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English Literature

Do you enjoy going to the theatre? You can thank dramatists for writing the stories that you get to see presented on stage!

Dramatists are writers who write dramas (or plays). Another word for a dramatist is a playwright.

This article is about some of the most prominent dramatists in English literature. Let's dive into their famous plays, the dramatic techniques they use, and the themes they explore.

What is the history of drama?

The word 'drama' derives from Old Greek, and it means 'to do' or 'to act'.

The origins of Western drama can be traced back to Classical Greece, particularly to the city-state of Athens, around the 6th century BC. At the City Dionysia (the festival that celebrated the god Dionysus) people would wear masks, dance, and sing a hymn called dithyrambs to honour the Greek god.

Later, drama developed into the more complex form of logical narratives - stories that were presented on stage. These are what we call plays or dramas. Some of the first known dramatists are Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC), Sophocles (c. 495-406 BC), and Euripides (c. 480-406 BC).

The earliest surviving text on drama theory, Aristotle's Poetics (c. 335 BC), was also written in Ancient Greece. It established many Western notions of the two main genres of drama - tragedy and comedy.

Over many centuries, drama and playwriting in Europe developed with the changing historical and cultural landscapes. Let's take a look at the history of the play within the context of the different literary movements in history, paying special attention to the history of English drama.

The highlighted names are dramatists you are likely to encounter in your studies. We will discuss them in more detail below.

Literary MovementMain genresMain dramatists
Classical Greek Period (800-200 BCE)Tragedy ComedySophocles Euripides
Classical Roman Period (200 BCE-455 CE)Tragedy ComedySeneca
The Middle English Period (c.1066-1450 CE)Mystery play Morality playAnonymous
Tudor Period (1485-1558)Mystery play Morality playAnonymous
Elizabethan Period (1558-1603)Tragedy ComedyWilliam Shakespeare Christopher Marlowe
Jacobean Period (1603-1625)Tragedy ComedyWilliam ShakespeareBen Jonson
Caroline Age (1625-1649)Tragedy ComedyPhilip Massinger James Shirley
Restoration Period (1660-1700)Restoration play (comedy and tragedy)Aphra Behn Thomas Otway
Augustan Age (1700-1750)Middle-class tragedy satirical comedy pantomimeGeorge Lillo John Gay
Age of Johnson (1750-1790)Tragedy ComedyOliver Goldsmith
Romantic Period (1790-1830)Gothic play melodramaJohn Keats Percy Bysshe Shelley
Victorian period (1832-1901)Melodrama Comedy Mime Victorian burlesqueOscar Wilde George Bernard Shaw
Modernist Period (1914-1945)Realist drama Expressionist drama Absurdist dramaSamuel Beckett Arthur Miller Tennessee Williams Eugene O'Neill Harold Pinter
Postmodern Period (1945- onward)Kitchen sink dramaArthur Miller Sam Shepard Tom Stoppard Caryl Churchill Shelagh Delaney Timberlake Wertenbaker

Many of the most well-known plays from the Middle English Period and the Tudor Period were religious and written anonymously. For example, the most famous morality play from the Middle English period, Everyman (1510), is anonymous.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

When talking about dramatists, we have to start with a name that is recognised by the whole world: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, also known as England's National Poet, the Bard of Avon, or simply the Bard, is regarded by many as the greatest writer, poet and dramatist in the English language. He left us 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and more than 30 plays (ever heard of Macbeth?) His plays have been translated into at least 100 languages and are still often performed in theatres around the world.

Biography

William Shakespeare was born on April 26th 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon in England. His father was a local businessman, and his mother was the daughter of a landowner. When he was 18, Shakespeare married his cousin Anne Hathaway who was eight years older. They had three children: Susanna, Hamnet and Judith. After he was married, Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, writing and performing his plays. Between 1585 and 1592, he was the part-owner of a theatre company called Lord Chamberlain's Men, which later changed its name to The King's Men. On April 23rd 1616, at the age of 52, William Shakespeare died in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Famous plays

Here are some of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies and comedies:

Shakespearean tragedies

To be, or not to be? That is the question - Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?

(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

'To be, or not to be?' - You might already be familiar with this quote from Shakespeare's well-known tragedy Hamlet (1599-1601).

Shakespearean tragedies are classics for a reason. The stories that they tell introduce tragic heroes, unforgettable villains, and breathtaking twists and turns.

To capture the audience's attention when translating the drama text on stage, Shakespeare uses dramatic techniques, such as powerful monologues and soliloquies.

A monologue is a long speech given by one character to another.

A soliloquy is a type of monologue in which a character speaks to themselves when they are alone (it can involve the actor who is portraying the character speaking directly to the audience).

Some of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies are:

Shakespearean comedies

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good a continuer.

(Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1, Scene 1)

Shakespeare is just as good at writing comedy as he is at writing tragedy. As well as staging murder and mayhem, his plays are often full of funny characters and situations.

Shakespearean comedies are characterised by dramatic irony and funny asides.

Dramatic irony is a technique that makes the meaning of a character's actions clear to the audience while the character remains oblivious to it.

