SAT Literature Subject Test

Part II

Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test

Chapter 9

Drama Queens (and Kings and Princes and the Occasional Duchess)

Drama appears on the SAT Literature Subject Test about half of the time, and we want you to be prepared in case it rears its head. In this chapter, we list some drama terms you should know, and give you strategies with which to approach this specific genre.


Drama is a form of literature unlike any other in the sense that it is not supposed to remain on the page. It is intended to be acted out; so it is always a tad strange to be reading a play silently to yourself, when it begs to be imbued with life and speech.

A Little Drama…

Drama makes up 0–20 
percent of the test. You’ll 
see one passage at most, 
and many tests don’t have 
any drama at all!

The elements of drama are similar to the elements of prose and poetry. There are characters, plot(s), and theme(s). Plays tend to be a bit heavier on action or movement than other forms of literature because, well, they’re about people doing things, more than they’re about people thinking things. Plays can also be quite political. Since they are showing rather than telling, playwrights can easily showcase their ideologies or make social commentary.

Remember that plays were the precursors to movies and television programs. In times before most people could read or have access to books, plays were the main form of entertainment and instruction to the masses. As you read, try to picture someone on stage speaking the lines.

When analyzing a play, ask yourself the same questions you would if you were analyzing prose or poetry. (Don’t forget that classical drama is sometimes written in verse.) If literary devices such as metaphors or similes are used, what are their effects? What is the character’s tone? Are the characters archetypes (perfect examples of a type of character)? Are they designed to represent something other than what they appear to be?

In a play, the characters are central to advancing and explaining the plot. There is generally no outside description of what the characters say. So plays are, obviously, mostly dialogue, a fact that presents special challenges to playwrights.

Because most plays lack narration, playwrights have improvised devices to get narrative points across. In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that favorite of high school drama programs, the stage manager wanders on and off the stage commenting on the action, giving the audience his own personal insight. Other playwrights allow the characters to speak directly to the audience. Still others try to control exactly how the actors will act by giving them detailed instructions about tone, placement, and gesture.

Want Drama?

Some drama is written in
prose, and some drama is 
written in verse.

If drama appears on the test, it will be only one passage, and frequently, it’s a monologue or soliloquy, so it’s practically prose. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t appear at all. Recently, most of the drama on the SAT Literature Subject Test has been culled from other cultures, for example, South African drama.

Although most drama is written as prose, early classical drama was written in verse. If you’re analyzing drama that is written in verse, use the same techniques that you would use to analyze poetry.


ASIDE: The device through which the character addresses the audience 
directly. The other characters cannot hear him, and the play seems to “freeze” while the character speaks. Shakespeare was fond of this device.

COMEDY: A play that is primarily for amusement or meant to provoke laughter.

FARCE: Satire bordering on the silly or ridiculous.

GENRE: The type or category of a play, such as tragedy, comedy, farce, or surrealism/Theater of the Absurd.

MONOLOGUE: A long passage during which only one person speaks.

SOLILOQUY: A speech addressed to the audience where one character expounds upon his predicament.

STAGE DIRECTIONS: Authorial instructions inserted in parentheses to tell the actor/director how to act, move, or speak. (Stage directions can be fragments of sentences and are usually written in present tense.)

Example: ANNA (briskly): Well, we can’t be having any more of that. 
(She stands next to Burt.)

TRAGEDY: A play that is sad or addresses sorrowful or difficult themes; 
especially involving a main character with a “fatal flaw” that leads to disastrous or tragic consequences.


Just as you can tell the difference visually between poetry and prose, so too does drama wear different clothing (personification alert!). The speaker is identified by a new line beginning with his or her name rendered in capital letters, followed by a colon. Whenever the speaker changes, his or her name will begin on a new line.


MOTHER: Joanne, why are you wearing that dress?

JOANNE: Because Aunt Sally gave it to me before she died.

Drill #1

Try some of the techniques you learned in the chapters on poetry and prose to complete this drama exercise. Do the specific questions first and the general ones next.

