Dramatic irony is the tired old cry of ‘it’s behind you’ in a pantomime; it’s Romeo stabbing himself needlessly next to his sleeping lover; it’s even that rather irritating individual who insists on telling you what happens in the next act in a loud voice – most likely whilst gorging himself on some godawful greasy snack at the dramatic climax.
The fact that the audience knows something the characters don’t seems problematic; the audience can no longer enjoy discovering new information through the plot. However, dramatic irony cranks up the tension more effectively than telling an English tutor that you quite enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, actually. This is because knowing vital information about the play makes us all the more anxious about those on stage – wanting to shout ‘it’s a trap!’ or ‘he’s lying!’ to dramatic characters who are in the dark. Think about horror films; you sit on the edge of your seat, ready to jump at any moment, biting your nails as the attractive/minority/unnamed peripheral character does something very, very stupid. The audience already knows what will happen; it is this that creates the tension in the first place.
Dramatic irony is employed in almost every play written in the English language: from Jonson’s Volpone to Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The effect created by dramatic irony is different in each case. In Volpone, the audience are titillated by the possibility of Volpone’s discovery, and simply await comedic downfall. In Stoppard’s play, the audience is subjected to something much less light-hearted, waiting for the imminent discovery of an affair and the destruction of two marriages. In both plays though, the audience’s attention is focused on how and when these things will happen.
This focus on the how and the why was of huge importance to Brecht. To convey the political and social messages of his plays, he wanted the audience to think critically about what was happening on stage. To prevent them being overly drawn into the plot, placards would be placed at the front of the stage stating the name and location of the scene; there would also usually be narration at the beginning of a scene stating exactly what would happen.
Dramatic irony extends the notion of art mirroring life; it isn’t only present on the stage. Dramatic irony in the theatre works on the same principles as it does in real life; tension stems from being privy to information that someone else is not. Perhaps it really is true that ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.’ Then again, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps you know something I don’t.By Ryan Hocking