You are on page 1of 17

Topic 4 Writing a

Critique of
Drama
LEARNING OUTCOMES
By the end of this topic, you should be able to:
1. Discuss the steps in writing an analysis or a critique of a drama
text/play;
2. Write an analysis or critique of a drama text/play;
3. Analyse a drama/play from a feminist point of view and
4. Apply reader-response criticism in the reading of a drama text.

INTRODUCTION
In the last few topics, we looked at some of the conventions or elements of drama
such as setting, plot, character, theme and stage directions. Knowledge of these
elements will help you to gain a deeper understanding and subsequently
appreciation of a drama text. At this juncture, it is good to be reminded that
drama is best watched (or at least played out in your mindÊs eye while reading).
Therefore, you should take the initiative to watch a performance of drama when
the opportunity arises. So if you have the opportunity to watch The Importance
of Being Earnest (staged by some colleges or schools), take the time to watch it. If
not, video compact disc (VCD) watch it on video compact disc (VCD) in addition
to reading the text.

Appreciating drama text will also involve a systematic analysis of the text a
method or approach of appreciating or giving a critique. This topic discusses this
systematic approach from two aspects, firstly by going through a “checklist” that
points you to the elements of drama; and secondly, by looking at the drama text
by applying two literary theories: feminist theory and reader-response criticism.
54 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

4.1 BASIC PRINCIPLES


There are some fundamental principles to follow when doing practical criticism
of drama. These principles are fundamentally similar to those that one follows
when doing criticism of the other literary genres such as poetry, drama and short
story.

Firstly, you should, where possible, support your claims with brief quotations
from the text. For example, let us assume that you are writing about
characterisation in The Importance of Being Earnest. Let us assume also that one
of the statements you make about Jack is that although he deceives people by
adopting different names at different locations (Jack in the country and Ernest in
the city), he still has a sense of seriousness, as shown by his willingness to end his
hypocrisy for the person he loves. This statement should be supported by
quotations from the text. You may, for example, quote from Jack who says that:

Act 1

“If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think IÊll kill
him in any case. [Ú] So I am going to get rid of Ernest. And I strongly advise you
to do the same with MrÚwith your invalid friend who has the absurd name”

It is also imperative that all quotations and statements taken from publications
such as books and journals be acknowledged. Failure to do so is plagiarism.

Since we are dealing with drama, a genre of literary texts, quotations and
references should ideally follow the MLA or Modern Language Association
format.

One good guide is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (6th
edition) by Joseph Gibaldi. Refer to Figure 4.1.

This book can be bought from any good bookstores or ordered via the Internet
from http://www.amazon.com
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 55

Figure 4.1: MLA Handbook for writers of research paper


Source: http://www.amazon.com

When dealing with references or quotations, be sure to keep a record of your


sources This is because you may need to refer to the sources at some point in the
future. Make a photocopy of the page from the reference book and ensure that
you write the full details of the reference.

As Lennard and Luckhurst (2002) warn “thereÊs nothing worse than last-minute
panics where (sic) you go back for the book and find itÊs out of the library or have
to go through the whole of Hamlet looking for one quotation” (290). This concurs
with LynnÊs (2001) advice that it is a “real pain to go back later and try to figure
out where a particular idea or quotation came from”, (238).

Secondly, „attend to a range of issues or facets even if concentrating on one‰


(Lennard and Luckhurst 277; emphasis added). So, for example, if your criticism
is centred on characterisation, you may bring in other elements such as plot and
theme as these are related to character. You could also mention these elements
briefly as an introduction to your main focus of characterisation.

However, for this introductory level, it is advisable to focus on one element first.
Once you have done enough practice (and read more analysis), you may then
progress to the next level where you can widen your scope of analysis. Bear in
mind also that it is important that you read sample essays so that you will have
some idea as to how a critical analysis is done. Ultimately, your own style of
writing should emerge in the essay. Nonetheless, for beginners, it is important to
read some sample essays.

Next, as in all good writing, the essay or piece of criticism or analysis should
have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Have a central focus (the thematic
statement) so as to make your piece of criticism or analysis more reader-friendly.
56 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

Draft and re-draft your work. Do not rush into writing a complete essay. Go
through the process of drafting and editing.

Finally, be sure to proof-read your work. Most times, those who have gone
through the process of writing a thesis or project paper will say that no matter
how many times he or she has gone through his or her work, some mistakes still
crop up or are spotted by the examiner or supervisor. The solution is to have
someone proofread the text for you. Do not rely too heavily on the computer to
proofread the spelling as it cannot detect errors that are valid words (post/ pots,
there/their).

Having noted the fundamentals of writing a critical or analytical essay, the next
section presents a “checklist” that may help a person to formulate ideas for the
essay.