  1. The central contrasts in the passage are expressed in all of the following pairs EXCEPT

(A)   “A lady in a florist’s shop” … “flower girls”

(B)   “Buckingham Palace” … “the Tower of London”

(C)   “Mrs. Pearce” … “the King”

(D)   “proper bedroom” … “the back kitchen”

(E)   “good and do whatever you’re told” … “naughty and idle”


Don’t forget to circle
EXCEPT and mark a T or 
an F next to each answer

  2. From his speech, it seems clear that Higgins views Eliza as

(A)   a naïve child

(B)   an obedient servant

(C)   a potential wife

(D)   a futile project

(E)   a tenacious competitor

  3. According to the passage, all of the following are characteristic of a “lady” EXCEPT

(A)   articulate speech

(B)   employment in a florist’s shop

(C)   private transportation

(D)   fine clothing

(E)   the leisure not to work

  4. The first four lines of Higgins’ speech imply

(A)   the discipline developed in a military background like Eliza’s

(B)   Higgins’ prejudice about people of different social classes

(C)   Higgins’ long familiarity with Eliza and her character

(D)   the insight Higgins has into what motivates women

(E)   Eliza’s preference for direction over explanation

  5. Higgins’s speech can best be described as

(A)   condescending

(B)   didactic

(C)   instructive

(D)   explicatory

(E)   apathetic

  6. From the passage, Higgins may accurately be described as all of the following EXCEPT

(A)   presumptuous

(B)   generous

(C)   arrogant

(D)   self-important

(E)   determined

This excerpt is from Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. Answers can be found on this page.

Drill #2

  1. The phrase “judgment and execution” (line 6) most likely means

(A)   a sentence and the death penalty

(B)   the moral high ground

(C)   an official breakup of a partnership

(D)   a judge’s decision and a court order

(E)   a search and seizure of property

  2. Coyle and Sir Edward’s relationship is that of

(A)   money manager and client

(B)   lawyer and defendant

(C)   servant and master

(D)   benefactor and recipient

(E)   uncle and nephew

  3. The word “security” (line 62) most nearly means

(A)   collateral

(B)   agreement

(C)   assurance

(D)   welfare

(E)   prize

  4. Which of Sir Edward’s choice of words makes it clear that he considers the bills from his creditors to be unfair?

(A)   “infernal” (line 15)

(B)   “confound” (line 14)

(C)   “extortion” (line 19)

(D)   “impudence” (line 32)

(E)   “unencumbered” (lines 43-44)

  5. What is the deal Coyle wants to strike with Sir Edward?

(A)   He will pay off the creditors in exchange for allowing him to marry Sir Edward’s daughter.

(B)   He will keep Ravensdale in the family if he is allowed to marry Sir Edward’s daughter.

(C)   He will arrange the marriage of Sir Edward’s daughter to the current residents of Ravensdale.

(D)   He will marry Sir Edward’s daughter to prevent her at least from financial ruin.

(E)   Because Sir Edward is without money, Sir Edward will have to sanction the love affair between Coyle and his daughter.

  6. Sir Edward’s final lines, “A beggar, Sir Edward Trenchard a beggar, see my children reduced to labor for their bread, to misery perhaps; but the alternative, Florence detests him, still the match would save her, at least, from ruin. He might take the family name, I might retrench, retire, to the continent for a few years. Florence’s health might serve as a pretence. Repugnant as the alternative is, yet it deserves consideration” (lines 80-87), are an example of

(A)   a monologue expressing doubt

(B)   a character dissolving into madness

(C)   a character addressing the audience

(D)   a character voicing both sides of an argument to himself

(E)   a speech explaining a plot point to the audience

FYI, this is from Our American Cousin, by Tom Taylor. Answers can be found on this page.


Did you get all that?

Make sure you can define the following terms:

•   aside

•   comedy

•   form

•   genre

•   monologue

•   soliloquy

•   stage directions

•   surrealism

•   tragedy