One of the most powerful aspects of theater is the way that dramatic expression encourages the viewer to participate in the drama by identifying closely with one or more of the characters depicted on stage. In actuality, the measure of a play’s success depends on the degree to which the playwright is able to convincingly develop and exploit the audience’s identification with the dramatic characters and, in some almost ineffable way, allow them to experience the play’s themes and ideas in an intimate way.
Most people probably identify more with a single character of any given play than with the other characters. Obviously, the protagonist of a play is expected to engage the audience’s identification and sympathy, but it is not always the case for every viewer that a given play’s protagonist will supply the most expedient method of sympathy and identification.
For example, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character of Horatio seems to me, for reasons which I hope to explain shortly, a more sympathetic character and one with which I can closely identify because Horatio is the good-hearted friend who tries to offer actionable advice to Hamlet, only to have his advice ignored and for tragedy to win the day. From the beginning of the play it is clear that Horatio is meant to serve as a psuedo-narrator of the play and his relationship with the audience is established as quickly and as innately as is possible without s direct appeal to the audience.
Although Horatio’s simple lines may seem as though they play little role in the overall development of the play, they are, in fact, rich with meaning. By assuring Hamlet that he should not follow the beckoning form of his father’s ghost in the second part of Act 1 Scene 3, Horatio fully expresses his bond with Hamlet, and in doing so, begins to shift the audience-identification and audience sympathy he has established up to that point with the audience to the play’s true protagonist, Hamlet. When Horatio says “”Do not, my lord.
” (Hibbard 183) he is informing the audience that Hamlet faces true danger and that he is concerned for him; so, too, should the audience be concerned. The essence of the relationship between Horatio and Hamlet is consistently portrayed as a genuine friendship. Horatio’s loyalty is important to the play’s climax at the end of Act 5 Scene 2. He cautions Hamlet, again, to avoid his tragic fate: “If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
” (Hibbard 344) By now, accustomed to Hamlet’s denial of his friend’s advice, the audience will recall the previous scene when Hamlet, against Horatio’s advice, sought conversation with ghost of his father. They will understand that when Hamlet chooses to disregard the advice of the single character in the play who has demonstrated friendship and loyalty to him, that Hamlet, again, embraces tragic fate. Horatio’s loyalty is “good” while Hamlet’s loyalty to the ghost of his father is destructive.
Horatio represents an “existential connection to the living moment, whereas the ghost of the King represents the ambiguities of the Christian afterlife” (Holzknecht) and religious dogma as well as cultural tradition and social conservatism. My ability to identify with Horatio comes from the fact that I have also given advice to close friends who opted to ignore that advice and came to ruin. I think most people have probably faced that situation in their lives and the character of Horatio is therefore a good character to encourage audience identification.
The same principle is at work in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” where Hansberry challenged deep cultural ideas about African Americans. By focusing her play on realism, Hansberry created a theme which was radically different than the presentation of America typically seen on Broadway stages. The play’s impact on American audiences was very controversial. Hansberry relied on depicting extreme emotional states and conditions for her characters, as well as enticing her audience to experience the world of her characters with as much empathy as possible.
In order to engage the audience, and to cause them to identify with the Youngers, Hansberry uses the device of realism, which extends to the character of Mama who is depicted as a well-meaning and hard-working person who faces insurmountable odds. One important reason why I feel an identification with Mama is because of the very beautiful language Hansberry developed for this character. Hansberry delivers the dialogue of “A Raisin in the Sun” in colloquial language and this aspect of them play enhances the play’s realism.
The realism of the play then causes the audience to more closely identify with the play’s characters and plot, and each of these aspects of the play helps to communicate the important sociological and racial themes that drive “A Raisin in the Sun. ” Hansberry’s dialogue, in fact, becomes a key driving force of the play’s ultimate revelatory impact on the audience. As the play progresses and the characters become more clearly defined with motivations that the audience can identify with (or despise) the dialect of the play begins to attain a lyrical uniqueness — a vocal music which was unlike any other play on the Broadway stage of the time.
Lines such as “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams…. ’” (Hansberry, 29) or ““There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing…. ” (Hansberry, 135) attain the status of aphorism in the context of the play and divulge important social and racial realities that, for most Americans in the mid-twentieth century, existed, if at all, as merely si-debar newspaper articles or in some other abstract realization.
My identification with Mama extends to her empathy for others, such as in the case of the abortion which is alluded to in the play: “Mama realizes how close the other members of the family are to despair when Ruth reveals that the “doctor” she has seen is not a conventional physician but a woman who has the capability of performing an abortion, an illegal procedure at the time that could subject Ruth to severe criminal penalties” (Domina 8). I think most people have faced situations where they were meant to do what appears to be “wrong” in order to do what is essentially right.
This is the magic of Hansberry’s characterization. In plays such as Antigone which are ancient plays, identification with the characters can sometimes be more difficult for modern audiences. However, the deep identification with Creon which I experienced while reading the play emerges from the timelessness of certain “faults” of character, namely pride, which I feel is as much a part of modern life as it is “common” life, or that is, the lives of people who are not kings or royalty.
The damaging impact of pride can be felt over trivial matters as well as great issues as those depicted in the play, Antigone. For my own part, I felt an extreme identification with Creon because I have personally experienced the nature of pride and arrogance in relation to my own life and my own social relationships. One of the most important aspects of my identification with Creon is the fact that — by identifying with Creon — one also, indirectly — identifies with the Chorus of the play which, in the long run, serves as a counterpoint to Creon’s increasingly egomaniacal behavior.
While I can abstractly connect my own “trivial” indiscretions with personal power to Creon’s obviously near-mythic exploits, I doubt that most modern readers would necessarily be able to make that connection because the seeming influence of their “small lvies” would not seem, to them, comparable to the life and actions of a great man. However, the portrayal of “great men” in classical tragedy was used in order to exaggerate the qualities and personality traits which were viewed as being connected to tragedy.
That means that the aspects of Creon which seem near-mythic in Antigone are near-mythic precisely because they are universal and can, in fact, be applied to everyday lives. This is the power of theater: to span time and culture and find universal identification through the portrayal of archetypal characters. Work Cited Domina, Lynn. Understanding a Raisin in the Sun A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and
Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, New York. 1959 Holzknecht, Karl J. The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: American Book, 1950. Hibbard, G. R. , ed. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998. Sophocles. Sophocles Antigone. Trans. Richard Emil Braun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
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