Key Terms

for analysing a play as a performance text.

(A work-in-progress)


A play is an action continuing through time and space, performed by human beings and perceived by human beings, all of whom are in the same space. To play.

"A play is a series of actions." (Ball 9)


A set of instructions as to how to manipulate time, space, and human beings to create a play. Instructions as to how to play.


Event: A concrete occurrence that takes place on stage in time and space among characters. According to David Ball, it is "something happening" (9). A Plot is the series of on-stage events that make up the story of a play: it i s everything that happens.

Action: "Action occurs when something happens that makes or permits something else to happen. Action is two ‘something happenings,’ one leading to the other." (Ball 9) Think ‘transaction.’ "If I say ‘how are you?’ it is h alf an action. The second half is your saying, ‘Fine, thank you.’ The first leads to the second; the two compose an action." (Ball 9) Note, though, that the two events in question must be "adjacent" (Ball 13). One thing leads to the thing immediately next, with no gap between. If I say ‘how are you?’ and she says ‘he’s fine’ before you say ‘fine, thank you,’ ‘he’s fine’ is the second half of the action.

Defining Action: Ball says: "Find the first event of each action, then the second, then the connection between the two." The connection is the action, distinct from the events. When we name the connection between two events, w e name the action. If I say "how are you?" and you say, "fine, thank you," the connection may be that I am greeting you. You answer "fine, thank you" because you have been greeted. If, after you say "fine, thank you ," I say "sorry," we might not be inclined to say that the second action in the series was "to respond," "to greet," or "to thank;" none of these are likely to elicit the response "I’m sorry." We mig ht instead suggest ‘to silence,’ ‘to reprimand,’ ‘to hurt.’ The action we choose determines the delivery of the line "fine, thank you," and we make the choice according to the context in which the line appears.


Dramatic conflict is created when a character is prevented from getting something he or she wants. Action is the result of conflict: I want, I cannot have, therefore I act: I try to remove the obstacle so I can get what I want. A play traces the resolution of a central conflict; that is, a the conflicting desires of two or more characters. Each character’s desire prevents the other(s) from accomplishing his or her desire. The play is over when the conflict is resolved.


A character in a play is someone (or, rarely, something) who acts (an "actor," if you’ll excuse the pun). A character performs a series of actions; he or she does things. He or she does things because he or she wants something and is pr evented from getting it. A character beat, the unit of action for a character, therefore has three parts. These three elements are the tools of the actor:

Objective: The specific, limited thing the character is trying to accomplish at this moment in the play. What the character wants right now.

Obstacle: The specific, limited, thing, at this moment in the play, that prevents the character getting what he or she wants.

Action: The tactic the character takes, or the strategy the character uses to overcome his or her obstacle. Most often, it is the means by which the character tries to manipulate other characters into removing the obstacle to his or her objecti ve. In Ball’s terms, it the connection between the first and second halves of an action transaction: what A does to B to make B do something in return. It is not "something happening;" it is "somebody doing something." Somebody must do it to someone else. A character’s action is always described by a verb. "I shout"; "I punch"; "I beg"; "I plead"; "I flatter"; etc... Actors play actions: by doing the action the character is doing, the actor becomes the character.

Character beat: A beat ends (and a new beat begins) when the character changes tactics. He or she may change tactics because either the objective or the obstacle has changed, or because the tactical action has been unsuccessful; either way, the character chooses a new action. (Character beats are generally very short). The end of one beat and the beginning of another is usually indicated by a change in the topic of the character’s text.

CHARACTER THROUGH-LINE The definition of a character for the entire length of the play. It is the explanation for each of the character’s actions throughout the play; or, the thing that each action the character performs has in common. Otherwis e known as:

Super-Objective: The thing the character wants for the entire play; a desire that underlies and explains everything the character does in the play.

[Characters also usually have a main obstacle and a main action. The main obstacle and the main action also last the entire length of the play.]


Directorial action: An action that happens as a result of what characters do to one another. It is the result of a competition between conflicting objectives: I want x, you want y; we battle it out; z is the result of our battle. Dramatic c onflict creates dramatic action. (This implies there’s no such thing as a stale-mate. In the theatre, stale-mate tends to kill action, so it doesn’t occur often.)

Beat: The section of a play that contains a single directorial action. It is usually delineated by the main topic under discussion.


