While musicals like Annie have uplifting songs and delightful spectacle, drama is less about engaging the eye and more about engaging the ear. Drama is primarily a medium of words. Because plays are performed live, there are no special effects or animation. Robert Anderson writes, "When we go to see a play, it's the movement of the words rather than the movement of the scenery that delights us."
Dialogue, or conversation between characters, does most of the heavy lifting in drama. Occasionally, playwrights write monologues, in which one character gives a speech, but that is the exception. Most of the words in a drama take the form of dialogue. In a play, the audience is, in a sense, eavesdropping on these scripted and often revealing conversations.
The audience depends on the dialogue to follow the plot unfolding on stage. Playwrights are very intentional with each line of script so that the audience is aware of what is going on. In the opening scene of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, a mother named Kate shines a lamp in the eyes of her ill daughter, Helen, lying in a crib. Kate screams and Keller, her husband, runs to the nursery. The audience depends on the dialogue between the two characters to know what is wrong with this baby.
Keller: Katie? What’s wrong?
Kate: Look. (She makes a pass with her hand in the crib, at the baby’s eyes.)
Keller: What, Katie? She’s well, she needs only time to—
Kate: She can’t see. Look at her eyes. (She takes the lamp from him, moves it before the child’s face.) She can’t see!
Kate: Or hear. When I screamed she didn’t blink. Not an eyelash—
Keller: Helen. Helen!
Kate: She can’t hear you!
In her parents' heartbreaking conversation, the audience discovers that Helen Keller is blind and deaf. Helen's disabilities are essential to the plot of The Miracle Worker. Notice also that some of the words in Gibson's script are in parentheses. These words are not spoken aloud by the actors; instead, these are stage directions that tell the actors what to do. You will focus on stage directions in another section of this lesson.
Another important purpose of dialogue is to reveal something about the characters on stage. Whether based on historical figures or imagined by the playwright, characters must seem real to the audience. Characters seem believable when their dialogue is modeled on real-life conversations. We gain insight into their personalities, establish connections with them, and become invested in what happens to them because of what they say. From the beginning of William Gibson's play, we care about what happens to Helen Keller.
Now, examine a few lines of dialogue from the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. See how much you can learn about the two main characters based on what they say.
George: Hello, Emily.
George: You made a fine speech in class.
Emily: Well . . . I was really ready to make a speech about the Monroe Doctrine, but at the last minute Miss Corcoran made me talk about the Louisiana Purchase instead. I worked an awful long time on both of them.
George: Gee, it's funny, Emily. From my window up there I can just see your head nights when you're doing your homework over in your room.
Emily: Why, can you?
George: You certainly do stick to it, Emily. I don't see how you can sit still that long. I guess you like school.
Emily: Well, I always feel it's something you have to go through.
Emily: I don't mind it really. It passes the time.
George: Yeah.—Emily, what do you think? We might work out a kinda telegraph from your window to mine; and once in a while you could give me a kinda hint or two about one of those algebra problems. I don't mean the answers, Emily, of course not . . . just some little hint. . . .
Emily: Oh, I think hints are allowed.—So—ah—if you get stuck, George, you whistle to me; and I'll give you some hints.
George: Emily, you're just naturally bright, I guess.
Emily: I figure that it's just the way a person's born.
George: Yeah. But, you see, I want to be a farmer, and my Uncle Luke says whenever I'm ready I can come over and work on his farm and if I'm any good I can just gradually have it.
Emily: You mean the house and everything?
George: Yeah. Well, thanks . . . I better be getting out to the baseball field. Thanks for the talk, Emily.
You have read a small part of the conversation in the script of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. Like any conversation you overhear, you need to fill in some of the pieces based on clues. This "filling in" is a kind of thinking called inferring. For instance, you can infer that George and Emily are next-door neighbors because George can see Emily from his bedroom window. You can also infer that they are classmates because they're discussing something that happened in class. What else can you infer about these two characters?
Review the two lists of adjectives below. Based on what you can infer from the dialogue, decide which set of adjectives describes Emily and which set describes George. Click on the appropriate character to confirm your answer.
- athletic, complimentary, purposeful
- studious, focused, serious, helpful