What is Drama?

By Literary Terms

I. What is Drama?

Drama has two very different meanings. In modern pop culture, it means a genre of film or television that deals with serious, often negative, emotions. It’s the opposite of comedy, which is just for laughs. Drama refers only to film and television, not novels or other purely written art forms.

In the past (up until the rise of Hollywood), drama had an entirely different meaning. It was any kind of fictional performance – usually a play, but also including short skits, vaudeville shows, musicals, etc. Anything with actors counted as drama, even when it was a comedy. This definition is still used sometimes (for example, in the phrase “drama class”), but it’s become much less common than the other. This older definition also has an impact on the more modern definition: modern dramas are still “acted,” usually onscreen – that’s why novels can’t be dramas.

Because the first definition is more relevant to the modern world, that’s the one we’ll mainly focus on in this article.


II. Examples of Drama

Example 1

Cartoons are usually associated with comedy, and the majority of dramas are live-action. But there are a few exceptions. For example, the wildly popular Dragon Ball Z is an action cartoon from Japan that deals with an alien prince, martial arts tournaments, and (in some episodes) the challenges of raising children. Although the show is mostly made for kids, it still has simplified elements of adult drama.

Example 2

According to Rotten Tomatoes (and plenty of other critics), Citizen Kane is the greatest drama ever made. This historical drama is fictional, but it’s based on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who became fabulously wealthy and influential, but was also criticized for using deception and “yellow journalism” (scandalous exaggerations) in his papers. Citizen Kanesuggests that Hearst may have been struggling with inner demons caused by his childhood abandonment by his parents.


III. Types of Drama

Hollywood has been producing dramas for decades, and they are an extremely diverse group – but there are a few broad categories that many of these dramas fall into.

a. Romance

These stories deal with human relationships and the various conflicts and complications that emerge from them. Romance dramas can get pretty steamy, and they’re definitely not for the younger crowd.

b. Thriller/Action

Thrillers and action dramas are extremely popular, especially in movie form. Audiences flock to see explosions, stylized violence, and screaming car chases. These stories are not exactly “emotional” in the typical sense, but they are certainly very dramatic.

c. Crime drama

Shows like CSI and Law and Order have made the crime drama very popular with modern audiences. These stories focus on a crime and the efforts of police officers and detectives to solve it. Along the way, the characters’ personal struggles come into view and sometimes conflict with their police work.

d. Historical drama

History itself is littered with dramatic stories of intense emotion: Abraham Lincoln losing his 11-year-old son Willie in the middle of the Civil War; the Celtic queen Boudica taking bloody revenge on the Roman soldiers who had attacked and killed her children. These colorful stories have provided inspiration to generations of writers and filmmakers.


IV. The Importance of Drama

No one is entirely sure why we love drama so much, but it seems to be universal – human beings in every culture have loved a good story, and at heart that’s all a drama is. We love to hear about love, danger, betrayal, and adventure, especially when there’s a good conflict and a compelling cast of characters.


V. Examples of Drama in Literature

Example 1

The Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in both drama and music. It’s a series of operas about Norse gods and dragon-slaying heroes. At the end of the cycle, the whole world burns in the fires of the Gotterdammerung (Downfall of the Gods). In some stagings of the opera, the theater has actually been set on fire to simulate this apocalyptic event!

Example 2

Since the Greeks, perhaps the most famous dramatist has been William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays still form the basis for much of modern drama, because he managed to write compelling stories that have stood the test of time. For example, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You was based on The Taming of the Shrew, while West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet.


VI. Examples of Drama in Popular Culture

Example 1

Friday Night Lights is a popular TV drama about a high school football team in rural Texas. The drama in this show comes from two places: first, from the action on the field. The players’ on-field wins and losses play a huge role in setting the mood for each episode. Simultaneously, though, all the characters are dealing with the ups and downs of romantic relationships, so Friday Night Lights is a romance in addition to a “sports drama.”

Example 2

Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect example of a modern action drama. It has a small set of characters, a frightening villain, and a clear source of conflict – the effort to escape from Immortan Joe and get to the Green Place. Although there are a few moments of comic relief, the movie is mostly focused on emotions of fear, excitement, and rage – typical for an action drama.

Example 3

With its four Oscar wins, The King’s Speech was one of the most acclaimed movies of recent years. This historical drama tells the story of King George VI, who held the British crown during World War II. George VI suffered from a severe stammer, which he had to overcome in order to serve as the symbolic leader of the British people during this traumatic period. Like many historical dramas, the film combines a historical story (the war) with a personal one.


VII. Related Terms


Melodrama is an exaggerated, extreme form of drama. In it, all the characters behave in slightly ridiculous ways due to the extreme emotional roller coasters that they’re experiencing. Soap operas are a great example of melodrama, with the overblown gestures and facial expressions of the actors and their incredibly over-the-top emotional twists and turns.


Modern dramas are somewhat similar to the ancient art form known as tragedy. Like dramas, tragedies deal with negative emotions and often cause sadness, anxiety, and pity in the audience. However, classical tragedy had a few distinguishing features. For one thing, there was no comic relief. For another, tragedies always had a sad ending – the hero had to be killed or brought down, usually through his own weakness and mistakes. In modern drama, these sad endings are quite rare, as modern audiences demand a more optimistic sort of story.


Dramedy is halfway in between comedy and drama. All dramas have a little comedy in them (comic relief), and most comedies have their serious moments. So there’s a sliding scale from drama to comedy, and stories right in the middle are called dramedies. The show Scrubs, for example, started off as a comedy but slowly became more of a dramedy as the writers focused more and more on the characters’ romantic relationships rather than on jokes.

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