4.2 A CHECKLIST TO GET IDEAS


The following checklist is adapted from A Short Guide to Writing About
Literature (8th ed.) by Barnet and Cain (2000). The checklist should not be taken
as a strict guide for writing about drama.

Take it instead as a list to help you to become aware of what to look out for. Like
a professional art critique who does not rely on a list strictly when assessing a
painting or a picture, a drama critique should not rely on this checklist. Initially,
it can serve as a good guide but after some practice, you should be bold enough
to venture out on your own.

(a) Plot and Conflict


(i) Does the exposition introduce elements that will be ironically
fulfilled? During the exposition, do you perceive things differently
from the way the characters perceive them?
(ii) Are certain things recurrent? What significance do you attach to
them?
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 57

ACTIVITY 4.1
In The Importance of Being Earnest, one recurrent event is food.
Remember Algernon who finishes the cucumber sandwiches meant for
his aunt in Act 1?
How about in Act 2? What do we see him eating? And the tea event in
which there was the antagonistic conversation between Cecily and
Gwendolen? What possible interpretation that you can draw from these
events?

(iii) If there is more than one plot, are the plots seem connected to one
another?
(iv) Are any scenes irrelevant?
(v) Are certain scenes strongly foreshadowed that you anticipate them? If
so, did those scenes fulfil your expectations or did they also surprise
you?
(vi) What conflicts are evident in the play?. Is one character or group
pitted against another?. Is one part of a personÊs personality at odds
with another part in the same person? How is this conflict resolved?
Do you find this resolution satisfying or unsettling? Why?

ACTIVITY 4.2

Consider Jack and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.


What is the main conflict between the two? How is this conflict resolved
towards the end of the play?

(b) Characters
(i) What are the characteristics of the main characters in the play? For
example, how would you describe Jack and Algernon in The
Importance of Being Earnest?
(ii) Do the characters behave consistently throughout the play or are there
changes?
(iii) What do the characters say? How do they act? How do they behave in
front of other characters?
(iv) How would you describe the minor characters?
(v) What are the charactersÊ motives?
58 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

EXERCISE 4.1

Read the following sample analysis of Jack Worthing. Then, in your


own words, write a short analysis of Lady Bracknell. Refer to Topic 2
of this module.
Jack Worthing, one of the principal characters of The Importance of
Being Earnest comes from a rich family from the countryside. He
maintains this image of respectability but seems to be stifled by its
conventions. To escape from it, he lives a double life. He is Jack when
he is in the country, but Earnest when he is in the city enjoying the
“pleasures of life”:
ALGERNON. How are you, my dear Ernest? What brings you up to
town?
JACK. Oh, pleasure, pleasure!
But Earnest is also the name of his fictional brother, an excuse that he
gives to his friends in the country whenever he wants to go to the city:
JACK. My dear Algy, I donÊt know whether you will be able to
understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. When
one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high
moral tone on all subjects. ItÊs oneÊs duty to do so. And as a high moral
tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either oneÊs health or
oneÊs happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to
have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany,
and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the
whole truth pure and simple.
Nonetheless, Jack is willing to amend his ways so as to marry the girl
he loves, Gwendolen by getting rid of his imaginary identity “Earnest”:
JACK. IÊm not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going
to kill my brother, indeed I think IÊll kill him in any case.

(c) Setting, Theme, Stage Directions


(i) Read the stage directions. Do the directions give extra information
that helps you to think deeper about the theme of the play?
(ii) Does the setting reveal more about the characters and the dominant
theme (or other additional themes) of the play? Finally, think of what
these elements represent? What messages or implications can you
draw? What are they symbolic of?
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 59

EXERCISE 4.2
To continue from the description made of Jack in the previous page, the
following can be added at the end of the given description:
The hypocrisy that Jack lived and seemed to be comfortable with is
representative of the hypocrisy of the Victorian upper class extolling
the virtues of honour, morality and duty in the eyes of other people but
flouts these values when he is in the city, not seen by the people. Oscar
Wilde seems to satirise the general tolerance for hypocrisy in a
Victorian era.
Remember the description that you wrote about Lady Bracknell? Now,
write out what you think her character represents.

The following is taken from:


http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-29,pageNum-35.html. It is
a critical essay on one of the themes in The Importance of Being Earnest, namely
the secret (hypocritical?) life of the upper class during the repressive Victorian
period. Read through it and note its contents and structure.
60 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 61

EXERCISE 4.3

Write a critical essay centring on one of the emerging issues in Oscar


WildeÊs The Importance of Being Earnest.
TIPS:
(a) To start off this essay, you must first read through the text. Then,
decide on one of the issues or symbols that seem to recur
throughout or is mentioned in the essay. There are a few
possibilities, such as food, class (upper and lower classes), death
and hypocrisy.
(b) Assuming that you choose food. Go through the text again and
highlight all the references on food (such as Algernon and his
cucumber sandwiches, muffins and tea). Look at the
circumstances in which these events occur. How can you connect
them? What implications can one make? What intended message
does Wilde wants to convey? Brainstorm some ideas and write
them down.
(c) Next, think of the structure of the essay. Think of a possible
thematic sentence that will give the reader a general
understanding of what your essay is about.
(d) Write out your structure before you write the essay. Think also of
the supporting details in the paragraphs that follow.
(e) DonÊt forget a concluding statement.
(f) Most importantly, proof-read your work.

