Drama is a type of literature usually written to be performed. People often make a distinction between drama, which concerns the written text, or script, for the performance, and theater, which concerns the performance of this script. Many of the most honored and influential works of literature around the world have been dramas. They begin with the classical Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and continue with the plays of such major dramatists as William Shakespeare in
, Molière in France, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in England , Henrik Ibsen in Germany , and August Strindberg in Norway . The honor bestowed on drama is particularly true of the Western tradition, which is the subject of this article. For more information on other theater traditions, see Asian Theater; African Theater. Sweden
Characteristics of Drama
Most types of literature, including novels, short stories, and poems, are written to be read, usually in silence by a solitary reader. Although works of drama, called plays, are also often read in this manner, they are created primarily to be presented in public by a group of performers, each of whom pretends to be one of the characters in the story the play is telling. Older plays, such as those written by the Greeks or Shakespeare, consist almost entirely of the words spoken by these characters (the dialogue). More recent plays usually contain nonspoken material (the stage directions) that tells the actors when to enter or leave the performance space, gives suggestions about how to speak their dialogue (their lines), and describes their costumes or their physical surroundings on stage (the setting).
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who laid the foundations for the critical study of drama, divided the elements of drama into plot, character, thought, language, and spectacle. Aristotle considered plot—the basic story and how it is told—the most important of these, and this is indeed typically the case. However, almost all dramas use all of these elements to some extent, telling a story by means of the interactions of characters, who express their thoughts through language within a particular visual setting. The balance of these elements, however, varies from play to play. During some periods and in some traditions many or most plays emphasize some element other than plot. Numerous plays emphasize a particular character or a relationship between characters, as does Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601?). Such plays are especially popular because audiences have always been interested in seeing their favorite actors interpret such demanding roles.
Western theater also has a long tradition of plays emphasizing thought. Such plays are sometimes said to treat a particular theme and have been called philosophical plays or thesis plays. Some of the greatest modern dramatists have emphasized thought or theme, among them George Bernard Shaw of Britain and Ibsen, who addressed social issues of their day, and Bertolt Brecht of Germany, many of whose plays criticized capitalism and instructed audiences in his leftist political views.
Language is almost always an important element in drama, and it is occasionally the dominant element. This is the case in the poetic dramas of English romantic authors of the early 19th century and in much of what is called high comedy or comedy of manners, which dates back to the 17th century in
. The latter tradition emphasizes nuances of social class and behavior and typically makes prominent use of witty dialogue, puns, and other verbal acrobatics. The types of drama that have emphasized spectacle include opera, modern musical comedy, 19th-century melodrama, and court spectacles known as masques that originated in England during the 16th century. Spectacle can include lavish costumes, elaborate sets or stage machinery, and other elements that serve to enrich an audience’s visual experience of a play. England
Kinds of Drama
The most widespread and familiar subdivisions of drama are comedy and tragedy, a division established by the Greeks. Even today the smiling and weeping masks worn by Greek actors in comedy and tragedy symbolize the two branches of drama. Traditionally, a tragedy is dominated by a serious tone, concerns kings and princes, deals with profound issues, and usually concludes with the death of the leading character. A comedy typically deals with common people, is dominated by a light tone that encourages laughter (or at least amusement or entertainment), and ends happily, often with the uniting of a pair of young lovers.
During the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century) other forms of drama appeared, and dramatists modified the two traditional forms. Shakespeare divided his plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories, the latter presenting national history in dramatic form. He also departed from classic practice by putting important comic scenes into his tragedies. In
, certain critics and dramatists began mixing elements and aspects of the two traditional kinds of theater to create a third kind, called tragicomedy. The mixture of moods would become much more common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Italy
After the Renaissance the terms comedy and tragedy remained central, but writers subdivided each type and developed new combined forms as well. Tragedy remained the genre used most often to explore the profound philosophic questions of good and evil and humankind’s place in the universe, while comedy emphasized people in their social aspects and personal relationships. This split made comedy the more appropriate form for social commentary and criticism as well as for simple amusement. Comedy emphasizing wit and style among the upper classes became known as high comedy or comedy of manners, as opposed to low comedy or farce. Low comedy traditionally gains its effects from physical humor that can even turn violent at times and from crude verbal jokes, rather than from verbal wit or nuances of social behavior. Farce as a popular, nonliterary form can be traced back to classical
. The equivalent form of tragedy with a wide popular appeal, called melodrama, emerged as a recognized type of theater in the 19th century (though some modern critics characterize certain plays by Euripides as melodramas). Like farce, melodrama is associated with physical action. In the 18th century, as interest grew in the exploration of the emotions, sentimental comedy developed. It stressed feelings rather than laughter and encouraged audience sympathy with the characters and their trials. Other new forms included tragedies that dealt with middle-class characters and serious plays about middle-class life, often called simply dramas. In the 20th century such middle-class drama replaced tragedy as the major serious form of theatrical writing. Greece
Purpose of Drama
Drama has served a wide variety of functions at different times and in different places. Roman writer Horace, in one of the most famous statements about the purpose of literature in general and drama in particular, said it was designed "to delight and to instruct." Sometimes the purpose of drama has been considered to be primarily the first of these, sometimes the second, but generally at least some degree of both has been present.
From classical times until the Renaissance drama was closely associated with major religious and civic observances and served to support both. As a result, plays emphasized instruction. The Renaissance saw examples of theater that were almost purely instructional at schools and universities, along with examples that were almost pure entertainment in the popular theaters at fairs and marketplaces, and a great variety of combinations of the two. Subsequent popular drama stressed entertainment, from presentations in farce and folk theaters of the 18th century to the offerings of major commercial theaters today. Much of the more serious, literary drama from the 18th century on has sought to encourage its audiences to become better informed and more thoughtful about a range of political, social, and moral issues. It is important to remember that drama is also an art form, and can offer in addition to relaxing entertainment the often more demanding experience of aesthetic pleasure. In the early 20th-century the art theater movement stressed this purpose in particular, by presenting dramas whose primary goal was neither conventional entertainment nor instruction but an aesthetic or artistic experience.
Audiences attend plays from a mixture of motivations, including curiosity, pleasure-seeking, and a desire for knowledge or aesthetic experience. But all of these experiences are intensified by the public nature of drama. Because drama is a literary form designed for public presentation, writing about drama has often explored how drama relates to society. Some theorists have argued that, as an art reflecting social concerns for a group audience, drama is particularly suited to stimulate social change. Other theorists have argued that the group orientation of drama means that to succeed drama can never seriously challenge the audience’s general assumptions. Even though critics disagree about drama's revolutionary potential, most would agree that a central purpose of drama has always been to provide a means for a society to reflect upon itself and its beliefs.