Remember that, in a play, every "something happening," every event, is both the second half of the action it completes and the first half of the action it begins. (That is the sense in which action is like the sound of one hand clapping. It is also the reason plays keep going until the end.) When you define the limits (beginning and end) of a beat of action, you are not exactly identifying the end of one action and then the beginning of the next; you are rather identifying the pivot po int, the place at which the action turns or transform

Line of action:

The line of action is the one continuous action that begins at the beginning of the play and ends at the end of the play; ie. an action that continues to happen throughout the play. Each individual dramatic action contributes to the line of action. Tr y this: think of a line of tumbling dominoes. The fall of each domino causes the fall of the next (individual actions). If the line of dominoes is properly arranged, every single domino will fall (every action contributes to the line of action). The lin e of action is the whole series of dramatic actions (topple, tumble, plummet, sink, capsize) seen as one continuous action (to fall). It is the connection between every connection between events in the play. It is the connection between connections. I t is an action itself, and should therefore be expressed as a verb.

The terminology is various and confusing, not least because "line of action" is, conceptually, more similar to "objective" than it is to "action." A play’s line of action is the act the play is working towards; the thing the play is attempting to do. The play ends when the doing is accomplished. So if the line of action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is "to believe contrary to reason," the play ends when "I want to believe" overcomes the obstacle "I have reason" and "to believe" is accomplished. The play’s "objective," ("I want to believe") is replaced by the "action" "to believe."




Exposition: The part of the play which establishes the "dramatic stasis" (Ball 23) or status quo of the play-world at the beginning of the play. "Dramatic stasis occurs when thing would go on the same forever if something didn’t com e along and happen." (Ball 23) All the dominoes are standing; the events of the play describe the standing dominoes. Usually major characters, time, and place are introduced.

Crisis: The first action; the action that generates all of the ensuing action of the play. The moment at which the first dramatic conflict is created. The first event to cause another event. It represents a change in the status quo of the pl ay-world. In Ball’s terms, it is an "intrusion" into the "stasis" of the play-world, which upsets the stasis. "Dramatic intrusion is the thing that comes along and happens, setting free the irresistible forces that run a play fr om that point on." (Ball 23) The dominoes won’t fall unless the first one is pushed over: the crisis point is the point at which the playwright pushes over the first domino. It often represents a conflict between major characters. It takes place v ery early in the play.

Climax: The event that makes the resolution of the play inevitable. The "decisive situation" (Gassner 17) In comedy, the point after which things start to get better. In tragedy, the point after which it is impossible that things wil l get better. The point at which the action reverses direction. The point of no return.

Conclusion: The last action of the play; the event in the play to which no event responds. The action after which nothing can happen. The completion of the line of action. The dominoes fall until there are no dominoes left to fall: the resolu tion is the fall of the last domino. The last event of the plot.


The main idea of a play. It is closely related to the line of action & can be seen as a re-statement of the line of action, or a solution to it. (In MND, line of action=to believe against reason; theme=imagination suspends disbelief)


The world-view or perspective of the play. The fundamental nature of human experience in the play: either love (comedy) or death (tragedy) rules the play world.

Click here for an overview on dramatic genre.


Playwright’s use of time and space in the play in relation to reality: the filter through which the audience sees the play in relation to his or her own life.

Naturalism: exactly like life (stage time=real time; stage space=real space).

Realism: like life with edits (stage time=like real time, moves forward; stage space=conscious representation of things in real world)

Impressionism: varies from life, but refers to life (stage time=flexible: can move back or forwards, but time still exists; stage space=not representing real space as such, but reminds us of real space); the contrast between reality and stage makes us think.

Expressionism: totally unlike life (time is non-linear, space is unrecognisable as anything like the real world).


The manipulation of linguistic structures to reveal character; the languages that characters speak. Paradigms, or forms of linguistic structure (eg. blank verse, song, rhyming couplets, mime) are various languages, in the same way that French or E nglish are languages. Changes in language inside a play create conflict and reveal character.

EG: In MND, the mechanicals speak a different language (prose) than the Athenians (verse). The Athenians switch languages in Act 3, scene 2 (rhyming couplets to blank verse). These differences in language indicate differences between or within charac ters.

NB: Language is not an element of style. A playwright does not compare the language of a character to the language of a real-life human being as a means of comparing the stage-world to the real world. Languages should only be compared within the cont ext of the play-world.