Sometimes you find a text which is a bit like a great game. What I mean is this: a good game should be simple to learn but gradually reveal itself to be a complex and satisfying experience, like chess, football or Elite.
Elite was my generation’s Fortnite – a huge time-sponge which threatened my exam grades!
Dennis Kelly’s play DNA is that sort of text.
At first you think you are dealing with something very now, something realistic and something very English. A story about a gang that has gone out of control, and a dead kid, and a cover-up. It is certainly why after the 2011 London riots people were queuing up to ask Dennis Kelly about teenagers and violence. In this light the play is accessible and relevant. I know that many teachers and students approach it as a simpler alternative to some of the literary heavyweights on the syllabus and that’s fine. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s short and it’s entertaining – all good things, all good things.
I’ve taught this play three times now and I have to say that I don’t see it this way anymore. I think this is a bit of a puzzle of a play with some pretty big nods to some pretty heavy playwrights, some pretty complex ideas and the huge sweep of theatrical history.
In short I like this play in the same way I like great genre products (like graphic novels, genre films and video games). The complexity is there to engage with but it’s not the first thing you meet.
The first thing I would like to draw your attention to is the way the play happens in a no-space. It is “A Street”, “A Wood” and “A Field”. There are also no specific mentions of any other places, town names, or school names, or newspaper names, or T.V. Station names. There are specific junk food brands (“Starburst” and “Coke”) but nothing else.
This reminds me hugely of Samuel Beckett’s plays, especially Waiting for Godot (1953).
Waiting For Godot: Look at the staging from this first production in Paris. It looks a lot like DNA.
This is one of the most famous plays of the Twentieth Century. In it two old men wait, by a tree for Godot, who never arrives. It is highly philosophical, very dark and funny. A lot like DNA.
Later in the play a character called Lucky has a speech which is a bit like Adam’s monologue, made up of half-nonsense and slightly inhuman.
(BTW the most important line in the play is, “Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It’s Awful.” In short nothing happens. Enjoy Zoe Quinn’s video game version here. Did you get the joke?)
The action of the play is a bit like Edward Bond’s play Saved (1965).
In it a teenage gang commit a violent act (involving stones); sound familiar? This is one of the most important plays in British history as it was the play that broke the power of the Lord Chamberlain’s office to censor plays.
There are other plays it is like (Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of my Mad Mother is another) and I don’t think these are unintentional similarities. Kelly must know these plays as they are incredibly famous. They are plays which ask some big questions about humanity and this is a play which asks some big questions about why human beings engage in apparently immoral behaviour, peer pressure, leadership and status anxiety.
Add to this that each character seems to represent a different personality-type and the play itself often conforms to the rules of Classical Tragedy (both Jan and Mark and Leah fulfill the roles of the Greek chorus – introducing the action or commenting on the themes, also all violence happens offstage) and you have a play which has a great deal of depth to it.
Here are two exemplar answers I made up to two different questions. The bullies and victims essay is a short, simple response. It is below the target word count. I produced it for a lower ability group. It should still achieve a grade of 6 as it covers details of structure and language. The Leah answer is a high grade response. Both answers use PEA (point, Evidence and Analysis – with emphasis on the words “the audience” and “because” to facilitate good analysis).
I hope both are useful.
How does Kelly present ideas about bullies and victims in DNA?
- how Kelly presents ideas about bullies and victims in the play.
- how Kelly presents ideas about bullies and victims by the ways he writes.
AO4 [4 marks]
One way Kelly presents ideas about bullies and victims in the play is through his use of symbols. He uses the symbol of chimps and bonobos. The audience are shown this when Leah talks about the primates in her monologue. This is effective because it reminds the audience that they are animals with animal behaviour.
Another way that Kelly presents ideas about bullies and victims is through the things that he has happen on the stage, such as Phil’s treatment of Leah. Phil responds to Leah with silence for most of the time which is a way for Kelly to show Phil’s mental bullying of Leah. This is very different to the way that he bullies Brian into talking to the police. Phil uses graphic description of what he will do to Brian to force Brian to do what he does not want to. Words such “rot” and “corpse” force Brian to imagine what will happen to him and these threats are an effective way for Phil to bully Brian.
Another way that Kelly presents ideas about bullies and victims is through the structure of the play. At the end of the play the final winner, the most powerful member of the group, is Cathy. In this way Cathy is the ultimate bully. Cathy is presented to the audience as a psychopath through the things she says (“it’s exciting”), the way she reacts to events (“loves violence now”) and the things other characters say she does at the end (“cut a first year’s finger off”). Cathy represents the sort of person who becomes a bullying leader if there is a power vacuum at the top of a hierarchy.
Kelly presents his ideas about bullies and victims through the way he writes when he has John Tate say “I’ll bite your face off.” This threat sounds powerless because the verb “bite” is childish. It also sounds animalistic and reminds the audience that the bully/victim relationship is found in groups of animals and shows human beings at their most animal-like.