In the next section, we will look at approaching the study of drama from a
literary theory that is now popular: feminist literary theory. The section will first
discuss feminist literary theory, before focusing on how to apply the theory into
analysing Oscar WildeÊs The Importance of Being Earnest.

4.3 A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE OF THE


IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
The womenÊs movement that began to gain strength and momentum from the
early 20th century onwards has influenced many areas of the academia. There
are now scores of articles that look at law and women, politics and women,
economics and women, etc. Literature is a field of study that has been greatly
influenced by the womenÊs movement. There is now a feminist literary theory in
62 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

which one approaches a text from a feminist viewpoint. In fact, if one were to
trace the history of feminism, it is noted that the womenÊs movement has always
been “crucially concerned with books and literature” (Barry 121).

It is important, before we proceed further, to understand what feminism is.


Feminism comes in many shades, understanding and interpretations. There is no
one universal picture of feminism. However, some people may have a
stereotypical perspective of feminism. For some, feminism brings to mind a
militaristic woman who aims to destroy all men, as shown in figure 4.3.

Figure 4.3: A book cover titled Hothead Paisan

Such a view, however, is neither entirely wrong nor entirely right. It is just
incomplete. This is because within the feminist/womenÊs movement, there are
various forms or sub-movements. This is why most people prefer to use the
plural form ÂmovementsÊ instead of ÂmovementÊ. There are, for example, feminist
groups that aim to become better mothers or better housewives.

So, the feminist movement is not all about becoming like men. Nor are all
feminists bent on destroying men. Neither are all women feminists. There are
even men who are feminists in their perspective and thinking of the world.

In any case, there is one common thread that runs through all these movements
which is the elevation of womenÊs identity that the world should focus on
women as respectable identities, not subservient beings who are glossed over or
placed as second-best to men.
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 63

According to Sherry (1988), the womenÊs movement(s) can be defined as one that
seeks to affirm “the value, and the values, of women the human dignity and
worth of each individual woman and also the distinctive contributions that
women make to their culture” (15).

4.3.1 What is Feminist Literary Theory?


The basic premise of feminist theory is to centralise the category ÂwomanÊ which
has been silenced by the male-controlled culture.

ACTIVITY 4.3
Think for a moment:
(a) Do men seem to be getting more attention and authority than
women?
(b) Do some laws seem to favour men and not women?
(c) Do some languages (including the English language) seem to give
positive identities to men and not to women (contrast a math
wizard and a witch)?
Read the newspaper. Do women usually end up as the victims of rape
and thefts? Who are the ones who usually victimise women? Discuss.

These questions, and many others, form the central issue of feminist theory.
Feminism aims to question and highlight womenÊs oppression, so as to make
people aware, that women usually end up as victims of a culture that is
patriarchal or male-controlled. Women are sensitised to the fact that they can be
empowered and should take their rightful places in society to be equal to men.

In literature, it has been observed that many literary texts seem to reflect the
behaviour of a male-controlled society. Women characters usually end up as
subservient to the male characters. Women characters tend to speak less (they
have less lines) in the dialogue as compared to men. The women characters are
also usually stereotyped. They are either maids, prostitutes, bad-tempered,
vicious, or extremely kind. They tend to be flat characters instead of being round
(see Topic 2 if you have forgotten what these two terms mean).

Therefore, the reader who reads a drama text from a feminist viewpoint will look
out for instances where the women characters are painted as victims of men.
These and other issues related to women are highlighted, questioned and
64 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

criticised. The aim is to make the reader aware of such conventions and not
succumb to the male-controlled conventions of the text.

Of course, there are other objectives of feminist literary theory, such as the
construction of a feminist literary canon. However, the short introduction to
feminist literary theory given earlier is sufficient at this juncture for the purpose
of this topic. Note, though, that it is not the full picture of what feminism is all
about. It is neither the objective nor the scope of this module to look at feminist
theory on the whole.

4.3.2 Applying Feminist Theory to The Importance Of


Being Earnest
Having discussed briefly feminist literary theory, we will now look at its
application on Oscar WildeÊs The Importance of Being Earnest.

