Since the days of ancient Greece, people have created,
watched, and participated in drama. Drama makes events and emotions – whether
realistic or fantastic – come to life before the eyes of the audience. More
than any other literary form, drama is a visual experience. Whether we read it
or see it on stage, a play leaves pictures in our minds. These pictures, along
with the echoes of the characters’ (and, of course, the playwright’s) words,
create the emotions and ideas that together make up that play’s themes.
word ‘drama’ refers to any work that is intended for performance by actors on a
stage. It is a type of writing or genre that is very different from poetry or
fiction because the written text, what we call the play, is only one component
of the work. Other elements are needed to bring a dramatic text to life:
the actors, the people who interpret the parts of play;
the director, the person who decides how the play should be
the audience, the people who watch the play.
When reading a play, we should always try to imagine how it
could be presented on stage. It always helps to see as many live or filmed
versions of the play as possible.
A play takes place on a stage. On stage, a set representing
the place where the action takes place is built. The set usually includes
props, stage furniture, objects, colored backcloths, etc. The set will
immediately give us information about the play, for example, which historical
period it is set in. It will also create expectations about what we are about
to see. There are, of course, a great variety of set designs from complex
multi-storey sets to simple bare stages.
A set is described as naturalistic, when it represents real life, or symbolic,
when it tries to convey ideas or meaning.
plays an important role in conveying the meaning of a play. Its primary
function is to illuminate the actors and the stage but it can also focus
attention on a particular area of the stage while the rest is in darkness or
semi-darkness. Lighting is used to show the time of day when the action takes
place. It also creates atmosphere. Filters are used to produce colored light
which may create warm, cold or eerie atmospheres. Today it is possible to
incorporate spectacular lighting effects into a performance by using strobe
lighting, ultraviolet light, underfloor lighting and other special techniques.
Like lighting, sound effects may also play an important part
in theatrical productions. Sounds that come from the stage or sound made
offstage can make the production more realistic and credible. Music is often
used to create atmosphere or to underline particularly significant moments in
Dialogue in drama
Dialogue has two major functions in
it contributes to the telling
of the story;
it reveals characters.
has two or three hours of stage time to tell his story, which must emerge from
the actions and conversations of the characters on stage. Dialogue is the conventional technique playwrights use to
give the audience information about the setting, the time, the characters and
the action in a play. Dialogue is, therefore, an essential storytelling device
Dialogue is also important in
creating character. In order to make a character convincing, a playwright must
find the character’s ‘voice’ – i.e. his unique style of speech. The audience
should be able to draw conclusions about a character’s personality and
background (social, economic and cultural) by listening attentively to how he
speaks and what he says.
Soliloquy is a theatrical convention in which a character speaks aloud to
himself. The character may not necessarily be alone on the stage; other
characters may be present, but if they are, it is assumed they do not hear the
words of the soliloquy. The playwright uses soliloquy to convey directly to the
audience the character’s motives, intentions and his innermost feelings and
thoughts, or simply to fill in parts of the story. A monologue
is similar to a soliloquy. It serves the same purposes. However, it is usually
shorter and takes place in the presence of other characters on stage who hear
what is being said. A
related stage device is the aside, in which a character
expresses his thoughts in a few words or a short passage that the other
characters on the stage cannot hear.
Tone in Drama
everyday speech the tone of voice we use can change the meaning of what we say.
A simple expression such as ‘sit down’ can become an order, an invitation or a
question, depending on the tone that is used. Tone is an important part of
speech because it conveys the speaker’s attitude to what he is saying or who he
is speaking to.
we see a play in a theatre we can learn much from the tone the characters use
when delivering their lines. Sometimes the playwright will indicate in the
stage directions the tone in which he
wishes lines to be delivered. Often he leaves it up to the discretion of the
director and actors, and the tone may vary dramatically from one production to
we read, as opposed to see, a play the issue of tone becomes more problematic,
but no less important. Where tone is not mentioned in the stage directions,
rhythm, punctuation and choice and arrangement of words may be useful
indicators. It is also important to bear in mind the personality of the speaker
and his attitude towards the subject under discussion and the person he is
speaking to when trying to determine tone.
directions allow the playwright to intervene in the text
of a play and give instructions for its production. They are easily
identifiable in the text because they are usually written in italics.
directions have several functions. They:
provide information about
the setting and scenery;
describe the actions and
movements of the actors on stage;
indicate the tone in which
lines should be delivered;
establish the relationship
provide information about
the characters’ personality and feelings.
Traditional Forms of Drama
forms of drama are still performed and enjoyed. In addition, modern playwrights
often adapt, incorporate, or rebel against elements of traditional drama as
they write today’s plays.
