The word drama tends to get casually thrown around describing something as sensational or wild. But when it comes to literature, what does it really mean? From William Shakespeare to Sophocles, dramas have been pieces of literature that have moved readers and audiences for centuries. Today, we’ll go into detail about what a drama is, where dramas came from, and look at the different types of dramas. Let’s get started!
What is a Drama?
First, what is a drama? A drama is a type of narrative writing that is meant to be performed in front of an audience. Dramas are most notably performed as plays in a theatre though many dramas have been recreated and adapted for film, TV, or radio. Nowadays, drama is commonly used to describe a genre of storytelling in film and television like The Godfather or The Expanse. Despite what the name implies, dramas are not always serious. There are 5 types of classic dramas that are all unique from each other: comedy, tragedy, farce, melodrama, and musical drama.
History of Dramas
Ancient Rome and Greece
Before we delve deeper into the different types, it’s important to know how they started. Dramas can be traced back to the 5th century in Ancient Rome and Greece. Playwrights made productions that started with just one actor and a chorus that sang to help tell the story. Back then most dramas were usually religious in nature and only written and performed by adult men, with the exception of younger boys who would perform women’s roles until after the renaissance. There were only three prominent genres at that time: comedy, tragedy, and satire.
The Middle Ages
Moving forward to the Middle Ages, dramas reemerged through the church as a new method to teach the people about the Bible since services were in Latin and most people couldn’t speak Latin and were illiterate. These dramas were known as mystery plays. Around the 16th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance period caused a renewed interest in art—plays were becoming popular in England as a means of entertainment, socializing, and social critique. Plays about the ruling class like Henry V, or tragedies like Othello were popular around this time. They were performed by acting companies that traveled all over the country. Playwrights like William Shakespeare began to make a name for themselves and permanent public theatres were being built. Thus, theatre began to take root and become the classic English drama we know today.
English drama plays during this time were originally performed in or around local inns or open courts until permanent theaters were constructed outside the city. The most popular, The Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare plays were performed was built in 1599. Theatres were 3 stories tall and were typically polygonal. In other words, the theatre and seating were angled to basically surround the stage so that onlookers could see the performance from three sides – front, left, and right. Dramas also took place during the day because artificial light hadn’t been created yet; at best candles were lit in the evening and the scenery was virtually nonexistent. The settings were mostly described by the characters’ dialogue, leaving the audience’s imagination to do the rest.
Types of Dramas
Today, dramas can be separated into 5 types.
Comedies are narratives with the intent of making the audience laugh. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedic drama about a turbulent marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta and the hi-jinx that ensues with them and 4 young actors.
Just like the name suggests, tragedies were indeed tragic. The subjects they dealt with were dark, like war and death, and protagonists were always burdened with a tragic flaw that kept them from their happy ending.
This type of drama is similar to a comedy but aims at entertaining through highly exaggerated and improbable situations. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is made up of dozens of characters with their own unique and sometimes extravagant stories, leaving the “plot” to be lost to some readers and audiences.
This type of drama is meant to appeal to the audience’s emotions. The story is meant to be passionate and sensational, with characters portrayed using stereotypes and one-dimensional personalities.
This is a form of drama where music, especially singing or dancing, is used along with dialogue and acting to tell the story.
Drama vs. Fiction
Denoting the difference between drama and fiction can be a bit tricky. Both narratives are fueled by the imagination to tell stories, but dramas are written to be acted out in front of an audience, whereas fiction is meant to be read. Drama is also based in dialogue, meaning that the story is driven through conversations, “speeches,” and interactions between characters. Fiction, on the other hand, may use a narrator to move the story forward outside of dialogue from the characters.
Dramas may use something called an aside to express a thought or information during a play that only the audience can hear. The character will break the 4th wall and address the audience directly about whatever is on their mind or that they feel we should know. It could be thought of as a “time freeze” where everyone else on stage is frozen and the only people who can hear the character giving the aside is the audience. Once it’s over, the drama continues as if nothing happened.
Soliloquies are similar to asides but are presented more like a speech than a passing thought or remark. If there are other characters present on stage, they completely ignore the person giving the soliloquy. Soliloquies are usually meant to share a character’s inner thoughts the audience would otherwise have no way of knowing. Time isn’t frozen during a soliloquy, instead we’re putting a metaphorical spotlight on a character for a few seconds and continue with the play as usual.
Before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions to see what you remember:
1. Which of the following describes a farce?
- A play that appeals to the audience’s emotions through sensational and passionate storytelling.
- A play that aims to entertain the audience through highly-exaggerated situations.
- A play that deals with dark subjects, such as war or death.
- A play that involves both dialogue and music to tell the story.
2. A soliloquy is…
- A character expressing their thoughts aloud, regardless of who is around them.
- A character expressing a passing thought or remark in such a way that time freezes around them and only the audience can hear them.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!