Another way Kelly presents these ideas through the way he writes is in the way he has characters speak in incomplete sentences. In scene 3, the scene where the gang are dealing with the revelation that Adam has fallen through the grille, virtually none of the characters speaks in full sentences such as Mark’s utterance “he’s well er . . .” This shows that the gang rely on each other. This is different to Phil who speaks in strangely complete sentences “that will be a DNA nightmare.” The way Phil speaks shows that he is calm and controlled, the sort of leader that will get them out of the situation they are in; Phil only resorts to bullying to control the group when ideas are not enough.
One of the key ideas that Kelly presents to the audience is that victims often feel dependent on their bullies. At the end of the play Richard says to Phil, “we need you.” The verb “need” shows that Richard has now taken on the role that Leah used to fill earlier in the play.
How does Kelly use Leah to present ideas about morality?
- how Leah responds to characters and events in the play.
- how Kelly presents Leah by the ways he writes.
[30 marks] AO4 [4 marks]
One way that Kelly uses Leah to present ideas about morality is through his use of monologues. Leah spends a considerable amount of her stage time on these (especially early on in the play). On stage Phil may react to what she is saying but on the page Leah is left uninterrupted and can develop her ideas. One of these (contained in the sentence, “if we’d discovered bonobos before chimps our understanding of ourselves would be very different”) is that human behaviour is determined by the way that people consider themselves to be descendants of the hierarchical and aggressive chimps as opposed to the gentle and sexual bonobos. She refers to chimps as “evil” which adds an extra moral dimension to chimp behaviour. This is contrasted with bonobos and their “disgusting” sexuality – a word which is far lesser in degree than “evil.” These monologues allow Leah stage-space to reflect on her actions and relationships which means that she appears to be the most mature, and therefore consciously moral, of the play’s characters.
Another way that Kelly uses Leah to present ideas about morality is through the use of incomplete utterances. At key points Leah shows that she finds the actions of the group incomprehensible and her bewilderment is demonstrated by her inability to form complete sentences. A good example of this is when she is trying to formulate her response to the decision to really kill Adam. Her response of, “No, Cathy, don’t, stop, Cathy . . .?” shows that she knows that the decision is morally wrong. The incomplete utterances, however, also demonstrate that Leah does not have the authority to make other members of the group follow her morality and develops Kelly’s thematic point that morality is only useful if people have the power to back it up. This can be contrasted with Brian’s complete, if immoral and mentally damaged, sentence, “I am brilliant at doing what people say.”
Kelly also develops his ideas about morality through his use of symbolism. Leah may be the most consciously moral of the characters but Leah still is capable of immoral actions. She describes the way she kills her pet. Symbolically the dead animal is called “Jerry” like the cartoon mouse. She therefore kills a symbol of goodness and innocence, demonstrating the sort of psychopathic morality that Cathy later embodies. Leah is more consciously moral than John Tate, who may have “found God,” but it is implied that this is a weakness not a strength as it follows a period of time where he “lost it” and his joining of the “Jesus Army” is described in a pathetic, not strong fashion – “he runs round the shopping centre singing and trying to give people leaflets” – note that he is “trying” rather than succeeding. To extend the analysis of the symbolic nature of the dead mouse Leah has killed Jerry as an allusion to the way that Jael kills Sisera in the Bible. Again this links to the extreme, Old Testament morality that Kelly is presenting the audience with in a narrative which includes a character called Adam, a resurrection and a stoning.
Kelly also uses the character of Leah to present ideas about morality through some of her more comic moments. When Adam returns from the dead Leah juxtaposes ideas of justice, grief and mundane tokenism in the sentence “there’s been appeals, there’s been weeping . . . They’re naming the science lab after him, for god’s sake.” In this speech it is not clear what is worse, wasting police time, manipulating people’s grief or the expense of renaming a building. In this way the audience are presented with a comic moment of confused morality. It must be said though that later Leah’s use of anecdote in her beseeching, “we used to go to his birthday parties, he used to have that cheap ice cream and we used to take the piss,” demonstrates that she does have a true sense of morality, even if it is again powerless.
Finally Kelly uses Leah to draw attention to the extended metaphor that he uses to show Phil’s morality. Leah makes explicit reference to Phil’s eating of junk food when she says, “omelettes and eggs, as long as you’ve your waffle, who cares?” As this is juxtaposed with, “I admire you so much,” on the same page, Leah is clearly conflicted. She admires Phil but sees the immorality of his sacrificing of individuals for group happiness. The extended metaphor of the sugary snacks, immediate gratification for later pain (is it coincidental that Danny wants to be a dentist but “can’t stand the cavities”), helps to colour Kelly’s theme of morality. Lying, bullying and killing people are all things that young children learn are bad, in the same way as sugar is bad for you. Leah can see this but her allegiance to the group, and her infatuation with Phil keep her from acting as a moral brake. In the end all she can do is be “gone,” an action which destroys Phil but leaves a power vacuum for the tyrannical Cathy to step into.
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