Literary Forms (2/2): Drama



It is a literature intended for performance. Definition: The form of composition design for performance in the theatre, in which actors take roles of characters, perform the indicated actions and utter the written dialogue. (MH Abrams)

Play- common alternative name for a dramatic composition. Playwright- creator of play. (Dramatist=playwright)

In his “Poetics“, Aristotle defined ‘drama’ asa poetic composition that is acted in front of audiences in a theatre“.He contrasted drama (or dramatic mode) with the Epic (a kind of long narrative poem with dramatic qualities).
Etymologically, “drama” is derived from a Greek word ‘drama’ meaning “action”. It is derived from the Greek word “drao(I do).



Features of drama (Nature of drama)

  1. drama presents characters directly to the audience, usually without an intermediary ‘narrator’.
  2. mostly drama is written to be performed by live actors, who speak the dialogue and move in accordance with stage directions, written by the playwright.
  3. An exception to this mode of presentation is ‘Closet Drama, which is intended to be read rather than performed. (closet=study/private chamber) For example- Milton’sSamson Agonistus(1671), Lord Byron’sManfred’(1817).



Elements Of Drama

According to Aristotle (The Poetics), there are seven fundamental elements of drama:

1) Plot
2) Character
3) Theme/Thought
4) Diction/Dialogue
5) Music/melody/song
6) Spectacle/Setting
7) Stage/Performance


It refers to the series of actions and events that unfold in front of the audience (opening scene, obstacles, complications, crises, climax and denouement, etc.)


It refers to the agents of action that unfold the plot one decision at a time(protagonist, antagonist, chorus etc.)


It refers to the subject matter and universal message as supported by the unfolding of the plot and the development of the characters.


It refers to how the unfolding of the plot, the development of the characters, and the revelation of the themes are all manifested with the written text of the script (word choices, rhetorical devices, etc)

Music/Melody :

It refers to ‘anything heard from the performance space‘ ( instrumental music, songs, sound effects, volume of actors, pauses and silence etc.)


Refers to ‘anything seen in the performance space’ ( scenery, lights, costumes, make-up, the blocking and pacing of the actors’ movements, etc.) Also referred to as “setting“.


Staging or performance impacts the audiences. Actor’s personal skills, his gestures, body language, way of presentation etc. largely influences the final effect of the performance. The directions made to the actors also determines play’s impact. Same roles played by different actors create different renditions of a play. Specially, the performances of those in lead roles directly influences in the success and popularity.

A play need to deliver its whole message within a few hours, so it needs to exercise great economy in the handling of the plot and delineation of character. All superfluous detail must be omitted.



The Structure Of Play

All drama set forth a problem or a conflict.
In tragedy, the theme is dark and serious.
In comedy, it is light and gay, promising a happy ending.
Comedy and tragedy, both follows the similar structure and comprise of the following fundamental parts:

  1. exposition
  2. Rising action (or complication)
  3. Climax (or crisis) turning point, Irreversible change
  4. Falling action aftermath
  5. Resolution (in comedy) /Catastrophe (in tragedy) (Denouement)

1) Exposition

  • The story starts with the exposition.
  • this part of the story primarily introduces the major elements such as the settings, characters, style etc.
  • the author tries to build the world where the story’s conflict happens.
  • exposition ends with an ‘inciting incident’- the event that starts the main conflict of the story.

2) Rising Action

  • The conflict that starts in the exposition begins to complicate until its climax.
  • things often “gets worse” in this part. For example- someone makes a wrong decision, the antagonist hurts the protagonist, new characters further complicates the plots etc.

3) Climax

  • The conflict gets complicated and reaches its peak.
  • here,we learn the fate of the main characters.
  • it is the “turning point” in the story.
  • the central conflict leads to some irreversible changes.
  • climax is the turning point not only in story’s plot but also in its themes and ideas.
  • generally, it is the middle act of the story.

4) Falling Action

  • deals with the consequences of the irreversible changes caused by the turning point in the climax.
  • the consequences may deal with any of the following (or even something else)—
  1. rise of other conflicts as a result
  2. impact of the climax on the central theme.
  3. characters reaction to the Irreversible changes made by the climax.

