Drama or play is a popular genre of literature. First, poetry and drama were evolved as the ancient forms of literature, later developed the other forms. The word ‘drama’ is derived from the Greek meaning ‘action’. It is the most distinct form of literature for it is based on the live performance. The similar word for drama is play; and the author of drama is called dramatist or playwright. It is different from all other forms of literature because live characters, to whom we call actors take part in performance on stage (in a theatre) before a live audience. Drama can be defined as a form of fictional or realistic composition based on written script meant for performance on stage through characters (actors) in front of the audience. Dialogues are crucial part of such performance. Different roles are assigned to the characters who perform on the stage. It is the only collaborative art in literature where the constituents like dramatist, director, stage manager, actors and others collaborate for the final and unified effect. According to John Dryden, a well-known seventeenth century poet and critic, “a play is a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject for the delight and instruction of mankind”.
Here, Dryden’s focus is on the theme of drama i.e. the human deeds and its results; and the end or objective of the drama i.e. to entertain and teaching morality. It is a comment (criticism) on life and actions of human beings, their follies, flaws, manners and behaviour. To explore this significant genre, let’s understand the elements/ features of drama. There are similarity of features between novel and drama, e.g. characters, plot, setting, beginning, end, dialogues, etc. but there are some distinct elements too.
1. Length: unlike novel, drama cannot be confined to pages or word count but divided into acts; and acts include scenes. A full length drama, in general, has 3-5 acts, and an act can have 3-5 scenes. We don’t have a strict restriction of acts and scenes in a drama. Shakespeare has composed plays with 5 acts of 3-7 scenes. There are plays with single act which is called one act play and plays with 2-3 acts. George Bernard Shaw composed plays in 3 acts of varying scenes. In modern age, one act plays have become more popular to traditional composition of lengthy 5 acts and scenes also have contracted to a limit as per the need of playwright and audience. Today we find that plays are reduced to highest three hours.
2. Characters: characters in a play are called dramatic personae or actors who perform on the stage. There may be as many characters as the dramatist require to suit his/ her theme and subject matter. Characters carry the message of the playwright through dialogues. There are different number of dramatic personae for different plays. One act play has limitation of characters where as a full length play has elaborative number of characters. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet there are 16 and in Othello 13 vivid characters or persons but again we have senators, messengers, soldiers, attendants, servants and gentlemen who are not fully developed. In John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea, there are 5 vivid characters and some town’s people who appear in the play. There are major and minor characters in a play. Again they can be grouped as flat and round characters as stated by E.M. Forster (discussed in the video and article What is Novel?). A drama cannot afford many characters as a novel comprises of; less the characters, more the effect formed on audience. A play has to display its total effect in limited time.
3. Plot Structure and Action: plot of a drama reveals the series and development of events. The structure of a play can be explained through the following triangle:
Generally in a full length play, first act decides the exposition, second act complication, the third act climax or crisis, the fourth act leads toward denouement or falling action and the last act clears the entire picture and includes solution or catastrophe in the form of ending. This is a rough proportion of a play, there may be variation. In one act play, this has to be converted into scenes and it is depend on how many scenes are there in the play. First action moves from beginning to the upper section reaching to the climax, then starts the falling action leading to the solution or ending. Every play needs the unity of structure i.e. logical sequence and cohesion among events and action. But the absurd drama is an exception to this unity of structure.
4. Dialogues: it is the very essential element of the play. It moves the plot and action forward and since a play is a live performance, dialogues make it livelier. A playwright cannot comment directly on the situation or event in the play but only through the dialogues in the mouth of characters. A novelist can comment on anything in the novel as a detached observer. Dialogues and monologues are among the most crucial elements of drama. It produces a stirring effect upon audience and remains in their memory for longer time. E.g. dialogues and monologues of Shakespearean characters. We know the famous soliloquy of Hamlet “to be or not to be that is the question….”.
5. Setting and Scene: the places and locales shown in drama are called its setting and where the scene is performed denotes the scene—different places can be depicted in the scene. In Shakespearean drama, we have scenes at palaces, mansions, big homes, battle grounds, sometimes jungles, etc. A scene can happen at any place. A drama does not afford to have many locations for its scenes because it has to perform on a stage and it’s difficult to depict a number of locations or places over it in limited hours.
6. Theme: as the novel can have any kind of theme, drama can also be composed on any theme. The theme of drama can be stressed out through the other elements like dialogues among characters, scenes, events, language or vocabulary, style of dramatist, presentation of subject matter, etc. a playwright depicts many themes in a drama. Shakespeare touched upon various themes in his plays like love, ambition, lust, revenge, human flaws, war, struggle, dilemma in human mind, human nature, wrong judgment, so and so forth. In modern drama, there are themes like alienation, human existence, identity, futility/ absurdity of human life, belongingness, false concepts of religion, extremism, contracted relations, excessive significance to physical goods than human love, degradation of human values and morality, so and so forth.
7. Stage and Direction: this feature separates drama from other genres of literature. In drama, stage is a place or space specifically constructed in a way to perform acting by the actors before an audience in a theatre. A dramatist has to collaborate with stage manager/ theatre owner, director, actors, producer and other related entities for the final outcome of written script. Stage, direction and acting has its role in the success of a drama. The stage and direction has been changed a lot over the years. There is a difference between the Elizabethan/ Shakespearean stage and the modern stage. The Elizabethan stage was a round place around which the audience, as per social strata or status of persons, used to sit and watch drama from very close. Today we have the front stage system and has some distance between the audience and stage. Today we have very big theatres and stages occupying a large number of audience.
