Drama: Definition, Types and Elements

Introduction: Drama is one of the genres of literature that is written in dialogue, conventionally organised in acts and scenes and is primarily meant to be acted on the stage. In drama, characters come together to converse and, through this conversation, a story is formed. Drama makes use of action, conflict and dialogue. In drama, the stage is a microcosm of the world as can be seen in the words of William Shakespeare, ‘. . . All of the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players.’ Thus, when one sees a play acted on stage, one forgets that it is merely a play, but gets to a point where one actually believes what goes on there as if it is real life. This is called ‘suspension of disbelief.’ This explains why it is possible for one to experience various emotions like crying or laughing while seeing a movie.

Types of Drama: There are three types of drama generally. These are tragedy, comedy and tragi-comedy. There are other subtypes such as melodrama, farce, masque, burlesque, mime, mime and pantomime, opera and soap opera, among others.

Tragedy: Tragedy is a type of drama dominated by sorrowful mood and which ends unhappily. Tragedy was formulated by Aristotle who stated that great writers wrote tragedy while lesser writers wrote comedy. In the Aristotelian conception of tragedy, the tragic hero must be a person of high standing in society – a king, queen or a highly placed person of noble birth. He or she must be imbued with admirable qualities and traits, which will make him or her to be loved by all in society. However, the tragic hero must have a weakness called tragic flaw, and it is this tragic flaw that would lead to his downfall, disgrace and death. Indeed, ‘he is raised the higher that he might fall the heavier’. In modern notion of tragedy, however, anybody can be a hero or heroine whether highly placed or not. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Charley’s The Blood of a Stranger are instances of tragedy.

Comedy: Comedy refers to a drama that is dominated by hilarious events and often ends happily. This means that in comedy, whatever conflict is raised in the plot has to be resolved amicably so that everyone goes home happy. Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are examples of comedy.

There many types of comedy. These are low comedy, high comedy, slapstick, farce, satire, parody, stand-up comedy, revue or variety show (vaudeville), black comedy or black humour, burlesque, travesty, commedia dell’arte, comedy of manners, comedy of humours, comedy of ideas, comedy of morals, sentimental comedy, comedy of character, comedy of situation or intrigue, Romantic comedy and theatre of the absurd/epic theatre, among others. Low comedy is a form of farce also called low brow humour and consists of popular forms of entertainment to induce laughter through jokes, boasting, fighting and drunkenness. High comedy achieves laughter through witty dialogues.

Slapstick comedy makes use of exaggerated physical actions to create laughter. Its name is as a result of the stick used in such a comedy. Satire refers to a work of art that ridicules human weaknesses in order to correct them. Parody refers to a work of art that humorously imitates another work of art. In stand-up comedy, the comedian addresses the audience in a live performance and makes them laugh through jokes, funny songs and actions. Basket Mouth is one of the popular stand-up comedians in Nigeria. Variety show consists of different forms of theatrical performances including magic, songs, dances and acrobatic arts.

Black comedy is also known as black humour or dark humour. This type of comedy creates jokes out of painful or mournful situations. A burlesque is a type of comedy which is an imitation of a serious work of drama. Travesty is a form of parody or burlesque which imitates a work through misrepresentation and distortion of facts, scenes and other dramatic elements. Travesty is absurd, nonsensical and an inferior imitation of another work in such a way as to create laughter. Commedia dell’arte has an Italian origin and refers to an improvised play that makes use of stock characters or type characters. It was popular in from the 1500 to the 1700s. Characters wore masks and professional actors satirise specific social traits of certain professions.

Comedy of manners was popular from the 1600 to the early 1700 and was denoted by the realistic satirisation of social attitudes or manners of upper class members of society. Comedy of humour was popularised by the Renaissance playwright Ben Johnson in the 16th century. This type of comedy dramatises the ‘humours’, a range of human temperaments that was said to determine the dominant character of an individual based on Renaissance psychology and medicine. This humour represents the kind of fluid that is dominant in an individual which can be choleric, sanguine, melancholic or phlegmatic.

Comedy of ideas answers serious human questions through jokes and laughter. Its conflict is a clash of ideologies or intellectual debates. Comedy of morals is just like satire because it aims to correct through laughter and abuse. Sentimental comedy was popular in the 1700s and dramatises moral issues. It came as a reaction against the excesses of the Restoration plays which were accused of being too bawdy and lewd, hence lacking in morality. Comedy of situation is also called comedy of intrigue and refers to a type of comedy which emphasises the effect of an action rather than the character. It creates ludicrous situations. Romantic comedy has love as its major subject matter which is presented in a humorous manner. The characters are usually young and inexperienced and find themselves in ridiculous circumstances.