Formal competitions among Greek playwrights began in approximately 530
B.C. These competitions continued to be
held for several centuries, always in connection with religious celebrations
dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine who symbolized life-giving power. Greek
plays were performed in large, outdoor, semicircular amphitheaters that held as
many as 15,000 people.
audiences, of course, understood the conventions of Greek theater. For example,
(usually representing the voice of the community) danced and sang in the orchestra
(a round area at the foot of the amphitheater). On an elevated stage behind the
orchestra, the actors – wearing masks that symbolized their primary
characteristics and, in addition, amplified their voices – performed their
roles. Although Greek theaters did not have elaborate sets, they did have one
rather spectacular stage device, the deus ex machina (god from the
machine). By means of elaborate
mechanisms, actors were lowered from above to the stage to play the role of
gods meting out punishments or rewards to the human characters.
end with the dances and songs of the chorus (the ode), which sometimes
comment on the action of the scene or provide background information clarifying
the action of the scene. As the chorus sang one part of their observation (the
strophe), they moved from right to left on the stage; as they sang another part
they moved to the right.
plays are short in comparison to five-act Shakespearean plays or modern
three-act plays. Because the audience was familiar with the myths and legends on
which most of the plays are based, the playwrights did not have to spend time
explaining many of the background circumstances. Most Greek plays can be acted
in about an hour and a half.
William Shakespeare’s plays exemplify the drama written during the reign of
Queen Elizabeth I of England
(1558-1603). Shakespeare wrote tragedy, comedy, and history; he captures the
large, spectacular actions of kings, queens, and other highborn characters (and
the people who serve them) as well as the romances and intrigues that are part
of their lives.
followed Greek tradition by barring women from the stage. Adolescent boys
played the parts of young heroines such as Juliet, and male character actors
eagerly sought the parts of older women.
currently there is much speculation about the design of Elizabethan theatres,
most scholars agree that early Elizabethan plays were performed in makeshift
locations such as inn yards or open spaces between buildings such as Inns at
Court, which was a London
law college. When theatres were built, they were usually octagonal on the
outside. Inside, they were circular. The audience sat on both sides as well as
in front of the raised stage. As in the Greek theater, there was little scenery
or stage setting, except for the booms and machinery used to lower actors who
came on as messengers or agents of supernatural forces. Unlike Greek theaters,
however, Elizabethan theaters had a second-level balcony, doors at the back for
entrances and exists, a curtained alcove, and a trap door in the stage floor
for surprise entrances of ghosts and spirits. Although the huge Greek
amphitheatres could accommodate many thousands of theater-goers, most
Elizabethan theaters could house house no more than about 1000 to 2000,
including 500 to 800groundlings (common folk who could not afford seats and
thus stood at the foot of the stage). The composition of the Elizabethan
audiences – ranging from the illiterate groundlings to the highly educated
nobility – presented a challenge to the playwright. Successful plays usually
melded action, humor, and violence with philosophical insights and evocative
poetry. For an example of such a play, read Hamlet.
Modern Forms of Drama
the flourishing drama during the Elizabethan period, playwrights – particularly
in England and in France –
focused on comedy as well as tragedy. These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
playwrights frequently satirized the failings and foibles of society in witty
dramas depicting romantic intrigues and entanglements. During this same time in
United States, playwrights developed the tradition of melodrama,
plays with stereotyped villains and heroes representing extremes of good and
Drama React against both stylized comedy and exaggerated melodrama,
some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dramatists began to develop a
new form: the realistic drama. These dramatists worked to present everyday
life – crises, conflicts, and emotional responses to which ordinary people
writing in the realistic tradition depict problems with work, with family
relationships, with community politics. Ghosts do not pop up from the floor of
the realistic stage to introduce problems into the characters’ lives, nor do
gods descend from above to solve those problems. Instead, the difficulties the
characters face seem to follow logically from events and decisions with which most
members of the audience can identify. Most can also relate to – if not agree
with – the responses characters have to the conflicts in their lives.
and props in the realistic theater are more important than in earlier forms of
drama, because the dramatist seeks to create the illusion of real life. Often
the stage is like a room with the fourth wall removed. The audience is invited
to watch ordinary people and listen to them conversing in ordinary language
rather than in polished poetry, stylized witty exchanges, or highly dramatic
Theatre of the Absurd In
the second half of the twentieth century, a number of playwrights rejected the
conventions of realistic drama. Instead of a sequence of logically connected
events, absurdist drama offers actions that lead in no predictable direction.
The motivations of characters are contradictory or absent altogether.
