AQA · Teaching Ideas

DNA – A Study Guide

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I’ve written a detailed guide to DNA by Dennis Kelly – it’s quite a thorough examination of the play (29 pages, and 11000 words), giving it some substance. It’s really for teachers, but my top set students in the past have got something out of it.

This is now available as a digital download on lulu.com (£4.99) – thank you to all those who provided feedback.

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and here are the first few pages:

 

DNA – A Study Guide for GCSE

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Jean-Paul Sartre

“Without society, life would be nasty, brutish and short.” Thomas Hobbes

Introduction

DNA by Dennis Kelly is probably one of the most exciting, and the most contemporary, texts set for a GCSE English Literature course in a long time. It is short, less than seventy pages long, but in its brevity there is a clear warning to a world that is consumed by a desire to withdraw from itself, and that in this isolation we are in danger of losing that very quality that makes us human – our social instinct. The group of children in the play (for they are, in the end, just children) are fictional, but these events have happened and will continue to happen for they depict a world where ordinary people become so alienated that they lose track of their own humanity, and are obsessed with a sense of self preservation that ignores all morals and brings out the savage id that perhaps lives within us all. There is no happy ending, no comfortable message of redemption, just a darkness at the heart of it all. DNA’s brothers in arms might be found in Joseph Conrad, in Poe’s monomaniacs, in Ballard’s nightmares of suburbia or in Kafka’s desolate cityscapes, but we might also look no further than the social misfits found in Willy Russell’s plays or even the hedonist dystopias of Irving Welsh.

This revision guide offers a detailed reading of the text and will provide students and teachers with valuable insight into the play’s themes, characterisation and Kelly’s use of language. There are also some revision activities which will foster more detailed and reflective thinking.

Synopsis and Background

At its most basic level, DNA presents a group of children in a situation that gets out of control. During an act of savage bullying by a group of ‘friends’, a boy, Adam, is apparently killed. The rest of the group concoct a way to hide the truth of his death by inventing a story that implicates a fictitious stranger. However, in a bizarre turn of events, a real person is suspected of being involved in Adam’s disappearance. Half-relieved, the group see this as a way of exonerating them – even if the guilt of the boy’s death still lies with them. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Adam turns out not to be dead at all. Rather than be relieved, the group realise that if Adam is found to be alive, then they will be in more trouble: so they decide to kill him. Again.

Themes

DNA is a contemporary play dealing with contemporary issues: alienated teenagers, disaffection, youth violence, jealousy, bullying and questions about responsibility to society and to each other. The actions of the characters are horrific and amoral and yet Kelly, through the realistic dialogue and well-drawn characters, makes it entirely believable. At its heart it is a morality play, warning us of the consequences of shutting ourselves off from the outside world, of allowing the will of the group to overwhelm the rights of the individual, and of the dangers of blind faith in a leader. However, Kelly doesn’t preach the morality: there is no coda to tell us what is right or wrong. Instead, Kelly allows his audience to take what they will from the drama, holding a mirror up to society and ourselves. Kelly’s writing is pacey and succinct; it also captures fabulously the speech patterns of real life. It is structured to create tension and atmosphere from the very beginning and not a moment is wasted; characters are organic: developing and growing as the play progresses.

Themes and motifs

Although it presents a group of children, their actions are far from innocent and with this Kelly follows a long line of literary and cinematic precedents – from Lord of the Flies to A Clockwork Orange. Each scene is full of tension, with relationships threatening to burst asunder as each character attempts to deal with the terrible situation they have found themselves in. Events unfold almost in real time and the audience discover new things about events at the same time as the characters themselves. It is dark, dystopian and nihilistic – revealing the very worst about humanity. However, at the heart of it all is Leah – a character who seems to contain all the anxieties of the group and suggests that there is some goodness even in the most sinister of situations. In fact, despite its dark themes and tragic narrative, there is also humour – however tragic, ironic, dark it may be – but if you see any performance of the play, there will be times when you have to laugh. As unsettling as this may be, it perhaps shows that laughter, for the characters at least, is an antidote to the misery of their lives.

About the play, Dennis Kelly says that “I don’t think I write characters that are bad, I think I write characters that are trying to do the right thing but are failing.” You can make your own mind up about whether you agree with Kelly on this one.

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