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An Introduction to Drama

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.

The 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 performed;

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.

Lighting 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 the play.

Dialogue in drama  

Dialogue has two major functions in drama:

·        it contributes to the telling of the story;

·        it reveals characters.

 A playwright 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 in drama.

            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

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

In 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.

When 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 another.

When 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.     

 Stage 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.

Stage 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 between characters;

·        provide information about the characters’ personality and feelings.

 Traditional Forms of Drama

            Traditional 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.

Greek Drama 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.

These audiences, of course, understood the conventions of Greek theater. For example, the chorus (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. 

Scenes 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 (the antistrophe), they moved to the right. 

Greek 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.

Elizabethan Drama 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.

Elizabethans 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.

Although 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

            Following 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 the
United States,  playwrights developed the tradition of melodrama, plays with stereotyped villains and heroes representing extremes of good and evil.

Realistic 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 could relate.

Dramatists 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.

Settings 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 pronouncements.

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.

Rather 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.

(The Theater of the Absurd, New York: Doubleday, 1969)           

   

Types of Drama

Whether 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 humorous absurdities.

Tragedy 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.

Because 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.

Modern 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.

Comedy 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.

The 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.

In 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.          

Whether 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.

Tragicomedy 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”.

Tragicomedy 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.  

 
 
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