Tragicomedy: Tragicomedy refers to a type of drama which combines the features of both tragedy and comedy. The play has a happy-sad situation and ends in such a way that some parties go home happy while others are sad. This means that in tragi-comedy, the good and the evil people are rewarded accordingly.

Melodrama: Melodrama is a form of tragedy in which events and situations are exaggerated in order to capture the reader’s emotion. In melodrama, the incidents in the plot are so bizarre that they seem implausible as they appear to lack situational motivation. An example of melodrama is Noel Coward’s Still Life, Brief Encounter.

Farce: Farce is a form of comedy. It relies on hyperbolic actions, over-sized characters and slapstick comedy (a type of humour that focuses on physical comedy such as slipping on a banana peel, and with foolish characters who get into humiliating situations) to elicit laughter from the audience. In physical comedy, the body is manipulated for comic effects, and often realised through slapstick, clowning or miming. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest is an example of farce.

Masque: Masque refers to a type of drama popular in 16th-century England, which uses songs, spectacles and bright costumes. The characters also wore masks.

Mime: This refers to a type of drama which uses mute gestures and non-verbal language for communication. In mime, no words are spoken.

Mime and Pantomime: In mime and pantomime, music is combined with mute gestures.

Opera: An opera is a type of drama in which most of the words are sung.

Soap Opera: Soap opera (or simply ‘soap’) is an episodic drama on radio or television. A good example is ‘Super Story’.

Interlude: An interlude is a short play that intervenes between major plays.

Morality Play: This is a kind of religious drama popular in the 15th and 16th centuries which uses dramatised allegories to represent personified vices and virtues in order to highlight man’s struggle to overcome sin and temptation. It aims to teach moral lessons. Morality plays were popular in the late medieval period.

Miracle Play: This is another medieval religious play that dramatises the lives of non-scriptural legends or saints or a play about the Virgin Mary.

Mystery Play: A Mystery play is based on bible stories. It is also a medieval drama that depicts events from Christian scriptures like the Creation, the birth of Christ and the last day. 

Theatre of the Absurd: This is a form of modernist theatre that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century after the two world worlds. The major characteristics of this theatre include the representation of life and reality as meaningless or nonsensical, the use of antihero, farcical or slapstick humour and alienation effect/principle.

Epic Theatre: Epic Theatre is associated with the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht alongside other practitioners and is known for its realistic texture and political consciousness, including the use of episodic plot, direct address to the audience and didactic quality.

Elements of Drama: Elements of drama are terms that are mostly associated with drama. This means that they are used in the appreciation of drama. The following are some of the elements of drama.

Acts and Scenes: Drama is traditionally or conventionally organised in Acts and Scenes, just as poetry and prose are organised in stanzas and chapters, respectively. In recent times, there have been other means of organization such as ‘Movements’.

Theatre: The theatre refers to a place where plays are rehearsed and staged. The traditional or conventional theatre has the stage (a raised platform where the characters perform) facing the audience. This is the proscenium stage. There is another stage type called Theatre-in-the-round. In this type of theatre, the stage is situated in the middle of the theatre while the audience sits around it. Another name for this type of theatre is arena stage, central stage or island stage. It is said to help establish a more congenial relationship between the audience and the actors.

The word ‘theatre’ can also be used to refer to drama or dramatic practices generally. Other notable theatre types include black box or studio theatre, platform stage, hippodromes, open air theatre, site-specific theatre and promenade theatre. The black box theatre consists of a room with four walls painted black and the space used for dramatic performances. It is a recent theatre performance space that allows for flexibility in terms of room settings or configurations. The platform stage is otherwise known as thrust stage or open stage. It is a term used to describe a stage that projects or extends into the audience’s sitting area. In other words, this stage lacks a proscenium. The platform stage is surrounded by the audience on three sides.

Hippodromes date back to the ancient classical period and refers to horse-racing arenas or theatres. In contemporary parlance, hippodromes could also refer to arena theatre where audience sits on all sides of the stage. The open-air theatre, as the name suggests, does not have a roof over it. It is open to the sky. Site-specific theatre is one which is specifically and specially adapted for a particular production based on the purpose or nature of the production. Promenade theatre is one which is so unique that it encourages the audience to move around the theatre.

Director: A director is the person who guides the players in the performance of a play. The director’s task is onerous. He or she selects the players, interprets the scripts and directs the play. The failure or success of any play is usually attributed to the director.

Producer: The producer plays executive and supervisory roles in the performance of a play. It is the producer’s task to provide an enabling environment for the successful performance of the play. Such might include moral and financial support. The producer’s role is also administrative.

Stage Direction: This is an instruction either at the beginning of a scene or in the course of the play meant to guide actors and directors on how to deliver the play on the stage. Stage direction is usually written in italics and enclosed in brackets or square brackets.