5) Resolution (Denouement)

  • The resolution involves tying up the loose ends of the climax and falling action.
  • sometimes, the aftermath of the story leads to a happy and satisfying conclusion, like the protagonist learn from their mistakes, starts a new life or else forgives and rectifies whatever incited the story’s conflict.
  • other times it may lead to a sorrow and intriguing conclusion like death of the protagonist, the antagonist escapes, fatal consequences of a fatal mistake, etc.

Classical/old plays—five acts, with scenes.
Modern plays—three acts, with/without scenes.



Types Of Drama

Based on the effect intended on the audience, and the way this effect is achieved, drama is broadly classified into comedy and tragedy.

1. Comedy

In comedy—

  • the tone is for most part light.
  • the main effects are to engage and amuse the audience.
  • the situations and characters tend to be drawn from ordinary life (as opposed to the world shaking events and noble or Royal characters); and
  • the resolution is happy, at least for the major characters. Many traditional comic plots conclude with marriage of one or more couples.

Although the term “comedy” applies primarily to drama, it is also used to describe the type of plot in prose fiction and narrative poetry.
comedy maybe categorised, according to a classification proposed by the novelist and critic George Meredith in The Idea of Comedy”(1877), into High comedy and Low comedy.

High Comedy

  • evokes “intellectual laughter” i.e, thoughtful laughter from spectators who remain emotionally detached from the action
  • displays folly (foolish or crazy behaviour), pretentiousness and incompatibility (out of place) in human behaviour.
  • its highest form is found in the Comedy of Manners, in the witty arguments and counter arguments between intellectual, highly verbal and well-matched lovers like Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’sMuch Ado About Nothing’ and Mirabell and Millamant in Congreve’sThe Way Of the World‘.

Low Comedy

  • has little or no intellectual appeal.
  • rather, it evokes laughter by jokes or “gags(amusing story) and slapstick (physical action) humour and boisterous (loud and slightly out of control) or clownish physical activity commonly found in farce.

2. Tragedy

In tragedy-

  • the tone is serious and often sombre.
  • the effect is to involve and strongly move the audience.
  • the outcome is disasterous for the protagonist; and often, also for those associated with him or her.
  • the resolution of the tragic situation often involves one or more deaths, particularly of the protagonist: (his fate is often more moving than he is guilty for). 

Tragedy is also divided into subtypes, like:

  1. Classical Tragedy (Greek)
  2. Senecan Tragedy (Roman)
  3. Revenge Tragedy (English)


Classical Tragedy

  • originated in ancient Greece. 
  • centres on highborn (noble, royal, elite, high rank) tragic hero who commits the hamartia (an irrelevant error of judgement), often resulting from hubris (excessive Pride)
  • examples—SophoclesAntigone, in which both the heroine, Antigone and her uncle Creone (the new king of Thebes), refuse to compromise because of their excessive sense of bride and honour; thus reach their destruction.

Senecan Tragedy

  • originated in ancient Rome, by Seneca after whom it is named.
  • full of such sensationalist elements like ghosts, murders, revenge, schemes, mutiliation (removal of limbs, being cut into pieces) and carnage (mass murder, slaughter, butchery, massacre). 
  • the violent scenes, however, were not enacted, rather announced by messengers.
  • inspired the development of English “Revenge tragedy”.

Revenge Tragedy

  • originated in Britain; inspired by Senecan tragedy. 
  • made use of Seneca’s favourite materials mentioned above.
  • Elizabethan dramatist represented the violent scenes on stage to satisfy the appetite of contemporary audience for violence and horror.
  • Thomas Kyd’sThe Spanish tragedy” (1586) established this popular form.
  • its subject is murder and the quest for vengeance
  • included ghost, insanity, suicide, a play within a play, sensational incidents and a gruesome bloody ending.
  • The Spanish tragedy inspired the very famous Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600).

Until the close of 17th century, almost all tragedies were written in verse and had protagonist of high rank whose fate affected the fortunes of state. But with the rise of the middle class in the 18th century the dramatist depicted new kind of tragic protagonist, whose origins were not noble or aristocratic but humble (middle class and even working class). Their concerns were not lofty or noble, rather mundane issues such as financial debt, marital strife.
These domestic tragedies inspired the letter 19th century plays like Henry Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, ” Ghosts” and “An Enemy of the People”. In modern age, most popular of these types of tragedies are Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman”(1949), Tennesse William‘s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947).


