Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices

In Modern Drama, Why are the Characters So Often Entrapped

Professor Luc Gilleman is researching what he calls the "language game" of modern drama, in which characters obsessively clarify and explain situations only to find themselves ever deeper in a muddle of confusion. Henrik Ibsen, whose A Doll's House was presented in an adaptation by the Smith College theatre department, is among the playwrights Gilleman is studying.

/ Published February 10, 2011

Theater is supposed to tell us something. The play, through the plot, is designed to reveal to us—the audience—an element of truth.

Or is it?

Luc Gilleman, a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, suggests that modern drama refuses to pretend to offer any such insight. Rather, it is concerned with depicting the entrapment of characters within their own interactions and the confusion that ensues within their relationships.

To that effect, Gilleman is conducting a long investigation into the works of 19th- and 20th-century playwrights, such as Henrik Ibsen, John Osborne, Lars Norén, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, August Strindberg and Arthur Miller.

In order to understand modern drama’s departure from its long theatrical tradition, Gilleman must look to the origins of theater. “In ancient times, the first plays were just people singing and dancing together in a choral exercise for the gods,” he explains. “Eventually, soloists—the first actors—stepped forward, but the chorus always remained in the background, commenting on the words of the actors.”

Luc Gilleman

Allowing the audience to reflect upon the intricacies of the plot through an external point of view, the chorus was eventually replaced by other dramatic devices such as the opening narration, the monologue, the soliloquy, and the aside made to the audience. Modern drama, however, exhibits a commitment to a lack of a chorus.

Furthermore, drama has long followed a formula: the introduction, a complication, rising action, a peak, a moment of climax, a reversal, and a quick resolution. This so-called “well-made play,” codified by French playwright Eugéne Scribe in the first part of the 19th century, was essential to mainstream theater for more than 100 years.

Based on the Aristotelian notions that the perfect play should be based on action, the well-made play insists that the most important thing about a play is the plot. “The plot defines the characters, the characters define the ideas, and the ideas determine the language that is used,” Gilleman elucidates. “It portrays a world in which people, through language, gain knowledge and find clarity. Every soap opera and police drama is based on this assumption.”

Though an authority on the subject, Gilleman is interested not in the well-made play but in the ways in which modern drama has abandoned this formula.
If language is the final consideration in the well-made play, then it is the first in modern drama. “In modern drama, we are playing a ‘language game,’” says Gilleman. “Language no longer shows us the way out. It is language that entraps and ensnares us. The very attempt at pacifying and clarifying what is going on creates more confusion.”

Gilleman argues that modern drama is focused on representing human communication realistically. “What modern drama is really about are the connections between characters,” he posits. “In life, as on stage, human interaction is a poker game. We are trying to guess each other’s cards. Take two reasonable people, put them together, and they create hell for one another.”

Because of the lack of a narrating chorus in modern drama, the audience itself becomes entrapped within the language game. “The audience is unable to discern what the author thinks or what they should take away from the play,” says Gilleman. “They’re lost.”

The monologue has all but disappeared in modern drama and has been replaced with the set speech—when a character on stage begins to narrate. “However,” Gilleman continues, “the set speech is altogether different from the monologue because it doesn’t have larger implications for the meaning of the play. We can no longer take for granted that language communicates pre-existing meaning. Language is messy.”

As he undertakes to write about these plays, Gilleman has found himself entrenched in the same communicational mire that he works to explain. To help himself understand the language game, he developed a system. “For me, the only way to understand was to ask myself ‘how far does an audience have to go in thinking about what goes on in these characters’ heads in order to understand what is happening on stage?’”

This question led him to theorize about “spiraling perspectives,” a term he coined to describe the constant guessing game that goes on between two characters. He suggests that “ order to understand, one has to reach at least a third level of insight. One must think about what Character A thinks about what Character B thinks about what Character A thinks. Only then does it make sense to look at dialogue.”

Tracing these trends in modern drama has not been an easy task, given the convoluted nature of the subject matter. But Gilleman is inspired. “This is what drama does best,” he reflects. “The stage can show most clearly the confusion that occurs within relationships. It is like watching a dance.”

Having written extensive articles on the subject, Gilleman says the next step in his research is to synthesize his work into a book, which he plans to call Inside the Maze: Studies in the Theatre of Entrapment.