The term given circumstances, coined by the Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski, concerns all material in a play script that delineates the environment – or the special world of the play – in which the action takes place. This material includes (1) environmental facts (the specific conditions, place, and time); (2) previous action (all that has happened before the action begins); and (3) polar attitudes (points of view toward their world held by the principal characters).
Often called the foundation of the play script, the given circumstances are the base where on the real guts of the play (dramatic action) reside. Stage notes and diagrams are often provided for details, but ultimately dialogue is the more productive source of information. Authors write their settings into their dialogue either overtly or covertly. Their totality is what a playwright must communicate to the audience as deftly and accurately as possible for the play itself to be successful. Analysis of given circumstances is essential to staging of any play.
Time of Composition - biography of author, conditions of era, play’s position within the author’s work all play a part in creating what is meant for the stage.
Time of action - exact time, season, year which action is set
Dramatic time - total time that passes onstage
General locale – country, region, district where action takes place
Specific locale – specific place where action occurs Society
Social groups and relationships
Love and Friendship
Social Status - rank in society, amount of power and wealth
Social standards - shared beliefs, behaviors expected to conform
Monetary systems the characters live under
Politics and Law
Government institutions, activities, rules of conduct and legislation set up by political authorities
Intellect and Culture
Enlightenment achieved by intellectual or aesthetic training
Religious features of a play
World of the Play
Cumulative effect of all these elements creates the world of the play. The characters reveal this through their actions. They show whether their reality is heaven or hell, good or bad, welcoming or unwelcoming, amusing or frightening, benign or dangerous, lovable or hateful.
All plays establish some sort of delineation of the exact time and place of the action as well as specific information about the environment. Whether or not they are historically accurate makes no difference. These are the ‘facts’ of the play because they remain fixed throughout the play.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that after the given circumstances are accurately and thoroughly identified, the rest of the play will fall into place more or less by itself. Of course, not all the given circumstances will be equally useful on every occasion. But, as in most situations, over time you will develop a sense of what is most useful when. These instincts are one of the unteachable skills of play analysis. I cannot equip you with them; I can show you the way.
ASSIGNMENT: Recording the Given Circumstances
Look at the play The Cherry Orchard. Isolate the given circumstances or ‘facts’ of the play by systematically noting them under the following categories:
Time: In what year and season does the action occur? What is significant about the date? Can the passage of time during the play be determined? The time between scenes? Between acts? The hour of day for each scene? Each act? What features of time suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Place: In what country, region, city does the action occur? Are any geographical features described? In what specific locale does the action occur? What is the specific location for each scene, including the furniture layout and other architectural features? What specific climate is indicated by the specific location? What features of the specific place suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Society: What are the family relationships? What are the friendships and love relationships? What occupational groups are depicted? What social ranks are represented? What are the social standards, the behavior expectations? Are they spoken about or implied? Are they enforced openly or indirectly? What social group controls the social standards? What are the rewards for conformity? What are the penalties for violating social standards? What features of society suggest the mise-en- scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Economics: What is the general economic system in the play? Any specific examples of business activities or transactions? Does money exercise any control over the characters? Who controls the economic circumstances? How do they exert control? What are the rewards for economic success? The penalties for violating the economic standards? What features of economics suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Politics and Law: What is the system of government that serves as the background for the play? Any specific examples of political or legal activities, actions or ceremonies? Do politics or law exercise any control over the characters? Who controls the political and legal circumstances of the play? How do they exert control? What are the rewards for political and legal obedience? The penalties for violating the political and legal standards? What features of politics and law suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Learning and the Arts: What is the general level of culture and artistic taste in the characters? Any examples of intellectual or creative activities? Any character more or less educated or creative than the others? Does intellect or culture exercise any control over the characters? Who controls intellectual or artistic circumstances in the play? How do they exert their control? What are the rewards for intellectual and creative activity? What are the penalties for violating intellectual and artistic standards? What features of learning and the arts suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en- scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
Spirituality: What is the accepted code of religious or spiritual belief? Any examples of religious or spiritual activities or ceremonies? Does spirituality exercise any control over the characters? Who controls the spiritual circumstances of the play? How do they exert their control? What are the rewards for spiritual conformity? What are the penalties for violating the spiritual standards? What features of spirituality suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effectiveness of these features?
The World of the Play: Describe the special world of the play – in other words – the distinctive universe created by the collective given circumstances. How does the world of the play influence the conduct and attitude of the characters? What are the different opinions expressed by the characters toward their world? How does the world of the play suggest the mise-en-scene? How could the mise-en-scene contribute to the effective illustration of the world of the play?
When you study the given circumstances of a play, you must strictly avoid reading anything into the play; all facts must be explicitly stated or implied. Do not assume anything. Look carefully, because the author may be taking that you are familiar with information for granted on the assumption that you will understand in context. The author is leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind and you must pick them up.
PREVIOUS ACTION or BACKGROUND STORY
The lives of the characters begin long before they appear onstage, and their pasts are indispensible for understanding their present lives. Every dramatic story has a past, but the conventional time and space features of the theatre require special writing skills to illustrate all of it through dialogue in action. Playwrights employ a unique kind of narration to reveal the past while the stage action continues to advance. The common term for this dramatic convention is exposition but it is also referred to as previous action or background story.
Can't change a rubric once you've started using it.