The Play Lover’s Glossary: 10 Terms to Know Before Opening the Script

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Do you know your denouement from your deus ex macchina? Your catharsis from your chorus?
The Play Lover's Glossary_Graphic_HR

School theatre might not look the same this year, but in the words of the Bard himself, “all the world’s a stage.” Even as classes and productions take new forms, we’re here to ensure your dramatic prowess remains in top form. Whether looking to impress your English or drama teacher or just reading up during quarantine, here are 10 terms to know before opening up your next script—and where you can find them in some familiar titles.

(Some spoilers for classics ahead, but you already know what happens in Romeo and Juliet, right?)

Catharsis

Patti LuPone in <i>Gypsy</i>
Patti LuPone in Gypsy Joan Marcus

From the Greek katharsis, meaning “cleansing.” This is the act of purifying emotion, effectively easing tension and renewing spirits. Aristotle uses the term directly in his Poetics, referring to audiences’ opportunity to practice empathy through art. But characters can go through this as well by showcasing breakthroughs (or breakdowns).

Examples of Catharsis in Theatre

  • Eddie Carbone’s fate in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge offers catharsis for the audience as a storm of wrongdoings (hubris, lust, masculinity, xenophobia, etc.) unravel, culminating in climactic turn of events that releases spectators from the tension that’s gathered.
  • Just before “Rose’s Turn,” Gypsy’s Madame Rose warns, “What I’ve been holding down inside of me, if I ever let it out, there wouldn’t be signs big enough! There wouldn’t be lights bright enough!” What results is a purging of just what she’s been holding down inside of her: a no-holds-barred, show-stopping release of trauma, exhaustion, and rage.

Chekhov’s Gun

Mary-Louise Parker and Paul Sparks in <i>Hedda Gabler</i>
Mary-Louise Parker and Paul Sparks in Hedda Gabler Nigel Parry

A principle of dramatic and literary storytelling, its name derived from the teachings and correspondence of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Among the more common translations: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don't put it there.” The practice is therefore twofold, eliminating false promises and irrelevancies while also offering moments of foreshadowing.

Examples of Chekhov's Gun in Theatre:

  • In the namesake playwright’s The Seagull, Konstantin shoots a seagull as a gift to Nina; the stage directions call for him to bring the gun on stage. The play ends with Konstantine using the gun to take his own life (off stage).
  • The title character in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler ends the first act by saying she’ll pass the time with the company of her cherished pistols. You can imagine how one is used at the end of the play.

Chorus

Antigone_Classical_Theatre_of_Harlem_Production_Photo_2018_Alexandria King (center, as Antigone)_HR.jpg
The cast of Antigone at Classical Theatre of Harlem Richard Termine

While we today might associate “chorus” with ensemble members playing background parts, the group played a much more specific role in classic theatre. The chorus, containing anywhere from 12 to 50 members, might provide exposition with a prologue, serve as an on-stage stand-in for the audience, or provide commentary as the action unfolds.

Examples of Choruses in Theatre

  • Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone implements a chorus (and a chorus leader, or koryphaios) to present various odes that take play between scenes in which the plot unfolds (those scenes, therefore, “episodes.”) Over time, the chorus begins to interact directly with the characters, in addition to addressing the audience.
  • The ensemble in Sweeney Todd acts as a chorus in the classical sense in many scenes, including the show’s opening. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” they sing, before giving us a taste of what’s in store: “He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.”

Denouement

A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream_Publc_Theater_Shakespeare_In_The_Park_Production_Photos_2017_HR
Richard Poe and Phylicia Rashad in A Midsummer Night's Dream Joan Marcus

French for “unknotting,” denouement refers to the resolution of a plot—what happens beyond the climax. Though this doesn’t have to mean a happy ending for all, conflicts get resolved, loose ends tied up, and the characters learn to carry on.

Examples of Denouement in Theatre:

  • At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the quartet of young lovers have aligned in their proper pairing, Oberon and Titania work out their qualms and bless their domain, and the six workmen finally put on their play (however shoddily).
  • We all know Guys and Dolls will end the way it does: Sarah and Sky end up together, and Adelaide and Nathan finally get married.