Where dialogue is concerned, you may be interested how much dialogue is given
to the women characters as opposed to the male characters. You may find that
more space is given to the male characters. You need to question why this is so.
What characterised the cultural and social life during WildeÊs time? What was
the position of women in society then?

There is much to write when one looks at drama from a feminist point of view.
You may wish to consider the significance of the gender of the writer.

In this case, Oscar Wilde is a man. What is his perception of women during the
Victorian era? To answer this, one has to do some reading outside of the drama
text. You could look out for some references in the OUM ebrary site.

In addition, you may also wish to look out for the sexual stereotypes that are
reinforced in the play. Ask yourself if the women characters in the drama alter
the position of women in society. For the purposes of this module, let us look at
characterisation.
(a) List out all the women characters in this drama.
(b) Note their roles in the drama.
(c) How do they relate to the male characters? Take, for example, Gwendolen
and Cecily, in comparison to John (Jack) Worthing and Algernon (Algy)
Moncrieff. In what way are Gwendolen and Cecily victimized by Jack and
Algy? What quotations can you draw from the play to support your
statements?
TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 65

The Importance of Being Earnest portrays Gwendolen and Cecily as victims of


JackÊs and AlgyÊs hypocritical life. Their disguise using different names not only
confuse the women, it also deceives them. Thus, it can be argued that
Gwendolen and Cecily are victims of deception, perpetrated by men.

Thus, a feminist appreciation of the play could be presented in the structure


shown in Figure 4.4 (a draft showing the possible structure).

Figure 4.4: Example of structure

4.3.3 A Checklist for Feminist Literary Criticism


As in the earlier section, this checklist is aimed at helping beginners to watch
drama or read the text from a feminist perspective. It is not meant to be used
rigidly, as it is merely a guide. Once you have employed this several times and
got “the hang of it”, the guide would be unneccessary (see Figure 4.5).
66 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

Figure 4.5: Checklist


TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 67

4.4 READER-RESPONSE CRITICISIM


In reader-response criticism, the focus is on the reader, the process in which the
reader gets meaning from the text, instead of focusing solely on the author or the
text. The implication here is that there is no one “correct” meaning. Meaning is
not inherent in the text; it materialises when there is an interaction between the
text and the reader. Some scholars like Wolfgang Iser argue that the text, in part,
controls the way the reader responses to the text. However, there are “gaps”
which the reader creatively fills.

4.4.1 Applying Reader-Response Criticism


To carry-out reader-response criticism, the following questions may help to
guide your thoughts and ideas:
(a) How do I respond to this work (the drama text)?
(b) How does the text shape my response?
(c) How might other readers respond? (Lynn, 2001)

ACTIVITY 4.4

When you read the drama text, you may wish to underline or highlight
certain words which you find to be important. Think of those words or
phrases and write down whatever speculations or ideas that may come to
your mind.

For example, in Act 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest, you may ask yourself
about the significance of Algernon playing the piano and asking his manservant,
Lane, how well he played. Ask yourself why would Algernon do that? How
does Algernon describe his playing of the piano? Why do you think Algernon
asked his servant if he heard what he was playing?

Once you have jotted down the ideas and responses, look through them, organise
and write them out into a coherent paragraph. The following is a sample
paragraph.
68 TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA

Sample Paragraph

AlgernonÊs sense of superiority over the lower class is evident in his question.
Playing the piano may be perceived as an activity only for the educated, as no
one can just simply play the piano. During the Victorian era, only the rich had
the financial means to learn piano playing. Thus, when Algernon asked his
manservant if he had heard what he was playing, he probably wanted to praise
himself on how good his piano playing was. For Algernon, the quality of his
playing was not as important as his style of playing: “[Ú] but I play with
wonderful expression” suggesting that for an upper class aristocrat, show is more
important than substance.

! Two ways of writing a critical review of a drama text is by using literary


theories and looking at the conventions used in the drama.
! Two of the many literary theories that can be used to frame your reading of
the play are reader-response theory and the feminist theory. In the reader-
response theory, the reader gives responses to the symbols, ideas, characters,
events and setting in the drama text. In feminist theory, the reader looks at
the issues, problems or incidences that relate to women or the relationship
between women and men with a feminine perspective.
! When examining the conventions of drama, look out for such elements as
plot, character, setting etc.

Female bonding
Plagiarism

1. What are some elements of drama that one can look at when writing a
critical essay?

2. How is meaning derived from a text according to reader-response critism?


TOPIC 4 WRITING A CRITIQUE OF DRAMA ! 69

Barry, P. (1995). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural


theory. Manchester: Manchester United.

Lennard, J. & Luckhurst, M. (2002). The drama handbook: A guide to reading


plays. New York: OUP.

Lynn, S. (2001). Texts and contexts: Writing about literature with critical theory.
(3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Sherry, R. (1988). Studying womenÊs writing: An introduction. London: Arnold.