  • as the name implies, Tragicomedy is half tragedy and half comedy,mingled harmoniously together.
  • it is a form by itself with a purpose of its own.
  • it is distinct from:
    1) comedy that has a potentially tragic background; and
    2) tragedy that contains comic relief.

Comic relief, in a tragedy, serves only to intensify the tragic effect by contrast, and does not materially effect the tone of the play. (Macbeth- Porter, Hamlet- gravedigger, King Lear- fool) They don’t aim to evoke untroubled laughter as comic character; adds to the tragic theme.

A comedy with a tragic background, proves to be a more effective comedy than a comedy without a tragic background. Wrongs with the characters adds to the contrast of the comedy which turns out to be restored (righted) in the end- we feel happier when we see things getting right.

But tragicomedy is different from the two in that:

  1. it is a complete tragedy up to a certain point, and
  2. a complete comedy thereafter:
    • the complication sets forth a tragic theme, and denouement turns it into comedy,
    • or rising action (or growth of the plot) is tragedy, falling action (or its downward course) is comedy; the climax separates the tragic part from the comic one.
    Ex- Shakespeare’s Cymbline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Merchant of Venice.
    Franu’sBeaument” and John Fletcher’sPhilaster“.

Nature and characteristics of a tragicomedy—

  • includes characters of both high degree and low degree.
  • represented a series of action that threatened tragic disaster to the protagonist, yet, by an abrupt reversal of circumstances, turned out happily. (through a sudden reversal of fortune or Reformation of protagonist’s opponent).

According to John Fletcher, a tragicomedy-

“wants (that is, lacks) deaths which is enough to make it not tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy, which must be a representation of familiar people… “

Merchant of Venice as an example of tragicomedy-

  • mingles people of aristocracy with lower-class characters (such as Jewish merchant, Shylock and the Clown, Launcelot).
  • developing ‘threat of death’ to Antonio is suddenly reversed at the end by Portia’s clever and cunning argumentation in the trial scene.



Classification Of Drama

Based on the effect intended on the audience, and the way this effect is achieved, drama is broadly classified into comedy and tragedy. These broads categories also contain a specialized subgroups.

Some plays, comic and tragic, are written in verse, in accordance with the theatrical conventions of a particular literary period. For instance, most Elizabeth and Jacobean dramas are written almost entirely in blank verse– i. e, unrhymed iambic pentameter. While tragedy of the Neoclassical Age (1660 to 1785), such as John Dryden’s “The Conquest of Granada” (1672) is written in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets, called heroic couplets to accord with their lofty subject matter.

Mostly, we encounter drama in written form. Written plays have several advantages like-

  1. the opportunity to re-read a key piece of dialogue.
  2. To review the cast of characters, and
  3. to see the stage directions that the playwright has provided to indicate the actions and the vocal inflections of the characters.

At the same time, written form also create some difficulties for the readers, like:

  1. difficulty to distinguish between the different character’s voices.
  2. difficulty to resist the temptation to read the play as an extended monologue.
  3. difficulty to envision or imagine the physical movements that accompany the spoken words.

Watching a performance of a play, ideally on stage, but even on film can be an enlightening experience. Though, it should be noted that there are many instances during the production that require choices on the part of the director and the actors, that are made considering the factors like:

  1. which lines to cut or to emphasize;
  2. how the various roles are cast;
  3. how the actors should move, gesture and deliver their lines; and
  4. how the ‘setting (the time and place in which the action occurs) is represented.

Drama, by its nature, is responsive to social tastes and modes, so new stagings are constantly reshaped and adapted for different audiences. The choices involved during production are influenced by both:

  1. theatrical conventions of the period in which the play was written; and
  2. those of the period in which it is produced in front of the audience.

The performance history of the play also makes a significance influence on these choices. Different productions of a single play throw a different light on the characters and actors in the text. No production of a play, staged or filmed, however, can be definitive. Even if a production is very effective or innovative for its day, its effect is inevitably ephemeral. But, the written text remains to inspire the future visions of the play, on the stage as well as in readers’ imaginations.


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