What Is Drama? Literary Definition and Examples

By Robert Longley at Thought co

In literature, a drama is the portrayal of fictional or non-fictional events through the performance of written dialog (either prose or poetry). Dramas can be performed on stage, on film, or the radio. Dramas are typically called plays, and their creators are known as “playwrights” or “dramatists.”

Performed since the days of Aristotle (c. 335 BC), the term “drama” comes from the Greek words δρᾶμα (an act, a play) and δράω (to act, to take action).

The two iconic masks of drama—the laughing face and the crying face—are the symbols of two of the ancient Greek Muses: Thalia, the Muse of comedy and Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy.

What Makes Drama so Dramatic?

To make their plays dramatic, playwrights strive to progressively build the audience’s feelings of tension and anticipation as the story develops. Dramatic tension builds as the audience keeps wondering “What happens next?” and anticipating the outcomes of those events. In a mystery, for example, dramatic tension builds throughout the plot until an exciting or unanticipated climax is revealed.

Dramatic tension is all about keeping the audience guessing. In the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, will Oedipus ever figure out that by killing his father and sleeping with his mother he had caused the plague that destroyed his city, and what will he do about it if he does? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, will Prince Hamlet ever avenge his father’s death and get rid of his pesky ghost and visions of floating daggers by murdering the play’s antagonist Claudius?

Dramas depend heavily on spoken dialogue to keep the audience informed about the characters’ feelings, personalities, motivations, and plans. Since the audience sees characters in a drama living out their experiences without any explanatory comments from the author, playwrights often create dramatic tension by having their characters deliver soliloquies and asides.

Types of Drama

Dramatic performances are generally classified into specific categories according to the mood, tone, and actions depicted in the plot. Some popular types of drama include:

  • Comedy: Lighter in tone, comedies are intended to make the audience laugh and usually come to a happy ending. Comedies place offbeat characters in unusual situations causing them to do and say funny things. Comedy can also be sarcastic in nature, poking fun at serious topics. There are also several sub-genres of comedy, including romantic comedy, sentimental comedy, a comedy of manners, and tragic comedy—plays in which the characters take on tragedy with humor in bringing serious situations to happy endings.
  • Tragedy: Based on darker themes, tragedies portray serious subjects like death, disaster, and human suffering in a dignified and thought-provoking way. Rarely enjoying happy endings, characters in tragedies, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are often burdened by tragic character flaws that ultimately lead to their demise.
  • Farce: Featuring exaggerated or absurd forms of comedy, a farce is a nonsensical genre of drama in which characters intentionally overact and engage in slapstick or physical humor. Examples of farce include the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and the hit 1980 movie Airplane!, written by Jim Abrahams.
  • Melodrama: An exaggerated form of drama, melodramas depict classic one-dimensional characters such as heroes, heroines, and villains dealing with sensational, romantic, and often perilous situations. Sometimes called “tearjerkers,” examples of melodramas include the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and the classic movie of love during the Civil War, Gone With the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
  • Opera: This versatile genre of drama combines theater, dialogue, music, and dance to tell grand stories of tragedy or comedy. Since characters express their feelings and intentions through song rather than dialogue, performers must be both skilled actors and singers. The decidedly tragic La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini, and the bawdy comedy Falstaff, by Giuseppe Verdi are classic examples of opera.
  • Docudrama: A relatively new genre, docudramas are dramatic portrayals of historic events or non-fictional situations. More often presented in movies and television than in live theater, popular examples of docudramas include the movies Apollo 13 and 12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiography written by Solomon Northup.

Classic Example of Comedy and Tragedy

Perhaps no two plays better illustrate the juxtaposition of the masks of drama—comedy and tragedy—than these two William Shakespeare classics.

Comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare explores one of his favorite themes—“love conquers all”—with a humorous twist. Due to a series of comical and unpredictable situations, young couples keep falling in and out of love. As they struggle with the foibles of love, their equally amusing real-world problems are magically resolved by a mischievous sprite named Puck. In the very Shakespearian happy ending, old enemies become fast friends and the true lovers are united to live happily ever after.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is cited as an example of how playwrights utilize the ageless conflict between love and social convention as a source of humor.

Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet

Young lovers live anything but happily ever after in Shakespeare’s unforgettable tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In what is still one of the most-performed plays in history, the love between Romeo and Juliet is doomed by the raging feud between their families, the Montagues and the Capulets.

The night before the star-crossed lovers are secretly married, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin in a duel, and Juliet fakes her own death to avoid being forced by her parents to marry a family friend. Unaware of Juliette’s plan, Romeo visits her grave and, believing she is dead, kills himself. When she learns of Romeo’s death, Juliet truly does kill herself.

Through the technique of switching moods between hope and despair, Shakespeare creates heartbreaking dramatic tension in Romeo and Juliet.

Drama Key Terms

  • Drama: The portrayal of fictional or non-fictional events in theater, film, radio, or television.
  • Thalia: The Greek Muse of comedy, depicted as one of the two masks of drama.
  • Melpomene: The Greek Muse of tragedy, the other mask of drama.
  • Dramatic tension: The most basic element of drama used to stir the emotions of the audience.
  • Comedy: The humorous genre of drama intended to keep the audience laughing on the way to play’s happy ending.
  • Tragedy: The portrayal of darker subjects like death, disaster, betrayal, and human suffering.
  • Farce: An “over the top” form of purposely over-acted and exaggerated comedy.
  • Melodrama: The depiction of simple classic characters like heroes and villains dealing with sensational, romantic, and often perilous situations.
  • Opera: The artful combination of dialogue, music, and dance to tell grand stories of tragedy or comedy.
  • Docudrama: Historical or non-fictional events portrayed in a dramatic fashion.

Sources

  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. “The Cambridge Guide to Theatre.” Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Carlson, Marvin. 1993. “Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present.” Cornell University Press
  • Worthen, W.B. “The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama.” Heinle & Heinle, 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0495903239

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