An aside is a literal dramatic technique in which a character makes a remark aside from the other characters on stage with the intention that only the audience should hear it.

Some of Shakespeare's most famous comedies are:

What are some other famous Dramatists in English Literature?

Let's take a look at some other well-known dramatists that you will encounter in your studies.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist, and poet. He is known as one of the founders of the late 19th century Aesthetic movement, and his most famous novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

Aestheticism is the idea that art doesn't need to have any purpose beyond celebrating its own beauty. The aesthetic movement in art and literature was in opposition to the hitherto prevailing Victorian understanding that art should necessarily serve a moral purpose.

Wilde's most famous play is the comedy The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) which uses satire and other comedic elements to debate and laugh upon the norms and morals of Victorian society.

Satire in literature and drama is when human behaviour is ridiculed through the use of language. Although it can have a comedic effect, satire is often used to provide serious comments and criticism on different issues in society.

Other plays by Oscar Wilde include:

  • Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1895).

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Samuel Beckett was an Irish dramatist, theatre director and poet. His works were a part of the Modernist movement, and he is most famous for being a key figure in the Theater of the Absurd.

Samuel Beckett is well-known for his black absurdist comedies Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957).

Modernism is a cultural movement in literature, theatre and art that started in Europe in the 20th century. It developed as a break away from the established art forms. Modernism in drama includes different genres and styles such as Realism, Naturalism, Expressionism, and Absurdism.

The Theater of the Absurd (or Absurdist drama) is a genre of drama that was started by European playwrights in the 1950s. Plays in this genre are 'absurd' and seemingly illogical. The purpose of the plot is not to provide the classic conflict and resolution but to be an expression of existentialism by asking questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence. Plays categorised under the Theater of the Absurd usually have a round or circular narrative structure, which means that they end the same way they start.

The theater of the absurd creates a specific atmosphere to question the purpose of existence, which we see in Beckett's incorporation of dramatic techniques, such as symbolism (the objects and characters in his play are symbolic rather than realistic) and minimalism.

Symbolism is a cultural movement in art, literature and theatre that originated in Europe in the late 19th century. Symbolism represents ideas through the use of symbols, rather than showing them in a realistic way.

Minimalism is a style of art, design, literature, theatre and music. It was started by Western artists after World War II. Minimalism occurs when artists strive for simplicity, rather than for something grand. They create art using a limited number of elements.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Arthur Miller was an American playwright and screenwriter. He wrote his works during the Modernist and Postmodernist movements.

The most famous plays Arthur Miller wrote are All my sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953).

In his works, he explores the complex relationship that each individual person has with the rest of society, particularly the American society's idealisation of the 'American Dream'.

To enhance the dramatic effect of his tragedies and to present both the internal and external worlds of his characters, Arthur Miller uses a combination of realism and expressionism.

Realism in drama developed in Russia and the rest of Europe in the last decades of the 19th century. Realist theatre aims to mirror real life on stage. There are several dramatic techniques that help to achieve this such as realistic set and costumes, linear narrative structures, and authentic rather than poetic dialogues.

Expressionism in drama started in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and then became increasingly popular in other countries, including the United States. It is known for specific dramatic techniques and staging that are exaggerated, rather than realistic, to express the inner emotions of the characters to the audience. Expressionist techniques include abstract settings, episodic structures, and fragmented dialogues.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

Tennessee Williams, whose real name was Thomas Lanier Williams III, was an American dramatist and screenwriter. He wrote his dramas during the Modernist movement. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and their other contemporary playwright, Eugene O'Neill, are considered to be the three most prominent 20th-century American dramatists.

The most famous plays that Tennessee Williams wrote areThe Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Thin Roof (1955).

These works brought to the surface controversial themes, such as violence and sexuality, that weren't openly discussed at the time.

When translating his drama texts on stage, Williams makes use of lighting, images and music, to explore the tragic psychology of the characters.

Tragedy vs Comedy

Identifying and understanding the differences and similarities between tragedy and comedy is important for your exams. Let's take a look at some of the plays by the five dramatists that we mentioned, and see which genre they fall into - comedy or tragedy.

TragedyComedy
Othello by William ShakespeareTwelfth Night by William Shakespeare
King Lear by William ShakespeareThe Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Death of a Salesman by Arthur MillerThe Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee WilliamsWaiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Due to the different tragic and comedic aspects that dramatists use, the plays here fall into the two different categories of tragedy and comedy. We will now explore these various tragic and comedic aspects in more detail.

Aspects of tragedy

All tragedies revolve around a tragic hero who causes suffering to themselves and to others because of either an inner fatal flaw or external circumstances beyond their control.

Other aspects of tragedy include:

  • Ominous settings
  • The journey towards the fall of the tragic hero
  • The role of destiny
  • The role of the villain - be it a character or a symbolic, wicked force
  • The lessons the audience can learn from the tragedy. These lessons also serve as a commentary on the human condition

Consider these examples of the aspects of tragedy :

In Shakespeare's Othello (1603):

  • The tragic hero is the character who the play is named after - Othello.
  • Othello's fatal flaw is jealousy.
  • Othello's journey towards his downfall is marked by him killing his wife Desdemona.
  • The villain of the tragedy is Iago who exploits Othello's trust.
  • The setting is Cyprus as it faces a threat of an attack from the Ottomans. This uneasy circumstance foreshadows the tragic end of the play.

