A course on dramatic literature is an effective way to foster student creativity and reading comprehension. Reading and studying plays introduces students to the cultures of both historical and contemporary time periods through a unique lens. The dramatic structure of plays combined with their diverse themes and motifs make them an ideal subject for instruction in English and Language Arts classes. Developing advanced reading skills requires exposure to a diverse range of texts, and plays offer many opportunities to engage students in new and different ways. Here are some instructional strategies for dramatic literature based on the time period and style of the material.
The work of classical dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides presents students with the ancient dramatic tradition of tragedy. A unit on Greek drama could begin with the sociological importance of the theater in Greek society. Ask students to compare and contrast the theater of Ancient Greece with that of modern civilization. This discussion may start with students noticing the differences in the architecture of the theaters. Try to guide them toward a comparison of the cultural significance of theater in Ancient Greek society to that of contemporary society. This compare and contrast educational strategy can be extended to other relevant topics such as ancient tragedy versus contemporary tragedy, ancient play structure versus contemporary play structure, etc.
The most famous of all Elizabethan authors is Shakespeare, whose canon of plays is universally revered for its impact on the development of the English language. The Bard’s works capture timeless struggles of man against the gods, fate, and society. Shakespearean plays can be somewhat difficult for students to get a handle on. Here are a few ways of making Shakespeare more accessible to your class:
Modernize: One way of helping students understand the poetic language of Shakespeare is a language modernization exercise. As a class, go through a scene from a Shakespeare play and after reading a line of dialog, translate it into contemporary English. This will not only help students understand the plot of the piece, but will also clue them in to the different poetic structures that Shakespeare used.
Influence Map: Shakespeare is known for having utilized many diverse sources when writing his plays. Assign students a play and have them research its influences. Create an influence map by writing the name of the play on a poster board and then filling the poster with images and text that are representative of the play’s source material. Have students present their research findings to the class.
The period after World War II up to present day is known as the golden age of American theater. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Edward Albee, and August Wilson are all great playwrights to start with. The work of each is closely associated with the times in which they were writing, lending a discernible style to each. For example, “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller is closely tied to the American dream of the 1950s. Similarly, “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets provides insight to the labor movement of the 1930s. Have your students become American playwrights. After studying a play and discussing its connection with an important economic or social issue, have students write their own one-act plays about an issue that is important to them. Set up a day for students to present their work to the class and discuss the themes in each.
Dramatic literature is great for exposing students to a wide variety of different literary styles. These educational strategies provide teachers ways to make plays accessible to students.