8. Music and Chorus: the drama includes music and chorus. Chorus is a description or comment in the form of music, song, dance or recitation by a group of persons/ characters in drama on the main course or action. Chorus has been travelled from Greek ancient tragedies to Seneca and then to English drama. It is famous from Elizabethan drama to modern drama like T.S. Eliot’s Murder in Cathedral. Background music and songs/ lyrics add live effect in drama and it sustains the attention of audience. Music helps to heighten the suspense or thrill in a situation in serious drama or tragedy and also it can make situation lighter in a comedy or light play.
9. Visual Elements/ Spectacle: this is related to scenery, costumes, special effects, artistic demonstrations used on the stage in accordance with stage directions. How dramatist or director employ these elements in a drama has a great and long lasting effect over the mind of audience. Spectacle adds the scenic effect in a situation or event. E.g. horror, battle ground or love scene, etc.
10. Performance/ Acting: this is another crucial element of drama. Because the success of a drama is highly depend on the acting of actors or characters. Actors are vehicle of delivery of dialogues and action in the drama. To perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth or Othello, well-rehearsed and staunchly prepared actor is needed, a layman cannot justify the role. Acting needs direction and can be moulded and refined. A good performance of acting invites greater audience.
11. Audience/ Spectators: it is the integral part of the drama without which a drama cannot be acted. Drama is meant for audience. As actors actively perform on the stage, spectators also actively participate off the stage. Active spectators motivate the performers and create conducive atmosphere in the theatre by active participation.
Above are the distinct and basic features or elements of drama, there may be others too like style, language, symbolism, opening or introduction, ending, etc. (read and watch article and video What is novel/ fiction?)
Kinds/ Types/ Forms of Drama:
Drama can be grouped on various basis such as theme, style, age group of audience, language, philosophy presented in drama, dramatist, subject matter, so and so forth. But we are discussing here the very fundamental and well-known types of drama.
1. Tragedy: it is the first and foremost form of drama came into existence in the formation of drama. Aristotle, a great critic and philosopher defined it as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”. This definition elaborates the basic elements of a classical tragedy. Further he adds the six constituent parts of tragedy—plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle. Tragedy depicts serious and dignified theme/ subject matter through the horrible incidents in the life of its protagonist or main character(s). We have all time famous tragedies like Hamlet (1599-1602) Othello (1603), Macbeth (1606) and Kind Lear (1606) by William Shakespeare.
2. Comedy: it is a lighter form of drama shows the lighter side of life and especially designed to amuse the audience through the entertaining and satirical performance with always happy ending. It is opposite to tragedy in all elements—tragedy has serious or dignified theme, style and characters; comedy has common theme, no lofty style and everyday characters; tragedy includes horrible events, bloodshed and deaths on stage; there is nothing of this sort in comedy. In comedy unpleasant circumstances are won by the protagonist or main characters. There are many types of comedies like Romantic Comedy, Comedy of Manners, Comedy of Humours, Sentimental Comedy, Restoration Comedy, Satirical Comedy, High Comedy, Low Comedy, etc. The examples of comedies are Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99) and As You Like It (1599), Ben Johnson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of his Humour (1599), William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) and School for Scandal (1777).
3. Tragicomedy: this type of form flourished in the Elizabethan age (1558-1603) and popularized by Shakespeare and later many dramatists practiced this form of drama. It combines the tragic and comic elements, e.g. high profile and everyday characters, serious as well as low theme or subject matter, etc. Complication leads towards the serious crisis but it is resolved through denouement with happy ending. Often in such plays, two plots are introduced, one serious and lofty and other low or general relating to layman’s life. Examples are Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1605), Cymbeline (1611) and The Winter’s Tale (1611).
4. Melodrama: initially it is a drama of music or song, later it included the elements of tragedy. In this type human emotions are exaggerated sensationally and it directly appeals to senses of audience. Often violence is made vivid and emotions appealing. The examples of this type are Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight (1867), Sill Life, Brief Encounter (1936) by Noel Coward, The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) by John Webster and Shakespeare’s Richard III (1593), King Lear (1606), Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595/96), Romeo and Juliet (1597) can be considered as melodramas.
5. One Act Play: it is developed in ancient time of Mystery and Miracle plays but now it has become a full-fledged and more popular form of drama. It is comprised of single act with 3-7 or sometime more scenes. The resources are limited in such plays. A playwright has to use economy while composing one act play. It is like as short story relates to novel, one act play relates to full-length play. J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904), Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), George Bernard Shaw’s The Man of Destiny (1897), The Dark Lady of the Sonnet (1910), Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq (1977) (includes 13 scenes).
These are the very basic forms/ types of drama and from which the other forms are developed viz.
6. Farce (a form of comedy)
7. Black or Dark Comedy (again type of comedy)
8. Musical Drama
9. Documentary Play
10. History Plays
12. Cycle Plays
13. Absurd Drama
14. Existential Drama
15. Dramatic Monologue (originally it is a form of poetry popularized by Robert Browning)
17. Horror Dramas, so and so forth
Recommendation for Reading/ Watching Dramas:
1. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
3. Othello by William Shakespeare
4. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
5. As You Like It by William Shakespeare
You can read these dramas and if you find difficulty in understanding due to old (Middle Age) English, you can read the paraphrases which are easily available in market.
6. The Zoo Story by Edward Albee
7. Candida by George Bernard Shaw
8. Tughlaq by Girish Karnad
9. Chitra and Chandalika by Rabindranath Tagore
10. Final Solutions by Mahesh Dattani
Other than this, you can read and if possible watch Shakespeare’s other plays and plays of John Webster, Harold Pinter, G.B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Agatha Christi, Rabindranath Tagore, and many other of your interest.
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Author: Datta G Sawant