Deus ex machina

<i>Medea and Jason</i>
Medea and Jason Friedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

A plot device in which an external element (e.g. a new character, a god, a winning lottery ticket) is introduced to solve a seemingly unsolvable dilemma. Unlike with Chekhov’s Gun, these moments are sudden, unexpected, and not previously established in the text or staging. The term, Latin for “god from the machine,” originates from how this device played out on Ancient Greco-Roman stages: actors, playing gods, would make their entrance via machine—whether a crane, a rising platform through a trapdoor, or a cart.

Examples of Deus ex machina in Theatre:

  • Medea, in Euripides’ Greek tragedy, escapes after killing her and Jason’s children only with the help of her grandfather, the sun god Helios. Using the “machina” herself, she appears in his chariot above the stage, proclaiming she will then travel to Athens to bury her children.
  • The Threepenny Opera parodies the deus ex machina trope with the arrival of a messenger on horseback, who announces at the very end that Macheath, on the brink of execution, has been pardoned by the queen. The Peachums, in the opera’s closing lines, address the audience and note the unlikelihood of such events happening in real life.

Dramatic Irony

Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i>
Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in Romeo and Juliet Carol Rosegg

A device that occurs when the audience is aware of the full extent of a character’s situation when that character—or perhaps all characters—are not, as indicated by their dialogue or action. In that moment, we as an outside party know more than those whose stories are unfolding on stage, to tragic, comedic, or even cringe-worthy effect.

Examples of Dramatic Irony in Theatre:

  • In Wicked’s “The Wizard and I,” an optimistic Elphaba foresees a celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with her. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen the celebration at the top of the show: they’re celebrating her death.
  • The climax of Romeo and Juliet rests entirely on dramatic irony. Romeo kills himself, believing his beloved Juliet is dead. But she’s not dead, she just took a sleeping potion to feign death; Romeo just didn’t get the message in time. Plus, we know their fate from the very beginning: the Chorus tells us in the prologue.

Metatheatre

Kiss Me Kate_Broadway_Roundabout Theatre Company_Production Photos_2019_X_HR
Kelli O'Hara in Kiss Me, Kate Joan Marcus

The concept of drawing attention to the piece as theatre (and not part of real life). This can take form in numerous ways, including the “show within a show” trope, characters “breaking the fourth wall” to speak directly to the audience, or even the houselights going up to illuminate the audience mid-action.

Examples of Metatheatre in...Theatre:

  • Kiss Me, Kate is perhaps the ultimate show within a show, with nearly half the musical playing out as a fictional musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. The character Lilli Vanessi plays Katherine in the musical, and many of Katherine’s songs (such as “I Hate Men” or “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple”) mirror Lilli’s own sentiments.
  • Thornton Wilder’s Our Town’s entire framework is metatheatre, with a character referred to as Stage Manager breaking the fourth wall at the start of the play. The script even calls for them to introduce the production’s director and performers before they become their respective characters.

Mise-en-scène

Scenic Design for <i>Cats</i>
Scenic Design for Cats Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The arrangement of set pieces, scenery, props, and more to establish time and place. The exact details depend on a specific production (e.g. an abstract staging might be less detailed), but what’s on the stage can help tell the story just as much as the lines delivered.

Examples of Mises-en-scène in Theatre:

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is set in a small house on a New England college campus. George’s job as an associate professor and Martha’s early line “What a dump”—not to mention their rampant drinking—offers some insight into what props might be lying around and in what degree of disarray.
  • Cats takes place in a junkyard, so naturally the stage is littered with abandoned car parts, appliances, and more. The oversized nature of these objects helps establish scale: these actors aren’t playing humans. They’re, well, cats.

Soliloquy

David Tennant in Hamlet
David Tennant in Hamlet Ellie Kurttz/RSC

A monologue that is delivered to the speaker themself and no one else, effectively sharing something exclusively with the audience.

Examples of Soliloquies in Theatre:

  • Hamlet has perhaps the most famous soliloquy in the English theatre as the title character ponders, “To be, or not to be.”
  • Several show-stopping musical theatre solos are delivered as soliloquies, including “Wait for It” from Hamilton, “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, and Carousel’s aptly named “Soliloquy.”
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