Costumes and Props: These include all the items of clothing and bodily ornaments, materials or objects that actors need to create the needed reality in the play.

Exit and Exeunt: When one character leaves the stage, this is called ‘exit’, whereas when two or more characters leave the stage, it is called ‘exeunt’.

Aside: An aside is a remark made by a character in the course of the play, which is intended to be heard only by the audience and not by the other characters present.

Soliloquy: A character is said to soliloquise when he or she speaks to himself when alone on the stage. Of course, the audience eavesdrops, unknown to the character.

Monologue: This is a long speech addressed by a character on the stage to the audience.

Dramatic Irony: This refers to a situation whereby the audience knows better than what a character knows about the course of events in a play.

Verbal Irony: This is a situation where a character says something that differs sharply from what the audience knows.

Situational Irony: Situational irony occurs when an action brings about an unintended result.

Prompter: A prompter is a person who stays out of sight to remind actors of forgotten lines during a performance.

Suspense: This is a device in drama whereby the author withholds an important piece of information in order to sustain the interest of the audience or reader. The device is, however, not limited to drama as it is used in the novel as well.

Conflict: Conflict is central to drama because as George Bernard Shaw puts it, ‘without conflict, there is no drama.’ Conflict refers to the struggle between two opposing forces in drama. It could be the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. There is conflict within an individual and there are also inter-personal conflict and group conflict.

Climax and Anticlimax: Climax is the most tense and exciting part of a play. It is the highest point of dramatic tension. It also refers to the arrangement of events such that the least comes first while the greatest comes last. This is the opposite of anticlimax. In anticlimax, the most serious and exciting parts of the play come first while the less exciting parts come last. Anticlimax is sometimes used derogatorily to refer to a play whose plot is badly crafted. Another name for anticlimax is bathos.

Denouement/Resolution: Denouement comes shortly after the climax and refers to the point in the story where all the remaining conflicts are resolved. In denouement, all the loose ends of the play are tied up and clarifications are made on any mystery lurking in the plot. Denouement usually results in catharsis, the purging of the emotion or the release of tension after an overflowing vicarious experience.

Comic Relief: This refers to a humorous scene in tragedy meant to relieve tension.

Deus ex machina and Diabolus ex machina: Deus ex machina is a device used in resolving a rather hopeless situation in the plot of a play. The expression means ‘God on a machine’ and originated from ancient drama, whereby God or the supernatural descends on a chain to the stage to rescue a victim from captivity. The opposite is diabolus ex machine, which means ‘devil on a machine’. It is used to describe a situation whereby things suddenly take a tragic turn in a play.

The Three Unities: In drama, the three unities are time, place and action. The rule is that these three terms should be in harmony in the writing and acting of a play. The unity of time specifies that the play should last within one revolution of the sun or should be completed within a day. The unity of place specifies that all the actions should occur in one place or location while the unity of action specifies that the play should dramatise a single main action. The proper arrangement for the Three Unities are action, place and time.

Verisimilitude: This refers to the semblance of truth or reality in literary works; or the literary principle that requires a consistent illusion of truth to life.

Dramatic plot: The traditional plot structure of drama has five parts which are exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution or denouement. This five-part plot is usually called the Freytag’s Pyramid or the Freytag’s Triangle named after Gustav Freytag. Some scholars render it in six or seven parts to include inciting action and presenting resolution and denouement as different parts of the plot. The exposition is the initial or the beginning part of the plot. In the exposition, the main conflict and the major characters are exposed or presented usually in the first act of the play. In the rising action, the conflict is escalated and this leads to crisis or complication. The conflict reaches its peak in the climax. All post-climax actions are called falling action. It is the point where mysteries and puzzles are unravelled and explained. In the denouement or resolution, all the conflicts are resolved in such a way that the audience reaches catharsis, which is the purging of the emotions.

Other dramatic elements worth noting are stage lighting, behind-the-scenes, backstage, makeup artist, curtain call, music/dance, script, playbill, playlet, peripeteia, hubris, hamartia and anagnorisis. Playbill refers to the poster that advertises a play. A playlet is a one-act play; a short play. Hubris specifically refers to the pride or arrogance in the tragic hero that leads to his fall. Hamartia refers to any weakness, including pride and arrogance, in the tragic hero that leads to his fall or disgrace. Anagnorisis refers to a sudden awareness, knowledge or recognition that results in the fall of the tragic hero. Peripeteia is the sudden reversal in the fortunes of the tragic hero.

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “Drama: Definition, Types and Elements

  1. Yes, I understand you. In it something is also to me it seems it is excellent thought. I agree with you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!