Conversations and speeches ramble disjointedly, leaping first one way and then
another for no apparent reason.
than suggesting coherent themes, absurdist dramas invite the audience to ask
questions about the world in which we live. Martin Esslin, who first called
these dramas "theatre of the absurd,” offers the following insight:
The Theater of the Absurd shows the
world as an incomprehensible place. The spectators see the happenings on the
stage entirely from the outside, without ever understanding the full meaning of
these strange patterns of events, as newly arrived visitors might watch life in
a country of which they have not yet mastered the language.
Theater of the Absurd, New York: Doubleday, 1969)
Types of Drama
ancient or modern, plays represent a wide range of emotions and views of the
wold. Although most plays contain both serious and comic elements, they usually
fit into one of two major dramatic categories: tragedy, which focuses on life’s
sorrows and serious problems, and comedy, which focuses on life’s joys and
Traditionally, the tragic play looks at the life of a royal figure or highly
respected official. During the course of drama, this character’s fortunes
change drastically from good and bad. Having enjoyed high status in society,
the tragic hero meets his or her downfall for one (or a combination) of these
three reasons: fate or coincidence beyond the control of the character, a flaw
in character, or a mistake in judgment.
the traditional tragic hero is a noble character, his or her fall has been
regarded as particularly moving to the audience. After all, if someone as
brave, stalwart, wise (and so on) as the
tragic hero can fall prey to random accidents, character flaws, or poor
judgment, how much more vulnerable must we ordinary mortals be. In the Poetics,
Aristotle suggested that watching the tragic hero’s downfall (the catastrophe,
which generally involves the death not only of the hero but also of other,
often innocent, individuals) inspires in us the emotions of pity and terror. By watching the tragic hero
move steadily toward disaster, and by seeing the drama’s resolution (the
conclusion, in which order is generally restored to the society at large), we
viewers may experience catharsis (profound relief from the tension of the play
and a sense that we have gained insight and enlightenment, rather than simply
entertainment, from the drama). For classic examples of traditional tragic
heroes, consider the title characters in Sophocles’ Antigone or Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
plays that are sometimes termed tragedies do not always follow the conventions
of traditional tragedy strictly. For instance, the main character may not be
highborn but may instead be a rather ordinary person like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Also, like A Doll’s
House, a modern tragedy may not end with the main character’s physical
death but rather with the death of a way of life. Some scholars argue that
these modern plays are not true tragedies and that their main characters are
not true tragic heroes. A Doll’s House provides an opportunity to consider
the nature of modern tragic drama and modern tragic characters.
Unlike traditional tragic drama, which focuses on the lives of noble, highborn
characters, comic drama shows us the lives of ordinary people. Like the
characters in tragedies, these people encounter conflicts, challenges, and
difficulties. Yet their problems are seldom deeply serious – or if they are
serious, they are treated in a lighthearted way.
humor in comic plots has many sources. Satiric comedy exposes the
foibles and shortcomings of humanity, inviting us not only to laugh at the
often-exaggerated stage examples but also to pay attention to our own
idiosyncrasies and follies. Satiric comedy may be light and witty, but often
its humor is rather dark and biting. We laugh at the characters, yet we cannot help but see the selfishness and
egotism in their plights. The source of satiric humor is often both verbal and
visual. Writers of satiric comedy use sharp words and cutting phrases as well
as pratfalls and fisticuffs to inspire laughter in their audience.
romantic comedy, by contrast, the source of humor is frequently mistaken
identity and unexpected discoveries as well as romping stage chases, mock
fistfights, and other physical action. Unlike satiric comedy, romantic comedy
does not aim at chastising and improving human behavior but rather at inviting
the gentle laughter of self-recognition. Romantic comedy seeks to delight the
audience rather than to teach a lesson. Shakespeare’s comedies, such as As You Like It, typify romantic comedy.
the comic drama is satiric or romantic, it differs in major ways from tragedy.
Whereas tragedy moves toward the main characters’ downfall, comedy moves toward
the improvement of the main characters’ fortunes. Tragedy usually ends with
death and then with restoration of order; comedy concludes with reconciliation,
often through the marriage of the main characters as well as the marriage of
minor or supporting characters.
More common among modern dramas than the comedy is the tragicomedy: a play that
mixes elements of comedy and tragedy. For instance, Glaspell’s Trifles focuses on a tragedy, a woman’s murder of her husband. Yet the bumbling sheriff
and his male cohorts become darkly comic figures as they make fun of the two
women who manage to solve the crime that stumps all the men. Other plays in
this anthology that combine comedy and tragedy include Fugard’s "Master Harold
… and the Boys”.
takes many forms. Sometimes, as with Trifles,
the play is primarily tragic yet is relieved by moments of humor. Sometimes
humor dominates the play, yet serious themes lie behind the comic words and
actions. Consider, for example, Fierstein’s On Tidy Endings with its
witty exchange between the characters yet with underlying themes relating to
loss and death.