In Death of a Salesman (1947) by Arthur Miller:

  • The tragic hero is Willy Loman.
  • Willy's tragic flaw is his failure to survive in a success-driven society.
  • Instead of destiny being the driving force as is the case with classical tragedies, its role is taken over by the illusion of the American Dream.
  • There is no villain in the play but rather internal factors (the feeling of despair) and external factors (the pressures of a capitalist society) that destroy Willy.
  • The tragedy comments on the human condition by having an ordinary man, an everyman figure, as the tragic hero.

The two tragedies couldn't be more different: Othello is a classical tragedy about an epic hero, whereas Death of a Salesman is a domestic tragedy about the suffering of an ordinary man. What unites the two is their genre the aspects of tragedy are clear in both dramas, although in different ways.

Aspects of comedy

The purpose of comedy is to amuse and entertain the audience. Comedies typically involve misunderstandings that lead to funny situations. Most comedies also incorporate romance and end happily with a marriage.

Other aspects of comedy include but are not limited to:

  • A satire or a parody of the behaviour of people in society
  • The protagonist's journey towards happiness
  • Comic exaggeration
  • A comic villain
  • Disguise and other elements that cause confusion
  • The use of wordplay

Let's have a look at some examples of the aspects of comedy in two different plays:

In Twelfth Night (1601-02) by William Shakespeare:

  • There are many misunderstandings, the main one being the mistaken identities of the twins, Viola and Sebastian.
  • Viola disguises herself as a man.
  • The play ends with lovers getting together and, ultimately, getting married (e.g., Viola and Orsino).
  • The comic villain is Malvolio.

In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895):

  • The play mocks the behaviour of people in Victorian society.
  • Confusion is caused by different characters pretending to be called Earnest.
  • There is wordplay, especially when it comes to the word 'earnest' and its meaning.
  • The journey towards happiness is marked by many misunderstandings and surprising reveals.
  • The play ends with the two couples getting together.

The two comedies were written centuries apart and they make fun of completely different situations. However, both Shakespeare and Wilde are able to make us laugh at very similar patterns of human behaviour. The genre of comedy unites both plays as although Wilde was writing around 300 years later, he used almost the same aspects of comedy as Shakespeare.

Female Dramatists

In recent years, teachers and students have been challenging the lack of inclusion of female dramatists in the English literature syllabus. If you would like to learn more about female dramatists, you can look into:

  • The English Restoration period dramatist Aphra Behn (1640-1689) - The Rover (1677)
  • The British Postmodernist playwright Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011) - A Taste of Honey (1958)
  • The British Postmodernist playwright Caryl Churchill (1938-present) - Top Girls (1982)
  • The British-based Postmodernist playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker (1951 - present) - Our Country is Good (1988)
  • The British Postmodernist dramatist Polly Stenham (1986 - present) - That Face (2007)

Dramatists - Key takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about Dramatists

A dramatist is a writer who writes dramas (or plays).

The most famous dramatist in the English language is William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) are famous Irish dramatists. Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) are well-known American dramatists.

Some female dramatists in English literature are: Aphra Behn (1640-1689), Timberlake Wertenbaker (born 1951), Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011), Caryl Churchill (born 1938),  and Polly Stenham (born 1986).

There is no difference between playwright and dramatist - playwright is a synonym for dramatist.

Final Dramatists Quiz

Question

Which dramatist is often referred to as the Bard? 

Show answer

Answer

William Shakespeare

Show question

Question

True or False: a playwright is NOT the same as dramatist.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Oscar Wilde was one of the founders of the Aesthetic movement.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which dramatist wrote the play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)?

Show answer

Answer

Oscar Wilde

Show question

Question

True or False: Shakespeare's King Lear (1606) is a tragedy.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which dramatist wrote during the Postmodernist movement?

Show answer

Answer

Arthur Miller

Show question

Question

Which of these is an aspect of tragedy?

Show answer

Answer

Fatal flaw

Show question

Question

Which of these is an aspect of comedy?

Show answer

Answer

Wordplay

Show question

Question

Which dramatist was a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd?

Show answer

Answer

Samuel Beckett

Show question

Question

True or False: the play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams is a comedy.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which dramatist uses a

combination of realistic and expressionist techniques to present both the external and the internal world of his characters?


Show answer

Answer

Arthur Miller

Show question

Question

Which of these is a Shakespearean comedy?

Show answer

Answer

The Taming of the Shrew

Show question

Question

Which of these is NOT a Shakespearean tragedy?

Show answer

Answer

Death of a Salesman

Show question

Question

True or False: Shakespeare only uses soliloquies. There are no monologues in his plays.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Samuel Beckett uses the technique of minimalism.

Show answer

Answer

True.

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