How To Read a Play: A Quick Peek at Blocking
By Karin Chun Taite
(English Literature at The Edge Learning Center)
Dramatic texts (plays) appear frequently on Hong Kong schools’ IB curricula, most commonly on Paper 2 lists and as IOC texts, so it’s a good idea to get a handle on how to talk about their dramatic conventions. It is the eternal complaint of theatre professors, however, that English students (and teachers) forget to consider dramatic texts in performance – with physical bodies, physical voices, physical pictures presented onstage. We’ve been trained to read and analyze words on a page, but a dramatic text on the page is an incomplete thing. It’s only the guideline for the embodied performance it will become. After all, to appreciate a piece of music, unless you’re a very special kind of genius, you wouldn’t just read the sheet music. So that means you need to know about staging techniques. In what follows, we’ll briefly discuss one aspect of staging and then look at how to analyze it in a section of A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the most commonly assigned plays in Hong Kong IB schools.
Now, you can get an entire set of undergraduate and graduate degrees in staging techniques, so we’re not going to be able to cover all of them in one blog post, but let’s focus in on one very basic staging element: BLOCKING. Stage blocking is the physical movement of the actors’ bodies onstage – for example: moving from upstage left to downstage centre, or picking up a cup of tea, or stabbing one’s husband repeatedly. Those are all actions separate from the spoken dialogue of the play, but they carry meaning beyond the spoken word. Moving downstage centre often means moving into a very powerful position and taking command of the stage. Picking up a cup of tea might be a distraction from hurt, a chance to buy time in an argument, or an escape from an uncomfortable conversation. And, of course, stabbing one’s husband repeatedly suggests a certain emotional message.
Not every playwright, however, will make these kinds of blocking details available to a reader. Shakespeare is notoriously thin on stage directions, leaving it to readers to either extrapolate or imagine blocking. For example, he frequently embeds implied stage directions in the dialogue. In Act 3 Scene 7 of King Lear, when Regan and Goneril are torturing Gloucester, he complains, “ ’tis most ignobly done | To pluck me by the beard.” This line makes no sense at all unless somebody actually pulls Gloucester’s beard and gives him something to complain about. (And you’ll notice, if you look, that the editors of the Arden edition have inserted the stage direction “[Regan plucks his beard]” to save their readers the confusion.)
On the other hand, we have playwrights like Oscar Wilde, who are so prolific with their stage directions that it seems like they are trying to direct their own plays from beyond the grave. In the first lines of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s stage directions tell us that “[Jack puts out his hand to take a sandwich. Algernon at once interferes.]” This sets up the comic bit where Algernon scolds Jack for eating the sandwiches especially prepared for Algernon’s aunt – and then proceeds to eat all the sandwiches himself (and lie to his aunt about why there are no sandwiches).
For our purposes today, let’s look at a case that falls a little in between these two situations. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a common Paper 2 (and sometimes IOC) text in Hong Kong schools. Williams himself tends to be on the heavy side with stage directions (don’t believe me? Just try reading Scene 1), but there are still moments when we need to spend some brain power extracting meaning from his suggested blocking. Let’s look at the final lines of Scene 9:
[…Blanche goes to the dresser and leans forward on it. After a moment, Mitch rises and follows her purposefully. The polka music fades away. He places his hands on her waist and tries to turn her about.]
MITCH [fumbling to embrace her]: What I been missing all summer.
BLANCHE: Then marry me, Mitch!
MITCH: I don’t think I want to marry you any more.
MITCH [dropping his hands from her waist]: You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.
BLANCHE: Go away, then.
[He stares at her]
Get out of here quick before I start screaming fire!
[Her throat is tightening with hysteria]
Get out of here quick before I start screaming fire.
[He still remains staring. She suddenly rushes to the big window with its pale blue square of the soft summer light and cries wildly.]
Fire! Fire! Fire!
[With a startled, gasp, Mitch turns and goes out the outer door, clatters awkwardly down the steps and around the corner of the building. Blanche staggers back from the window and falls to her knees. The distant piano is slow and blue.]
The questions my students tend to ask me are: Why does Blanche freak out? Why does she shout “Fire”? Mitch isn’t really attacking her, and we know she wants to marry him, so why does she get so scared?
