So I've finished my latest play (first scene's up on the forum if you want to take a look) and an interesting idea just poppoed into my head: since it's a historical piece, would it be beneficial to add a narrator to explain a bit about the period? Maybe I could work it out as flashforwards. I don't know yet. What do you guys think of plays with narrators?
If you want to look at the classic use of a narrator read the play - and then rent - the DVD of "Man For All Seasons", an historical play. The role is "The Common Man." It is available for a movie version on DVD starring Paul Scofield. He won an Academy Award that year, if I am correct. Brilliant performance.
I used a narrator in one of my plays, who also is a character in the play and it won me 5 national awards in one year and an Equity full production that year. Actually, it won more awards that year than any other play as listed in the Dramatists Guild magazine than any other play listed that year.
So, narrators are useful if done appropriately and creatively.
The key is to make sure the Narrator is involved in the action and there is a transformation from one scene to the next that advances the action. If it is just an "introduction" into a scene or a "summation" of the previous scene, you will be "dead meat" or "dead weight" dramatically. You can not just fill in the gaps between each scene, you must dramatically lead forward the action of the play from one scene and seamlessly link it to the next.
I kind of agree with Michael Penny's comment. A stand alone narrator, without being a character or multiple characters - as in the case of A Man for All Seasons - is probably not very effective. The "stand alone narrator" removes us from the continuous growing action of the play.
For instance the Stage Manager in "Our Town" keeps us involved in the continuous action of the play. Beautifully done.
If the narrator "halts" the action to "explain" something, you stop the overall arc of the play.
In early drafts of one of my plays, I used the main character also as a narrator. I soon took out the narration scenes because I could see that I was using narration as a crutch rather than to serve the story. This particular play is better without narration.
If you're adding a narrator to explain a bit about the period of the play, leave the narrator out. Put enough in your script that audiences can figure out what they need to know. Trust your audience and your text.
Just a side note: "The Common Man", as narrator, was left out of the 1966 Scofield/Zinnemann film version of "A Man For All Seasons". (They presented it as a straight narrative film without commentary by any of the characters.)
There is a 1988 version, with Charlton Heston, which restores The Common Man character to the spot of narrator.