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

CHARACTER THROUGH-LINE The definition of a character for the entire length of the play. It is made up of:

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

Main Obstacle: The thing that prevents the character from achieving his or her super-objective for the entire course of the play.

Main Action: The main thing a character does to overcome his or her obstacle. NB: The action is expressed as a verb: to convince, to woo, to vanquish, etc.

CHARACTER BEAT A unit of action for a character. It is usually is delineated by the topic of the character’s text: a change in topic usually signifies a new beat of action. It is made up of:

Objective: What the character wants in this beat.

Obstacle: What is preventing the character from achieving his or her objective.

Action: The tactic the character takes, or the strategy the character uses to overcome his or her obstacle. NB: Action is expressed as a verb.

DRAMATIC ACTION The action or actions that make up a the play.

Character Action: As above, a character action is what a character does to another character or characters in order to accomplish his or her objective.

Dramatic action: An action that happens between characters, as a result of their character actions towards each other. A dramatic action is a segment of the line of action; it contributes to the furthering of the line of action.

Beat: The section of a play that contains a single dramatic action. It is usually delineated by its main topic: when characters change topics, it is usually a sign that a new beat of action is beginning.

Line of action: 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 dramatic action contributes to the line of action. It should be expressed as a verb.

NB: distinguish action from event and plot:

Event: A concrete occurrence that takes place on stage in time and space among characters. ("Theseus and Hippolyta argue over the existence of fairies"=plot; "create the possibility of acknowledging a mutual belief"=action.)

Plot: A series of on-stage events that make up the story of a play.



Crisis: The first event of the plot. A change in the status quo, creating conflict. The beat of action (almost always a conflict between two or more characters) that generates all of the ensuing action of the play.

Climax: The most important event in the plot: the event that makes the resolution of the play possible. In comedy, the point after which things start to get better. In tragedy, the point after which it is impossible that things will get better. The point of no return.

Resolution: The last event of the plot. The last action of the play; the action in the play after which no action is required. The completion of the line of action.


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.


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 English 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 characters.

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 context of the play-world.