Dramatic Metaphor

The use of metaphor in drama is a complex device used by playwrights to draw a comparison between two seemingly dissimilar things. A  famous metaphor occurs in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, where the play’s subject matter about the Salem witch trials of 1692/3 is actually a metaphor for the world in which the playwright was living at the time, the witch hunt for Communists in 1950s America (McCarthyism). This parallel, where the qualities of the first event (Salem witch hunts) are attributed to the second (Communist witch hunts), is a comparison, which in turn forms an image in the minds of the audience watching The Crucible.

Dramatic metaphor should not be confused with symbol, although the two are similar. Symbol often, but not always, involves an object that is substituted for something else. For example, a rose (object) on stage is substituted for love (feeling). The literal meaning of the object is that it is a flower, but the symbolic meaning of this object is far greater and depends closely on the characters, plot, dialogue, setting and context of the drama. There is no comparison between the rose and love, but rather one is replaced for the other. In dramatic metaphor, however, a play title, event, line of dialogue, image or setting is compared to something else in order to enhance its meaning. In plain terms, the use of dramatic metaphor could perhaps be understood as an extension or more complex form of symbol.

Below is a short video from England’s National Theatre involving several UK playwright’s discussing the use of metaphor in drama (including The Crucible example) which should prove useful for teachers and students of drama.

12 Responses

  1. paige says:

    how is metaphor linked into drama? I cannot read the whole text as the advertisements are in the way

    • Hi Paige, sorry about that. I’m not having the same problems at this end with ads in the way of text on that post. I have now updated the link to the National Theatre video discussing the use of metaphor in drama. Hopefully that will help you. – Justin

  2. Tracey says:

    Hi Justin, Just working with my students who are doing Structure 7 The wife of Henry Vlll. I had just presumed they had the stimulus material as they had so much material. They told me today they have been unable to find it as it isn’t listed as a novel, film, or web information. Have I missed something? Where do they get the stimulus material from? Love your work by the way!

    • Hi Tracey, the stimulus for Structure 7, “The life and times of the wives of king Henry VIII”, involves general research from books in libraries and the web. I have three of these performing in my class and my students found the relevant information with some through Internet research. Having said that, it involves hours of web research from multiple sources to try and find specific information that could be used in the solo beyond basic info found on the Wikipedia’s and the like.

  3. Sorry I can’t help you with this query Blake. Not doing this exam structure in my class. Maybe another teacher reading The Drama Teacher can help you?

  4. Blake Nixon says:

    After reading through the VCE Drama Solo ‘The White Rabbit’ what could be included or what is an example of the dramatic metaphor which must be included?

    • nick says:

      Mr. Rabbit and, Mr. Abbot.The White Rabbit may introduce policies that mirror or exaggerate the white Australia policy, border protection, declaration of terra nullius. perhaps the book by John Marsden The Rabbits may give you some ideas.
      the red queen, Julia Gillard, perhaps the red queens story was exaggerated by the media\opposition. you could talk about Gough Whitlam, Gough WHITElam – white rabbit, maybe explore indigenous policy. Having the white rabbit discuss their total domination of the land and control over indigenous bandicoots, possums or other species might be good.
      find the link between the character of the white rabbit and events in Australian politics.
      there are so many, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

  5. Toby says:

    How could you perform a dramatic metaphor for heartbreak?

    • However you do this Toby, be sure in order to make it a dramatic metaphor, you go beyond mere symbolism. You’ll have to refer the qualities and characteristics of one thing/event/place etc to another in your drama.

      A second example I did not refer to in my post above was a well-known Bertolt Brecht play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is set in 1930s gangster-ridden Chicago where a powerful man runs a team of men doing a protection racket on the local greengrocers, asking for money in order to keep them safe from the gangsters tearing up their stores. But the gangsters were actually his men and the parallel (the dramatic metaphor) is that the audience should be making the link that the gangster boss in this play is actually a reference to Adolf Hitler in power in Germany.

      Dramatic metaphor can be a very powerful technique when used wisely. Hope this example helps you a bit. You should have a word, event, image, line of dialogue, setting etc that is compared to something else the audience should be familiar with in order to enhance its meaning in the drama and in effect create a dramatic metaphor.

  6. This is a tough one, Brendan. I assume you are referring to the VCE Drama solo character “The Techno Teen”. I think you would probably be positioning your dramatic metaphor in the 3rd dot point. Keep in mind, the official definition of “dramatic metaphor” for your solo exam is the one in the terminology section of the exam paper, not mine above, though I hope it helps you, nevertheless.


  7. Brendan McCosker says:

    what would a dramatic metaphor be for technology?

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