An excerpt from the Great Expectations program.
Great Expectations—the novel, that is—was a major international bestseller, not as common today as it was back then. And it holds up today, not just for historical value, but as entertainment. It is no surprise then that in addition to still being read it has been interpreted for the stage (and also for the screen) since as early as 1939. As a novel, it has one feature that has been widely discussed by critics that is worth considering in conjunction with this staged performance: its use of dramatic irony. Consider how and when this device appears in and influences the play, and if you are familiar with the novel, whether it functions similarly here, or differently. So let’s talk about what dramatic irony is and how it appears in the novel.
Dramatic irony is an essence of drama. It is when an audience or a reader understands something that a character or characters do not. A classic example is from Macbeth. Duncan says: “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face:/ He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust.” He says, basically that he trusts Macbeth. But we, the audience, know of the witches’ prophecy already (of which Duncan does not), and we know that Macbeth has a dark side. So we have reason to doubt Macbeth even if Duncan does not.
Novels routinely employ dramatic irony. But in Great Expectations, it's a bit complicated by Pip’s first person narration. How could we know something that Pip does not if he is our guide throughout? The answer is that Pip is the narrator of his own past, telling a story from a present time. Indeed, he, the narrator is a changed version of the person at the start of the story. So he knows things that the Pip in the story does not. As a result, so can we. Critics have argued that there is inherent dramatic irony in the way he tells the story, blending the past tense with the past perfect tense. For example, in describing how his sister physically abused both him and her husband Pip uses the past perfect, “she was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand.” The words ‘had’ and ‘have’ adjoining the verb create the past perfect, and add a kind of contemplative atmosphere, different from the straightforward use of the past tense that Pip employs when discussing most of the action in the story. Think about the sentence were it written, instead as “I believed that she made Joe Gargery marry her by hand,” and keep in mind that Pip, the storyteller, knows already of how his sister’s story ends and how she changes.
How and where does narration—which there is in this play—produce dramatic irony on stage? Moreover, at the core of Great Expectations are several mysteries about the identities of friends, parents, benefactors, antagonists and assailants. When the reader should have solved some of these mysteries, in the novel, is debatable. Certainly, the reader will know a few things before Pip the character and, by definition, not as soon as Pip the narrator. The question today is when and how does the dramatic irony appear in the play. When do you know something that you think Pip does not—the character that is? When do other characters perhaps know something he does not? No spoilers, but you might also think about how the relationship between the cast and characters plays here—there are more characters than there are cast.
In the end, part of what makes Great Expectations so enduring and so fun, both the novel, and the play, is how deeply we end up involved in the inner mental life of two different people who are actually the same, Pip now and Pip then. If that’s not dramatic irony, it certainly is drama!