Michael Gow’s “Away” Essay
Drama is a genre that is deliberately written for performance, and therefore, the reader’s understanding of the characters and issues is always improved by its staging.
“Staging” in Drama means the process or manner of putting a play on stage. This refers to the positioning of the characters and props, the way the actors move, the way they use their voice and how the character looks. Gore Vidal once said, “A talent for Drama is not a talent for writing, but an ability to articulate human relationships.” By this, Vidal meant that to convey a play properly, association between the characters has to be real, dynamic action that captures the attention of an audience.
Away is a charming play that deals with family, relationship, life, growing up and death. It depicts the final months leading up to the disintegration of the condition of Tom, a boy dying from Leukaemia. In the final stages of his life, he is desperate to achieve all that a normal person would in his short lifetime. Emily McPherson of the Age newspaper says, “This moving play prompts us to consider what is ultimately most important in our lives,” and also considers how relevant it is to Australians, even today, noting that “Every Australian can relate to this play and learn about the deeper meaning to life”.
One factor of staging is Stage Directions. These are the way the playwright communicates with the director in regards to movements and actions of characters, positioning of props, and types of sets. These aspects affect the way the audience views a scene, as they can reveal issues, power relations, social positioning, and relationships between characters. In the last Act of Away, an entire scene is performed only through Stage Directions, yet it is a major scene in the conclusion of Away. This scene depicts the returning of Coral to her husband, Roy, and the subsequent resolution of their differences.
Jim and Gwen are reconciled as well. In the case of Roy and Coral, the audience sees their reconciliation through the symbolic offering of the shells to Roy from Coral. With just stage directions, we can tell that this is Coral offering herself, her old self, to Roy. She is asking for forgiveness and we know through Roy’s kissing of the shells and Coral herself that he has accepted her apology. The directions on the positioning of the characters on stage have to be effective to avoid audience confusion, as there is often split scenes.
The way the set is used (“use of space”) is a useful medium to show conditions of the scene. These can include time of day, where the scene is set, the time period of which the scene was set, and the motives of the characters. Props are often included to add reality to the scene and often offer symbolism relating to the character that uses them. On Christmas Day at the campsite that Gwen’s family is staying at, Gwen, rushes onto the scene with a 12-inch fake Christmas tree and announces “If you want to have a Christmas you’d better get started now so we can get it over with.
Hurry up. I don’t spending half the day sitting around waiting for people to open their presents.” This Christmas tree, being fake, represents Gwen’s resentment of Christmas- she obviously thinks it is a real chore. This does not make Meg and Jim’s Christmas real- their they are, on a day that is supposed to promote goodwill, the importance of the family and other relevant values, and their mother and wife is acting like she’d rather be any other place than with them- this day is an inconvenience.
Characterisation can be defined as the representation of a character on the stage, especially by imitating actions, gestures, or speeches. Every element that combines to make a character is included in characterisation. Costumes are a helpful channel of symbolism and we can learn different things about the characters, both in connotative and deconnotative ways. To exemplify this, look at Vic’s new sunhat, which she comments on in Act Three, Scene Five- “I love my new hat.” This sunhat represents her role as the dominant partner in the family through Harry’s line “We could have sheltered under your hat.”
The charisma of the sunhat reveals not only her personal charisma, but as this hat is only worn during the holiday, shows what a great time they are having on vacation. Tom also wears a Hawaiian shirt during the beach holiday scene, reflecting his laidback character. This is just one of many hints that are given to the reader to show Tom’s parallels with Puck, even though this one is very subtle. Tom acts and represents the catalyst, through his resolve and vitality; despite the disease he gives each family hope. He represents the reasons for the reconciliation of each family, just like Puck in A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.
Body language can demonstrate relationships between characters and character motive. Gestures show reactions, emotions the character is dealing with and the implications of these emotions. Expressions work similarly to gestures. Both help to put what the character is saying into context. We can see when Tom lies down on the beach during his walk with Meg that he is offering himself to her sexually. Meg rejects this offer. When this scene in viewed in performance, we can tell that Meg is rejecting Tom because she begins backing Away from him and cautiously glancing back at the path they came, wanting to go back to the safety of her parents, where Tom can’t impose anything like this on her. The audience has gone from seeing the two characters walking closely, side by side, to seeing Meg back away, with a different, more guarded attitude, and ultimately leaving him and hurrying back to the campsite.
Lighting is helpful in setting a mood for the scene- for example, dark lighting may conjure up a theme of doom and gloom, where as a single spotlight will centre the audience’s attention on that one character. Special Effects are sometimes used in points of extreme climax. An example of a symbolic use of lighting would be in Act Five, Scene 2. It is the last scene of the play and shows the start of the new school year- probably Tom’s last year alive. The lighting becomes bright, summery, morning. This audience can sense that this echoes the dawn of the last stages of Tom’s life. Special Effects, though not noted in the stage directions, could be used during the storm scene, in which Gwen’s family are caught in a fierce storm that leaves the family in even more disarray.
Jim describes their feelings like this “There doesn’t seem to be much use to carry on with your holiday when your van’s a wreck, your boat’s smashed on the rocks and all your clothes are soaked.” The storm embodies the family’s instability and their strained relationships. The reason Tom’s family was bypassed by that storm is because Tom’s family is a happy family who are content with life and the least uncooperative. Special effects highlight climactic points like the storm.
Music reflects the dialogue of a scene and can highlight the important issues in the scene. It is also and effective way to set a certain mood or feeling. In Away, Mendelssohn is often referred to in the stage directions. For example, his calming Dreams is played during Act Three, Scene Five, where Tom’s family having a wonderful, relaxing time during there beach holiday. In this case, the music is reflecting the emotions and essence that embodies the scene. Mendelssohn’s music is often referred to in Gow’s stage directions, meaning it is probably the type of music he thinks reflects the play as a whole.
Staging will always enhance the audience’s understanding of what is happening on a stage. The reader/audience member’s perspective of the play is always changed through Stage Directions, Characterisation, Music, Lighting, Special Effects and use of space. Earlier, Gore Vidal’s quote, “A talent for Drama is not a talent for writing, but an ability to articulate human relationships”, was mentioned. When analysing Vidal’s quote, it can be interpreted that Vidal meant that a playwright did not just have to possess the talent of writing, but that to show an accurate portrayal of the relationships that people have to one another, and the ways in which they handle these relationships. It can be deduced that Vidal was referring to the use of not only literature but also staging techniques that would humanise the characters.
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