There are a lot of stage directions Williams gives us to work with here, but the meaning of the blocking is not necessarily immediately clear – it takes some teasing out. So let’s do just that.
One quick note before we start. The usual reason people shout “Fire!” is to alert people to the fact that there is a fire so that they will come help put it out. Remember, it’s 1947 in this play; not everyone has a cell phone.
Ok, here we go. Even without considering Mitch’s behaviour in the earlier part of the scene (which you should do), or remembering that, offstage, Stanley has just informed Mitch that Blanche has had previous sexual partners (you should definitely remember this), there is enough information in the interaction of dialogue and blocking here to help us understand Blanche’s state of mind. Let’s examine what Mitch tells Blanche with his words and with his physical actions.
1) Blanche has gone to the dresser and leaned forward on it, which means she has closed her body off to Mitch. This is a defensive move – excluding him from her personal space.
2) Mitch follows her “purposefully,” puts “his hands on her waist,” and “tries to turn her about.” This is invasive. He is physically inserting himself into the personal space she is protecting, demanding access. The fact that he “tries” to turn her around and is “fumbling to embrace her” suggests that he is not getting much cooperation from Blanche. That means he hasn’t secured her consent to access her body and her personal space.
3) Verbally, he tells Blanche that he wants “What I been missing all summer.” What he’s been missing all summer is sex. He has now verbally informed Blanche that he wants to sleep with her and physically informed her that he is not particularly concerned with asking her permission before touching her body.
4) When Blanche proposes a trade (basically marriage for intimacy), Mitch verbally informs her that (a) he doesn’t want to marry her, and that this is because (b) she’s “not clean enough to bring in the house with [his] mother.” Physically, he drops his hands from her waist. With his words, he’s told her that he does not respect her enough to have a public relationship with her and that he will not offer her the security of marriage. With his actions, he has dropped his hands as if she were too disgusting to touch. But… he still wants to sleep with her? (What can happen when a man wants to sleep with a woman but doesn’t respect her? How well does that usually go for the woman? Scene 10 is definitely going to answer those questions.)
5) Blanche rejects the idea of sleeping with Mitch without his respect – she directly tells him to “go away.” (If you weren’t already freaked out, here’s where it gets really freaky.) In response, Mitch “stares at her.” Never mind that staring at someone you’ve just kind of threatened is intimidating (it is). More to the point, if Mitch is staring at her, that means he’s not leaving. She tells him twice more to leave, this time threatening to seek public help (calling “Fire”), but he “still remains staring.” Let’s think about that. He’s told her he wants to sleep with her. He’s told her he doesn’t respect her. He’s shown her that he doesn’t mind touching her body without her consent. And now that she’s told him repeatedly to leave, he’s not leaving. Plus, there’s one other factor to consider that would be obvious onstage but is less so on the page. Mitch is almost certainly bigger than Blanche is. Just as a result of being larger than her, and alone with her, he has an unstated physical advantage that does not require dialogue to express. And therefore, although he doesn’t make a direct physical attack on her, refusing to leave when she asks (especially after the atmosphere gets menacing) is its own kind of implied threat. He’s refusing to remove the danger of his presence, which means he’s refusing to allow her to feel safe. That’s an expression of power and dominance that Blanche has no way to counteract – except by seeking the safety of publicity, which she invokes by calling “Fire.”
Laid out like this, with a careful consideration of how stage action and speech interact and what meanings are contained in the body language of blocking, the scene takes on a clearer shape. Mitch is being threatening. Blanche has reasonable cause to feel afraid. In that context, her “freaking out” and calling “Fire” is actually her next logical step, given that her upbringing as a southern belle probably didn’t include self-defense lessons.
And that analysis, gentlefolk, is a whole other paragraph you can add to a Paper 2 essay or an IOC presentation that you wouldn’t have considered if you hadn’t learned how to analyze blocking.
30 MORE WAYS TO READ A PLAY:
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REAL WORLD APPLICATIONS:
CURIOUS HOW EDITORS ADD “EXTRA” STAGE DIRECTIONS TO SHAKESPEARE? CHECK OUT CHAPTER 3 OF Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators: