Characters are, without question, the playwright’s creations. They can be modelled off of real people or they can be constructed completely from the imagination, but regardless characters are constructions in some shape or form. Yet David Edgar’s claim that ‘playwrights can present their characters to the public only through what they say and do’ is a claim which seriously underestimates the other techniques available to playwrights when constructing characters for a play. Social, political, historical and economical themes, set, costume and even the audience reaction and interpretation all come together, along with dialogue and action, to form the characters presented on stage. Each has its own individual way of communicating a character’s personality and attributes to the audience. There are also some plays, especially in the case of themes, where the creation of a fully-rounded character has been substituted to draw the audience’s attention to events of greater importance. Nonetheless, how characters are constructed through playwrighting can be explored with consideration to more than just action and the spoken word. David Hare’s Plenty and Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis are two examples of plays where a playwright has done so much more to project the image of a particular character than by just giving them lines to say and actions to do.
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Whether the playwright can present a character to an audience only through what they and do must, to an extent, depend on whether the playwright has intended for the play solely to be performed on stage or whether he or she has considered the play to be read like a novel. Some playwrights – for whatever reason (usually economic) – publish their plays as books, meaning that they need to provide sufficient detail for a novel reader to understand the play as much as an actor would. (Shepherd and Wallis 2002: 14) Political playwrights, including David Hare, are known particularly to do this, and it is certainly the case for his play Plenty. Hare writes stage directions with such specificity that they take just as a significant role in constructing character as dialogue and action do. ‘She is extremely nervous and vulnerable, and her uncertainty makes her rude and abrupt’ is a clear example of a stage direction which has been used to construct and communicate the character to not only the actor but also the audience – if they reading the play like a novel. (Hare 1978: 4) It should be noted that Edgar does say ‘Unlike novelists’ when making his claim that playwrights can present their characters to the audience only through what they say and do, which would make this argument irrelevant, but whether a play is read as a book or performed on stage, a play is still a play. Explicit stage directions may accompany the dialogue as help to members of the public who are reading the play like a book,
It must also be considered that playwrights may not create ‘fully fledged and rounded characters’ not because they are ‘severely restricted’, but because it does not serve their purpose to do so. Edgar argues that ‘character have beginnings, middles and ends. We learn about characters by way of introduction, then through their pursuit of an objective, and finally by their success or failure in achieving it.’ (Edgar 2009: 44) Yet this statement does not necessarily ring true for both Plenty and 4.48 Psychosis. In the opening scene of Plenty the audience are introduced to Susan, the central character, but throughout the play she does not exactly have an objective. The play is more to do with the character’s mental deterioration and throughout; Hare is more concerned with the social and political context of the play, and showing the effect that the war has had on Susan both as a woman and a person, than the individual journey of the character. As a result, without a real objective, there is no real sense of conclusion to whether the character’s journey ends with success or failure, because that is not where the playwright’s focus lies. The play’s rather ambiguous final scene also supports this idea that in Hare’s play, the character is inferior to the social and political context. Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is even more extreme in that it has almost no sense of character whatsoever. There is no real introduction to the character – rather unsurprisingly since it is not entirely clear whether the play is presented in the mind of one character, has more than one character, or contains any real characters at all – and because of this there is no real character objective and there is no real character conclusion in terms of success or failure. Like Hare’s main objective is to show the effect of the social and political forces over time, Kane’s is to both explore and communicate the psychological state she herself was experiencing. Thus both Plenty and 4.48 Psychosis are examples of plays where characters have not been constructed as ‘fully fledged or rounded’ because the playwright’s intention has been elsewhere, not because he or she has been limited.
To say that playwrights can present their characters to the public only through what they say and do is to forget the design elements, like set and costume, which also play a part in constructing a character. In Hare’s Plenty, the playwright provides much description of the characters’ costumes, using the design element as a means of communicating the character to the audience. In Scene Five, the scene starts with Susan and ‘For the first time, she is expensively dressed.’ Of course with no other description, it is up to whoever is putting on the play for a production to decide exactly what it is that Susan is wearing, but the playwright has nonetheless put forward his or her image of what the character should resemble in accordance with their personality and situation. The same logic applies for the set. A director can ultimately decide – depending on the interpretation in their production of the play – what the set will look like, but the playwright still has the power to create a set on the page which reflects a particular character.
Especially in the case of Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, it is arguable that a character can be presented to the public not just by what they say or do, but by what they think. It is obvious that in Kane’s play there is no real sense of character. Or, in David Barnett’s words, the play ‘has no character attribution.’ (Barnett 2008: 19) So without any real presentation of characters as such, 4.48 Psychosis is up for a vast number of different interpretations. Depending on the interpretation, the play could be presented as a conversation between a psychiatrist and a patient, the entire mental image created in the mind of just one person, or the division of a person into different parts of the personality such as victim/perpetrator/bystander. (Grieg 2001: xvii) Whichever approach is used, there is the opportunity to present to the audience a character – on some sort of level of reality – through an element of their personality or mind. In relation to the mind, there is also the unspoken word: the sub-text, which can also reveal a lot about a particular character. The sub-text is not spoken out aloud during a production, but the playwright does have the power to give a character a dialogue or action which suggests something else in the character’s mind. So in this sense, whilst the character is saying or doing something, the playwright can present them to the audience through the indirect form of sub-text.
