The novelist provides all such essential information; the playwright does not. So the reader of plays must.
A caution: As you read a play for the first time, avoid trying to figure things out. Forget the high school and college analysis of literature courses that insist you regard every word as a clue to unlocking the mystery, solving the puzzle, finding the meaning, discovering what the play “is really about” and earning yourself an A+ (one reason I reject the step-by-step approach to How to Read a Play). Just read the play. Read freely. Regard the first reading as similar to reading the blurb of a novel or checking the contents page of a book, the introduction, chapter titles, etc., to get an overall sense of the movement of the book. Read the play without effort. Feel no anxiety about passages that don’t make sense immediately. If you have only a vague idea about what’s happening, that’s okay. Just read on. Let it play upon you. Get a feel for the story. A sense of what’s happening. A feel for the people who are living behind the words they are speaking.
- What’s happening at the start of the play? What’s the situation?
- What does it all get to? What's the situation at the end?
- What happens along the way?
Once you've got the story sketched out, exploring individual passages in finer detail becomes easier and more easily rewarding.
Both Irina and Andrei have what-has-my-life-come-to meltdowns.
As each new person comes in, note the effect it has on all the others. Act One becomes “Here are a few things you need to know about the people of this house and their relationships with others”. The play story kicks into full gear when Andrei proposes to Natasha.
You work toward as detailed an understanding of each sequence of a play as I describe in the posting on the nunnery scene of Hamlet; but first you read for story, for understanding of the thrust of what happens throughout the course of the whole play. It's an outgrowth of Aristotle's dictum: the most important part of a play is its plot.
I love getting a new play and bursting my way through it just to see what I will understand of the story, how much I'm aware of what happens, what's clear to me, what's vague, and what I will have to do some real work on in order to understand.
what they are doing and on what is happening to them.