Contextualizing in Understanding Drama – Sample Literature Essay

Introduction

Literature is created by an author to mirror the society they live in. The three- the author, the society and the literary work- are therefore inseparable. A playwright is usually motivated by various factors to come up with their literary work such as the society they live in, their own personal lives, experiences and their dreams and aspirations. Most of these support the correlation between the society, its composition, values and characteristics and the literary work. Many authors write to express themselves and connect with humanity, share their cherished visions with their readers, and thus make a difference in life. Some playwrights write to purge childhood traumas and escape painful experiences as well as others create relationships full of romance to fill voids in their love lives. In understanding and appreciating any work of literature, it’s always important for the reader to have knowledge about the author, their background, political and ideological affiliation and persuasion. The story is usually deeply intertwined with the author. In the same breath its important to deconstruct the persona of the author and place their lives vis a vis their works to understand their writing. Learning the history of the author may prove important in learning and understanding the character he develops as some of those characters may mirror the authors themselves or persons with whom the author has interacted. Like the sons of Willy in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, the author of the play came from an immigrant family who had moved to New York in search of the American Dream. Willy and his family’s struggles are perhaps reminiscent of the author’s family’s struggles to fit in American. The struggles are so vivid and expressed with such passion as the author has witnesses them firsthand. Understanding this makes the reader or the audience appreciate the authenticity of the setting and the plot of the play.

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The historical, philosophical, social, political, economic and literary contexts in which the playwright writes are equally important to the readers to understand, associate with and analyze the works effectively. The reader needs to see beyond the ideas presented in the works and initiate an attempt to perceive the works as products and functions of their author, time and place. Students and scholars of literature have a view to bring these matters of interest up before making any literary judgments on any given work of literature. This paper seeks to examine the importance of understanding the context while understanding and appreciating the literature.

The Role of the Setting in Works of Literature

In narratives especially fictional works, the setting takes into consideration the geographic location and time in history within which a story takes place. The setting helps in initiating the mood and the backdrop for a story. The setting includes the context of the story that goes beyond the immediate environment of it. Elements that make up the setting may include geography, culture, historical period, and hour. The setting, along with the characters, themes, plot, and style make up one of most fundamental components of literary works.

In many cases, the setting reflects the plot and helps advance the same. It is also intertwined with the style. The imagery created in poem such as a toddler’s toy buried beneath the rubble of building that has collapsed, for instance, may be the author’s way of presenting a setting of war. It is also vital in character development. The story of a character who grows up in a war torn, economically trodden country, for example, may turn up to be hardened and take every challenge that come up their way head on. The same setting may lead to the character becoming bitter due to their experiences or having unparalleled degrees of humanity due their daily experiences. The character may therefore be a direct product of the setting.

Many scholars hold the view that every story would be an entirely different story, and unrecognizable in the event that it was to take up its plot and characters and happen somewhere else. They are of the view that fiction is entirely dependent on place for its life. Place in literature is the circumstance’s crossroads and proves the ground of the story.

Setting assists the plot in some stories such as in man vs. society and man vs. nature ones. Some stories create the setting to become a character itself where setting is a basic way of identifying the location. The writer therefore, owes it to the reader to develop the setting effectively for the reader to get to understand it fully. Though how the writer treats the setting depends on the mode of their writing, as is the case of character development, the playwright should at least create the same in a way that the reader can identify with. A reader who wishes to appreciate and understand the works further, should on their part carry out a deep investigation into the setting more than the author develops. A story which for instance adversely mentions animals and plants in a given area should lead the reader to inquire deeper into the flora and fauna of the setting. A story that is set in a politically unstable setting, say a war, should lead the reader to investigate the prevailing political conditions in the geographical region at the time of the story. As well as a story about a family living in abject poverty should motivate the reader to inquire on the economic conditions and hardships in the geographical area where the story is taking place. Understanding the setting of a story remains the single most fundamental way for a reader to contextualize it.

Plays

Plays give one of the most explicit insights into the story worlds as the reader or audience can travel visually to the world in which the story is set and can therefore connect better to the setting and the plot than in other forms of literary works. Plays offer one of the greatest chances for lovers of literature to travel with the characters to the story world. It therefore follows that contextualizing plays is as important as other genres of literature if not more important. Those who watch Death of a Salesman travel back in time to the 1940s New York. They therefore need to have knowledge about America in and around this period otherwise they may not fit in completely with the journey back in time and to a distant land. All plays need the reader to have the basic knowledge of their setting for them to understand the play. As a rule, the more knowledgeable one is about the play, the more they are to understand and enjoy it.

In the quest to contextualize plays, the readers and/or audience need to consider the six components of drama as developed by the classic scholar Aristotle.

