Characters in plays have real human characteristics and capacities. In fact, the success of a play may depend on how "real" the characters seem. However, characters in plays, just like characters in fiction, are like real people, but are not real people. Even in plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire or Proof, which allow for a great deal of psychological complexity, the characters have been created by their authors to dramatize specific ideas and themes.
A few plays (notably, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie) have narrators. Most, however, rely to a large extent on the dialogue and action of the characters to give the audience necessary information.
Just as in fiction, characters may be round or flat. Round characters are usually the main characters, while flat characters usually have minor roles. A character may act as a foil, that is, a character whose main purpose is to shed more light on an important character. Claire, for example, in Proof, clearly acts as a foil to Catherine: through their interaction, we learn about her past and gain greater insight into her motives.
The most obvious way to understand character is to pay attention to what a character says. A monologue is an extended speech by one character while other characters are on stage. A soliloquy is a speech directed toward the audience, which is not heard by the other characters. Usually, the character giving the soliloquy is alone on stage. In a short story or a novel, we would simply see what the character thinks. But on stage, the only way for us to see a character's thoughts is for him to express them in dialogue or action. Thus, we get Hamlet's famous soliloquy, in which we see what is going on behind the facade he is presenting to all the other characters. Another way for a character to let the audience in on information which is being hidden from the other characters is an aside, a short speech, usually just a line or two, in which the character speaks directly to the audience or to himself, while turned away from the other characters; it is clear that the others on stage do not hear this speech.
The dialogue between characters reveals the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the characters. But an audience must pay attention not only to the words. Look also at the level of language:
- Is the character's style formal or informal? What does this reveal about him/her?
- The attitude is also important: with what tone of voice is this line spoken? Is it stated seriously or tossed off? Is it somber or sarcastic? Is it desperate or resigned?
- And the context in which words are spoken is vital: do the characters' words in one speech contradict those in another? Does the character act in one way with one person, and in another way with another?
In a play, a character's actions are as important as his or her words. Like words, they reveal personality, values, and beliefs--especially when they are at odds with the character's words. The first time we see Catherine, for example, she is drinking champagne from a bottle and having a conversation with her father. In this conversation, her father accuses her of wasting her life. Catherine grudgingly agrees with him. But we find later that Catherine has not been wasting her life, and that makes us wonder why she would agree with him--why she would hold back important information that he'd be happy to know.
It is often easy for us to identify with characters in a play, especially if the play is well-written. But characters are created by an author to help explore specific ideas and themes, so, while characters are often round, complex, fully realized individuals, they are also there to function as types--that is, they are also intended to represent ideas. In Hamlet, for example, Fortinbras clearly represents a way of life that is warlike, based on physical strength and conquest, while Hamlet represents a way of life that is beginning to compete with it more strongly in Shakespeare's time: the intellectual, the explorer, who makes gains in the world by using brain rather than brawn. Seen in this way, the characters take on greater dimensions. And they force us to look at our own beliefs and values.
Proof,, by David Auburn, won the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play of 2001. It opened October 24, 2000 at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. The lead role of Catherine was played first by Mary Louise Parker, then by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and finally by Anne Heche. When the play opened in London, the role of Catherine was played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The play closed on Broadway in January 2003, but is still being performed in many theaters around the country.