It is important to remember that no matter what the playwright has a character say or do, no matter what the stage action and no matter what the other characters on stage (if any) have been instructed, an audience can always interpret a character differently to what the playwright has intended. When presenting characters to an audience in a play, a playwright does not just give the character dialogue and action. A playwright has to consider, with every given word and action, what the audience’s interpretation will be and how they will react to the presented character in a performance. The fourteenth scene of 4.48 Psychosis (if the play can even be divided into scenes) consists of what appears to be a doctor detailing a number of different medicines and the patient’s reaction to them. There are no ‘dashes which merely suggest a new speaker’, but because of the play’s overall ambiguity and complexity, it is again the audience’s interpretation which ultimately makes the scene. (Barnett 2008: 20) Whether the scene is one doctor simply saying what is written like one long monologue, whether what is written is not even used as dialogue but as material on a prop like placards, or whether the patient is on-stage watching the doctor talk all depends on the interpretation of whoever is putting on the piece, and that in turn will of course affect the audience’s interpretation. So when constructing characters and giving them dialogue to say and actions to do, the playwright must also be aware of the audience’s expected interpretation. If this is in the mind of the playwright when he is writing the play, surely it will affect how he or she presents the character to the audience.
There is also an argument that characters do not exist at all, and are in fact constructed by the audience. Stuart Spencer is one playwright who is of the belief that ‘An actor speaks words, and so the audience forms a sense of an actual person. The character, though, is an illusion.’ (Spencer 2002: 172) This theory would suggest then that playwrights do not in fact construct characters to present to the audience at all, but simply provide an actor with words and actions on a page. This could certainly be the case for Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in which the whole concept of character is placed in question, and it is the audience who shape the character in their own minds according to what they see and hear on stage. In this sense, it is the playwright who puts forward words and action on the page but it is the audience who construct the character. In his note of performance for Plenty, David Hare reveals that it is up to the audience to use their judgment to come to a conclusion on the character Susan: ‘…Again, in Scene Four you may feel that the way she gets rid of her boyfriend is stylish…or you may feel it is crude and dishonest. This ambiguity is central to the idea of the play. The audience is asked to make its own mind up about each of the actions.’ (Hare 1978: 97)
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It is important to remember that characters are not real people, but representations of people. Even if a character is based upon a real person, when presented on stage the character is what the playwright has created and is not, in any way, even a fragment of reality. This is perhaps what Edgar tries to explain when he claims that, ‘…However individual their behaviour, characters are not in fact free-standing.’ (Edgar 2009: 44) To say that a character is not ‘free-standing’ is to accept that what is being presented on stage is not in fact real and to admit that to the audience. If a play is non-naturalistic then this attitude is acceptable, but if the play is set to be acted out in a naturalistic style, the playwright would want an audience to suspend their disbelief and thus believe that the characters on stage are actually real people. If the playwright is devising a play where the focus is on the characters individual emotions and journeys, then the characters will tend to be more rounded and less ‘free-standing’. If however the playwright is devising a play where the focus is not on the characters but on something else, such as the themes of the play, then the characters will tend to be less rounded but more ‘free-standing’ (in the sense that there is more room for the character to be explored in relation with the themes controlling them). Thus how a playwright constructs a character in the process of playwrighting must also depend on what approach the playwright has considered for performance.
Not too happy with this ending. Look in the playwright’s guidebook to see if this can be backed up.
It should be considered that the character that the playwright presents to the audience may not always be the character the audience actually see on stage, as a particular audience’s perspective can alter what has been presented. In his note on performance for Plenty, David Hare noted that ‘large sections of an English audience, particularly the men, are predisposed to find Susan Traherne unsympathetic, and it is also true that it is possible to play the part rather stridently, even forbiddingly, so that the audience watches and is not engaged. This was never my intention.’ (Hare 1978: 97) This shows that despite telling a character what to say and do, how that character is truly perceived is dependent on the audience that it is presented to. The playwright can suggest the way he or she intends for an audience to respond – Hare dictates that ‘It is therefore important that a balance of sympathy is maintained throughout the evening, and that the actress playing Susan puts the case for her as strongly as she can’ – but depending on the audience and even the actors, the character that ends up on stage may provoke a different response. (Hare 1978: 97)
In some cases it is not what a character says or does, but what a character doesn’t say or do that communicates their personality to the audience. In 4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane uses long and frequent silences in the exchanges between the patient and the therapist. By having the patient not do anything and remain silent, Kane can tell the audience that the character is withdrawn, uncooperative and mysterious. This is a good example of how a playwright can present a character to the audience without dialogue or action.
The process of creating characters through playwrighting is a complex one and cannot simply be defined as a combination of dialogue and action. …
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