analyse a play or article, a proper consideration of form is crucial. Yet 'form' is a...

6 Reasons To Hire A Tutor For Your Child

Most children will come across several challenges with learning during their school journey. The desire of most parents is to boost their kids enthusiasm for learning, build educational self-esteem an...

How To Utilize Your Summer Holidays?

Holidays are the best period for many students as they are free from their daily school activities. You’ll never get such blissfully long holidays when you’re working — so make the most of them....

Call Now Button