Expecting a student to be able to write sensibly about a play directly from a reading of the text alone is like expecting someone to know what a cake will taste like just from reading the recipe, expecting someone to be able to drive after reading the Highway Code, or expecting a blind person to describe colours. Plays are not texts: over 90% of what they are and what they mean is dependent upon action and interpretation.
And yet the traditional school approach to drama is to have students read a play in class - either to themselves or as a group - and then write intelligently about it.
The first thing that is missing is the concept of an audience. In reading the play either silently or in class, no one gets to be an audience. Listening students are merely hearing a text being read, not attending a play. A play depends upon what an audience experiences, that is the whole point of drama. The dramatist has in fact more than one purpose in writing a play: he or she wants to create a direct effect through the plot, the unfolding of events on stage, and an indirect one through the theme, the ideas and images and suggested meanings, which are arrived at through the various mechanisms and devices of drama, such as stagecraft, design, acting, the use of props, lighting, sound, and so forth. None of this is normally reproduced in a classroom environment. The result is something like a student trying to interpret a novel by being given a blank sheet of paper and a bottle of ink - yes, these are requirements for the production of a novel, but there is so much more to the text.
The next thing, because of this, is that the sensory input is reduced from at least two senses - sight and sound - to one: sound. And even that has the guts taken out of it, because a text drily read in a group is a very different thing from one which is being interpreted through the medium of drama. A play is a group endeavour: the director takes the words on a page and interprets their meaning and emphasis; and actor, taking guidance from a director, further interprets and projects meaning.
If one is to having hope of developing an affinity for, or understanding the meaning of a piece of drama, without actually seeing the thing on a stage, acted out, one must give due weight and consideration to such things as stage directions, entrances and exits (i.e. the timing of such things), positioning, action and interaction of characters, the uses of props and costumes, the key device of dramatic irony (in which an audience is aware of something which the characters on stage are not) structure, (that is, the effects of sequences of action) the creation of intrigue, tension and suspense (the key elements of an effective plot) and the role of asides and soliloquies.
And yet students of Drama receive grades for essays based on their understanding of the meaning and interpretations of a text. From a dry reading of words on a page, a student is supposed to configure, explain and discuss methods, effects and purposes of the layers of meaning that exist under the surface meaning. Plays, like any work of art, always contain layers of meaning; but to uncover these, students are expected to consider the what, how and why of such things as the mood being created, the way a character is being portrayed through dialogue and action, how the stage setting (i.e. the time, place and context) adds to the play in subtle but important ways, and how the events (plot), stage action and dialogue all work to help develop and explore the play's themes.
What results from this ridiculous restriction upon understanding is that most students have no choice but to simply re-iterate what they have been taught or told in class about these subtle layers of significance. An interpretation is, by its very nature, an opinion - a point of view. Examiners like to read about individual ideas. So now the student is supposed to not only figure out what the cake tastes like from the recipe plus a few second-hand opinions from teachers, that student has to also write about it as though all these ideas are his or her own.
Furthermore, students are expected to evaluate how successful or otherwise they believe the playwright is being, based on the play's likely effect on different kinds of audience - a modern audience or perhaps the original audience for the play. They are told that this will transform their essay if they keep it in mind, while in most cases being denied the experience of watching the play live in a theatre. This is akin to a sportsperson being put forward as a competitor for a major race having had a training regimen which consisted entirely of watching videos of other sportspeople.
Students are told to look for and explain dramatic techniques like dramatic irony in order to assess their specific effects on the audience, the purpose attached to it, whether that might be to develop a character, create a mood or tension, develop the plot or explore a theme while being urged to remember that the purpose attached to a specific effect of language, interaction or stage action will be for a local effect at this point in the play, and will in some small way be contributing to the play's overall effects or theme.
Even if the very able students are somehow able to manage this rather advanced viewpoint shift in the absence of anything to help them other than a printed text and a few notes from a teacher, they are then expected to keep in mind that, as audiences change over time it will be necessary to discuss how the play's original audience as well as a modern audience might react to the play, and how relevant the plays action and themes are to both kinds of audience.
Drama for the vast majority of theatregoers is entertainment, capturing the imagination and the intellect. Not only does the audience experience the play itself, but they also have the event, the meeting of others, the social and collective aspect. Playwrights know that they are not aiming to influence readers, but those special collected groups of human beings known as audiences. Plays are a unique and very special form of literature because they are based on a combination of language and action and are the vision of others, not just the playwright and the director but normally a host of actors and back stage personnel. Plays are often a vehicle not just for entertainment but for the expression of the playwright's political and social ideas and concerns. Drama has always had the potential to be a radical form of literature. Throughout history many plays have been banned or had to be performed secretly or outside of the city's legal limits to avoid censorship or punishment.
None of this is something that can or should be reduced to simply the text on a page. All students of Drama should be entitled to see any play that they study live before being executed to communicate sensibly about it. Only in this way will we see something more than a regurgitation of second-hand ideas, even if they are cleverly dressed up and disguised, like actors, and presented as a piece of theatre in their own right.