Bedford/St. Martin's virtuaLit Interactive Drama Tutorial Notebook VIEW SEND
Drama in Depth Approaches and Contexts
Select a PlayElements of DramaCultural ContextsCritical Approaches
Setting and Staging


The THEME of a play is the point or argument the playwright is trying to make. Often it springs from a relatively universal concept, such as the evils of power or the virtues of protecting the weak. Theme is related to but different from the subject: Where the subject of a play is specific to the setting, the plot, and the characters, the theme is the broad-based philosophical issue explored by their story. The subject of A Raisin in the Sun, for example, is racial tensions in Chicago. But the theme argues a point - that those tensions can destroy a family as well as a man's very manhood, and that the only way to overcome the insidious oppression of even well-meaning people is to take a risk and stand your ground. Sometimes a playwright will express a theme in one or two moments of monologue or dialogue to ensure that the audience gets it.

Sometimes the theme of a play is obvious. It would be difficult to read Trifles and not understand that it argues for women to stand together against men's tyrannies. But other times, a play's theme can be almost impossible to pin down. It might be expressed as an observation, a problem, or a recommendation. For example, a reader of Hamlet might articulate the play's theme as the dangers of seeking revenge (an observation), the conflict between loyalty to others and preservation of self (a problem), or, as Polonius says to Laertes, "to thine own self be true" (a recommendation). Some playwrights deliberately obscure their theme to force the audience to think. In expressing a play's theme, then, be careful not to oversimplify. A play is not an essay that strives to logically argue a clearly stated thesis. Rather, it is a shared emotional experience designed to leave its audience with a complex understanding of an issue or idea.

Finally, remember that a play can have more than one theme-and a number of possible interpretations. That's one of the beauties and joys of literature: How you interpret it depends not only on the author's intentions but on what you bring to the experience.

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