The background of a play

You need to be aware of:

  • the background of the play
  • its setting
  • any key information that affects the story

For example, The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is essentially a play based on the Salem witch hunts in 17th-century America. However, when we look at the background of why it was written, we understand that Miller is making biting social comment on the communist witch hunts in the USA in the 1950s, that were led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. This was a turbulent time where suspected ‘communists’ had their lives and reputations destroyed. This gives the play meaning on a whole new level that the actor and the director must understand to do the work justice.

If a new play is watched in rehearsal by the playwright, there’s no doubt that their wishes will be reflected in the production. A good production analyses the worth and intention of the play and supports it. A director may make changes but they have to be informed choices. They need to understand the themes of the play and interpret them in the best way for a contemporary audience.

If a play is still copyrighted it’s expected that the director will present the text in full and in line with the writer’s intentions, as far as they can be perceived. Theatre companies are able to perform adaptions of older texts that are out of copyright, such as Shakespeare’s plays, where they take the stories and use them to say something modern or something different.

Shakespeare in outer space

Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton transplants the outline of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to outer space. Less radically, Hamlet is often performed in modern dress, making the audience see the relevance of the play’s message more immediately than through the ‘lens’ of Elizabethan costume.

Poster for Return to the Forbidden Planet by Bob Carlton
Poster for Return to the Forbidden Planet Credit: Queens Theatre