Thought

Thought in drama is referred to as the theme and refers to play’s meaning. The thought component is obvious in some plays but obscure in others. Some playwrights opt to have the theme explicitly stated in a title or in the dialogues between characters. Others choose to communicate the thought through reactions and emotions in the plot. In such plays, it is up to the audience to discover its thought. The thought may appear different to different audiences. The audience of Waiting for Godot, for instance, have encountered different philosophical, religious and psychoanalytical thoughts. The audience does not have the role of coming up with the thought but they do have a duty to interpret it and variations may occur in the interpretation.

Plot

Plot in drama like in other genres of literature is its line of story. It usually follows definite periodic stages in which characters are first involved in a conflict which reaches its climax, before the development of a resolution. The plot is usually split into two stages. First stage includes everything which occurs before the culmination. Everything which occurs after culmination happens during the stage of unraveling.

Characters

Like in other genres of literature, the characters in a drama are people who move the storyline forward to its resolution. In the play, however, they act it out.

Language

Language is also a component of play. The language is usually in2 parts: the playwright’s words and the actor’s delivery on stage which has a serious effect on the net effectiveness of the play. Like in other genres, the language is vital in characters development and building of the plot.

Music

Music is usually defined in two ways in a drama. First, any instrumental music or songs can be involved. This instrumental music may prove to have an important bearing to the plot of the play. The flute that plays throughout the scenes in Death of a Salesman for instance has more value to the play than just entertaining the audience. Not all plays consist of music. However, all of them contain a component of music: this component is the rhythm created by the dialogue, the voices of actors and the sound effects. Music is a key element used by playwrights to convey the theme.

Spectacle

This is the visual component of the play and includes the costumes, scenery, and special. This is the component that gives the playwright an opportunity to create world of fiction which can be seen by the audience with their eyes.

The Role of Literature, Authors and Readers in the Society

Literature plays a crucial role in our society. Apart from informing, educating and entertaining, literature has other vital roles to play in our daily lives. Literature, especially fiction is a way of broadening horizons, building character and taking a journey to the impossible. Fiction also enables the readers to look with a critical eye what may seem normal or rational. Waiting for a person with whom one has an appointment may seem normal enough but what one does when they wait for the person may prove to be of great property value in determining the personality of the one waiting and their outlook of life as the playwright of Waiting for Godot proves.

Authors have the role of creating literature to suit the societal needs. They have a duty to inform, educate and entertain as well as to take a whistleblowers’ role and bring to right injustices into light. In all fairness, playwrights have the right to create their works. They do not have a duty to make their works appropriate or acceptable to all readers. It is therefore up to the readers to make their own decisions, by inserting their subjectivity. This said however, are morally and professionally obliged to write things that are beneficial to their readers, the society and the world at large in one way or the other. They have to consider the impacts their writing will create on humanity in general. They therefore have to have a clear purpose for their writing which if absent, may lead the story to then it crumbles into a rambling of irrelevancies and vulgarity. Romance works, for instance can create false expectations and impart wild fantasies which only harm and exaggerate application in real life circumstances. Authors have a duty to bring their readers to reality. For instance, playwrights often write stories that do not have happy endings. This is a great risk to maintaining the support from their readers who envisage perfect utopian societies characterized by occurrence of no wrongs. However, the playwrights choose to create what is real, but the same time inspires, strengthens, encourages, and challenges, while bringing to light a darker side of the society or world. The reader is obliged to draw correct conclusions from reading such tragedies. They should not, for instance, label the playwright a sadist when the ending is tragic. In their contextualizing, they should not use the playwright’s past to label them a societal misfit when the playwright’s ending of a story is not as they would like it to be. However, readers are supposed to raise such concerns if the playwright becomes too obsessed with the dark side of the society.

Contextualizing as a Means of Fulfilling the Roles of Literature

Like the creators of literature, readers have a duty in the fulfillment of the roles of literature. They are obliged to choose what to read carefully, to read what they choose thoroughly, understand and analyze literary works and suggest alternate plots for the stories. In making an analysis, the context of the story becomes vital.

Studying Literature

The most key duty of a student of literature is analyze literary works. This they achieve through initiating a thorough inquiry into the context of the story. First, they need to determine why the author wrote a particular story; whether for pure entertainment, whether the work is therapeutic; that is, to heal past emotional pain, to inform or to advise or for other reasons. The playwright takes their time to write good stories to fulfill their roles in the world of academia. It would therefore do their work disservice if the reader and analyst of the same, attempts to haphazardly analyze the works leaving out most of what the playwright wished to put across. The student needs to take their time and make a thorough investigation into the story. They first need to make sure that they understand the storyline well enough. They also need to familiarize themselves with subplots within the main story. Once they are familiar with the plot, they need to know as much as is possible about the characters. They need to treat the characters as people who they are interested in and wish to get to know better. Moreover, they need to investigate relationships between the main characters, the main and secondary characters and between secondary characters. They then have to investigate how the relationships further the plot. On the characters, they need to evaluate how the playwright makes use of the antagonist. This ends up informing the reader on what the author had in mind and their purpose for writing the works. It is through the antagonists that authors usually build the plots. The literature analyzer also needs to inquire into the author’s use of various devices of style and how they help in the attainment of the plot. They also need to investigate the climax and anti-climax of the story. After making the analysis, they need to think about the impact of the story on the society. They cannot analyze the story well enough without knowing to the tiniest bits. This can only be achieved through contextualizing.

In the play How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. Contextualizing is imperative in understanding, appreciating and analyzing the play. The setting first been created to exhibit great contrasts. Growing up in the rural Maryland surrounded by a large, extended family, it would be expected that the protagonist,Li’l Bit would enjoy love, care and protection ofthe family. This is however not the case as she faces perpetual molesting from her Uncle Peck. The 1960s were a period of growth in Maryland with Baltimore achieving its firsts with the construction of the Baltimore World Trade Center and the Charles Center. The family however does not seem to exhibit this growth when Li’l Bit’s mother fails to show assertiveness associated with social growth in this period by failing to confront Uncle Peck when she suspects that he is molesting her daughter. A driving lesson given to Li’l Bit at the age of 11 by her uncle turns out to be tragic for her as he molests her then.

Uncle Peck shows constant care to her, standing by her in her low moments but continues molesting her though college, eventually asking her to sleep with him when she reaches the legal age. She firmly refuses and Uncle Peck results back to alcoholism and drinks to his death.Li’l Bit is able to forgive Uncle Beck as an adult and attributes the sense of freedom she experiences only when driving to him.

In understanding and appreciating the story, the reader has to place each and every character as well as the plot and sub-plots in their context and also investigate any instances of authorial intrusion in the story by examining any parallels between the story and the life and experiences of the author. It is important to not that each of the family members has defects that hinder them from performing one of the basic functions of the family- Protection of its vulnerable members. Her grandmother, though overly religious and God-fearing was a child bride. This may have lead her to viewing child molesting as acceptable and not to have the aversion to the same as expected of a caring family member. Li’l Bit’s grandfather is a sexist who ideally would not abhor girl child molesting. Li’l Bit’s mother had her at a very young age. Child mothers often blame their children for their problems in later life as many hold the view that it was due to the child that they were unable to realize their childhood dreams and aspirations. Uncle Peck himself is a war veteran recovering from alcoholism. The experiences of veterans come in handy in defining Peck’s character. However, there may be further reasons for his behavior such as abuse as a child as hinted by Lil Bit herself when she regrets that she did not ask him about his childhood so that she would know who violated him and made him the way he was. Lil Bit feels Peck could have been a good man after all who was ruined by a tragic childhood. This, however, both Lil Bit and the reader will never know. However she points out the importance of contextualizing in understanding a character in a story.

The voice of the story is also profound in the story. Vogel’s works are multi- themed but no single topic or theme dominates her stories. She has however established a reputation of courageously tackling controversies especially those associated with feminine issues and sexuality and sexual relationships such as homophobia, prostitution and sexual abuse. This is largely attributable to the fact that she is a homosexual herself. How I Learned to Drive is no different as it expounds girl- child abuse heavily and effectively.

Her idealism leans towards feminism and which could be the reason she creates Li’l Bit’s character. She is intelligent, articulate and assertive but at the same time able to forgive wrongs committed against her and see the positive side of her adversary. Li’l Bit maybe the perfect female that Vogel envisions and is just opposed with her mother, grandmother and Aunt Mary all who need to borrow a leaf from her.

Contextualizing the Role of Symbols in Plays

Symbolism in drama plays an important role to the net effect of the play. Several plays make an extensive use of symbols to get the playwright’s message across. Plays are often rich in symbols which the reader or audience ought to contextualize in a bid to understand and enjoy the play in question. Death of a Salesman is one play that makes a rich and extensive use of symbols which the reader and audience ought to acquaint themselves with to understand and appreciate the play. Such symbols include

The Jungle- The jungle also often referred to as the woods in the play, is symbolic of the nature of life- how chaotic it is yet at the same time rewarding. They also are used to symbolize the value of struggle in life and the reward for such struggle. The symbolism is best summarized by Ben’s words to Willy. He asserts “the jungle is dark but full of diamonds.”

Willy, like Ben, aspires to strike make a fortune in New England. The woods may be full of promise yet never deliver. Willy only gets to experience the dark side of the jungle but not the diamonds. He never realizes success or happiness in New England. Some scholars also consider the jungle to represent the ideal of the American Dream. Some realized it, some never did.

Stockings

The stockings that Willy gives to The Woman become a symbol of betrayal, infidelity and let down. By giving out Linda’s stockings, Willy expresses his phoniness since he is claims that all he does, he does for his family. Biff’s outburst when he discovers Willy with her and the confrontational accusation -“You gave her Mama’s stockings!”- ensures that the betrayal remains etched in his mind and reminds him that not only of his infidelity to his wife but also that he is wasting the family’s strained resources and is therefore betraying his whole family as well.

Seeds

In act 2, Willy laments that he does not have a thing on the ground when his sons abandon him. By planting some vegetable seeds, he hopes to begin his life anew. The hope he has for the growth signifies his hope for life. By reminding Willy that the buildings adjacent to the garden will keep the garden from getting enough light, Linda is unknowingly alluding to the obstacles that hinder personal growth and of which the individual can do nothing about.

Flute

Scholars often raise interesting interpretations about the flute music which is present throughout the play. Some see it as a link between Willy and his father who made a successful living from making and selling flutes in the country. The music therefore constantly reminds Willy of the missed opportunities- that perhaps he would have made a better living as a craftsman rather than a salesman and reprimands him for having too high and ambition.

Biff’s stealing of the fountain pen: The stealing may be seen to represent the futility of yearning for quick success, or the Willy’s strategy for making a fortune. Willy apparently wishes for quick success and not working his way up the career ladder. The stealing of the pen, symbolizes Biff’s hope to ‘steal’ his way to success.

Contextualizing in Verbatim Theatre

My Name is Rachel Corrie by Alan Rickman falls under the genre of plays usually referred to as verbatim theater. The playwright in verbatim theatre usually uses testimonies of interviewees to construct literary works. Verbatim theatre is characterized by a considerable authority as works of non-fiction and usually focuses on real life disasters, politics or other events. Verbatim theater calls for a properly informed inquiry into the context of the play for a thorough understanding of the same. The reader needs to know the social, political and cultural contexts of the works. Literary judgments need to be made once the reader is thoroughly acquainted with the setting of the works and issues surrounding the same. The play is about the life of Rachel Corrie, a rights activist with the International Solidarity Movement who vehemently stood for use of nonviolent methods in realization of achieving the Palestinian cause in the continuous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She paid the ultimate sacrifice when she was trodden to death by Israeli demolition armored bulldozers in Gaza strip while protesting against demolitions of Palestinians’ houses by the Israeli Defense Forces in the region.

To appreciate and associate with the play, the reader needs to inquire into life in the main setting of the play- the occupied territories especially the lives of Palestinians in the region. The reader also needs to have ample information on the cause of the International Solidarity Movement with which Corrie was affiliated. Lastly the reader needs to investigate the personal life of Corrie and factors that may have led to her joining ISM’s cause, her real feeling on the issues and level of activity. The inquiry ought to go deeper than what is given out in the play. The reader also ought to investigate any personal opinion of the playwright in the issue and investigate whether, these lead to bias in the story especially since this is a work of non-fiction. When the reader considers all these factors, they are then better placed to understand the story.

Conclusion

Greater understanding of the context of any work of literature leads to a greater understanding of the play as a whole and consequently greater appreciation. Many literature students may find it tedious to contextualize each and every aspect of the story. They are content with just reading the story as would a leisure reader without bothering to dig deeper. However, in doing so, they are not true to themselves as they fail to achieve some critical goals of studying the literary works in the first place. First, the students need to be informed about the society and world around the through portrayal of the same in the literature. To achieve this end fully, then they must understand the works they are analyzing at a greater level. This can only be achieved through contextualizing.

Another reason students study literature is to develop vital critical thinking skills and other life skills such as decision making. These cannot fully develop if the students make only a partial reading and analysis of literature works. Appreciating a decision by a character without investing into the character themselves first can be disastrous if the student should decide to make the decisions as there could be glaring differences that may not be perceived through initial surface reading. To be able to make informed decisions, the reader should be especially thorough in their study of the context of any occurrence.

Another key reason of studying literature is to enable the student to see life from multiple vintage points. Again they have to fully understand the works in order to see the many approaches to life issues. Enjoyment is of course another reason for reading literary works. This is the only end to reading literature that can be achieved through surface reading. The depth of inquiry into the issues surrounding the context of pieces of literature therefore distinguishes between the leisure reader and one who wishes to get much more than enjoyment from it.
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