Time the avenger
: Two plays and a critical thesis. How does a dramatist’s use of stage time affect the audience’s understanding of the story being told? A critical examination of temporal framing in the work of four playwrights

  • Darren Murphy

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


My research question is comprised of two elements: two original plays and a thesis. The critical and creative elements are linked by an interrogation into the way that four different dramatists have used stage time, and in a critical reflection on the way I myself have used stage time in my plays. In the critical element examining the work of the four dramatists, I pay particular attention to two ‘real-time’ dramas which strictly observe the Aristotelian unties of time, place, and action, as set down in the Poetics, and on two non-linear dramas which disrupt those unities.

My own two plays, The Boxing Play and The Hotel Play, each use a linear real-time structure, although the way time is employed thematically is different in both. Though it was not my original intention to use real-time for both of my plays, a close reading of Oedipus Rex and The Weir persuaded me that a real-time structure need not necessarily limit the approach to naturalism –– but can also allow for a kind of heightened expressionistic realism –– something I exploit in The Hotel Play. Subsequently, two different kinds of real-time (naturalistic and expressionistic) are used in my two plays. The use of stage time in the plays of the four dramatists I look at, and observations about the use of it in my own work, is the lens through which I’ll examine how an audience’s experience in relation to stage time can be designed and understood.

The four plays I have examined in depth in relation to their respective approaches to time are Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (485 BCE), The Weir by Conor McPherson (1997), Betrayal by Harold Pinter (1978), and Le Père (The Father) by Florian Zeller (2012, English translation, Christopher Hampton: 2014), each of which employ manifestly disparate temporal modalities. In Le Père and Betrayal, the two non-linear plays, memory galvanizes action in effective and arresting ways, I posit, in that they both observe an absolute fidelity to present tense action whilst simultaneously creating a non-chronological timeframe in which time itself appears distorted, arrested, reversed, or compressed. How they achieve this seemingly contradictory effect without reverting to expositional flashback, but instead toggle back and forth in dramatic time is explored in these chapters. In The Weir and Oedipus Rex, the real-time structure creates a cumulative and transformative impact through their use of different modalities of uninterrupted time. In all four plays (and in my own two), time plays an essential element in the framing of the drama.

This critical interrogation, in turn, prompts many questions.

Does the use of stage time change an audience’s understanding of the story being told, and if so, how does that change our experience of the story itself? Is there such a thing as an aesthetic of dramatic time? If so, is this temporal aesthetic culturally specific to a certain era and culture (say, 5th Century BCE, Athens), and is it possible to transmit that meaning to another culture in another era? How does that aesthetic then express itself dramatically? Is it true to say that the closer we are to ‘real-time’ action — that is, the closer we are to it in time and space — the more intense is our experience? And does the disruption of the actual chronology of an event change the audience’s understanding of that event? Does the meaning of the event itself change in some way? If so, how does that find dramatic expression? An attempt to address these questions unite the critical and creative elements of my proposal.

Thesis embargoed until 31 December 2026.
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAHRC Northern Bridge DTP
SupervisorDavid Grant (Supervisor) & Jimmy McAleavey (Supervisor)


  • Time
  • drama
  • Aristotle

Cite this