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Drama

To be dramatic means to be theatrical, over-the-top and sensational. But what does it mean to be dramatic in literature? Let us look at the meaning, elements, history and examples of dramas in literature for a better understanding of this popular form.

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To be dramatic means to be theatrical, over-the-top and sensational. But what does it mean to be dramatic in literature? Let us look at the meaning, elements, history and examples of dramas in literature for a better understanding of this popular form.

Drama meaning

The meaning of drama is that it is a mode of representing fictional or non-fictional narratives through a performance before an audience. They are meant to be seen and heard, not read.


In most cases, dramas contain dialogues that are meant to be repeated before an audience and stage directions that are acted out.


In most cases, dramas take the form of plays, where a written script by a playwright is performed at a theatre in front of a live audience. A drama could also refer to any other performance that may be either live or recorded, such as mime theatre, ballets, musicals, operas, films, television shows, or even radio programmes.


Drama, a performance of Romeo and Juliet, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - A 2014 performance of Romeo and Juliet (1597), a play by William Shakespeare.

Elements of drama in literature

Although dramas can take various shapes and forms, here are a few common elements that bind all dramas together as a genre.

Plot and action

All dramas must contain some sort of narrative, or a storyline, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction. This is done by making sure the drama has a strong plot.


Plot: the chain of interconnected events that occur from beginning to end in a story.


A drama should contain the highs and lows of any engaging plot. A plot usually features the physical or emotional journey of the main character(s), which begins with a moment of internal or external conflict followed by some action that builds up to a climax and resolution.


A drama lacking plot would have no momentum and no action for the characters to act out.

Audience

While writing the plot for a drama, there must be an awareness of the fact that the plot is meant to be performed before an audience. Therefore, no aspect of the character's thoughts should be presented in a way that is not performable or meant for private reading, such as a book or a poem.


This means that dramas should not contain elaborate imagery but instead include stage directions and stage setup. A character's stream of consciousness should be presented as a soliloquy. Thoughts and feelings should be expressed through conversation or dialogue. Abstract themes and symbols should have a physical form or be personified. All the action that takes place in the plot should be either visualisable or audible.


Soliloquy: A literary device where a character reveals their personal thoughts and feelings directly in front of an audience alone, that is, without the presence of another character.


Personification: A literary device where abstract ideas or inanimate objects are given human-like emotions and behaviours.

Characters

If the plot of a drama should be performable and presentable in front of an audience, who enacts the actions in a drama's plot? Who repeats the dialogues scripted by the dramatist? The characters, of course!


Characters form a key part of a drama, as everything in the drama is conveyed by the movements and dialogues of the characters. Hence, dramas are essentially character-driven narratives.


Therefore, all figures in a drama should possess recognizable human-like qualities so that they can be acted out by actors onstage. This may include mythical creatures, supernatural beings, and even abstract symbols and ideas that are personified — they must be able to walk, talk and move like a human.


In A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600), Shakespeare (1564-1616) gives human-like qualities to Puck, a fairy or sprite that is mischievous, witty and humorous.


PUCK:

I’ll follow you. I’ll lead you about a round,

Through a bog, through bush, through brake, through brier.

Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,

A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire,

And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,

Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn."


(Act 3, Scene 1)

Dialogue

While dialogues are a non-essential part of dramas, as can be seen in ballets and mime theatre, they are a part of most dramas. Dialogues ensure that all the thoughts and feelings of characters are out in the open for the audience to interpret.


Dialogues make dramas more engaging and immersive than plain text, as it establishes a direct connection between the plot, characters and audience.


In William Shakespeare's Othello (1622), the antagonist Iago is known for his delivery of soliloquies where he reveals his schemes to bring about the downfall of the protagonist Othello.


Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now;

To get his place and to plume up my will

In double knavery. How? How? Let’s see.

After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear

That he is too familiar with his wife;

He hath a person and a smooth dispose

To be suspected, framed to make women false.

The Moor is of a free and open nature,

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,

And will as tenderly be led by the nose

As asses are.

I have’t. It is engendered. Hell and night

Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light."


(Act 1, Scene 3)


Drama, Shakespeare's Iago, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An actor playing Iago in Shakespeare's Othello (1622).

Staging

Another part of ensuring that a drama is presentable is a focus on staging. This refers to a focus on stage directions and setting to properly recreate the visual themes and aspects of the drama.


Stage directions: instructions in the script of a drama that indicates the movement, setting, position, voice and tone of the characters, alongside instructions on lighting and sound effects.


Here is an example of the opening stage directions from Arther Miller's (1915-2005) play The Death of a Salesman (1949), which has been commended for having immensely descriptive and precise stage directions:


A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage; the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange."


(Act 1, Scene 1)

History of drama

The history of dramas dates back over 2000 years! Let us look at the origin of drama, its rise to popularity and how dramas became what they are today.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Western drama originated in Ancient Greece, where greek playwrights were known for writing tragedies, comedies and satirical plays to compete in festivals arranged in honour of the god Dionysus. These plays narrated mythologies and the lives and experiences of Greek gods.


The earliest playwrights to exist on record are Aeschylus (c. 525 - 456 BC), who wrote Oresteia (458 BC) and Prometheus Bound (c. 430 BC); Euripides (c. 484 BC - 406 BC), who wrote Medea (431 BC) and Trojan Women (415 BC); and Sophocles (c. 496 BC - 406), who is best known for Oedipus Rex (c. 430 BC) and Electra (c. 420 BC).


This trend gradually spread to Rome around 240 BC, following the expansion of the Roman empire into Greek territories (270–240 BC). Roman playwrights made modifications to the Greek drama by eliminating the chorus and replacing it with musical accompaniment that ran alongside dialogues.


Chorus: a group of performers who speak directly to the audience and provide a commentary on the actions, morals, themes and characters in the drama. This is often done in the form of a song, dance or recitation.

Medieval theatre


In the early middle ages (500 - 1500), dramas reached England, where the clergy produced mystery plays to preach religion and spirituality. These were among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe.


Mystery plays: plays produced by the churches in England that dramatised biblical narratives.


The early Tudor period (1485 to 1603) in England saw the rise of morality plays such as Everyman (1510) and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678).


Tudor period: The period between 1485 and 1603 was characterised by the rule of the Tudor dynasty in England with five monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.


Morality plays: An allegorical drama form popular during the 15th and 16th centuries where the characters in the play personify certain virtues or vices.

Renaissance

The dramatic form gained full maturity during the English Renaissance period (1500–1660), a period that saw the flourishing of drama and the arts.


Prominent playwrights during this time include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont and, of course, William Shakespeare.

Examples of drama

Here are a few notable examples of dramas, each showcasing the different forms and types a drama can take.

Macbeth (1623) by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is perhaps one of the most famous tragedies by William Shakespeare. It is the story of a Scottish general Macbeth, who received a prophecy from the Three Witches telling him that he is destined to be the King of Scotland. Fuelled by his greed, ambition and power-hungry wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and crowns himself the new king of Scotland. He lies to everyone, telling them that King Duncan was killed by his servants. However, Macbeth's paranoia and guilt force him on a path of death and destruction, where he commits more murders to defeat his opponents and maintain his secret. This results in the outbreak of a civil war, which ends with him being beheaded and replaced by Macduff, a former favourite of King Duncan.

Les Misérables (1985), the musical

Les Misérables is one of the longest-running musicals in the world, having been performed in London since October 1985. It is the sung-through musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's (1802-1885) French novel Les Misérables (1862) and is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution (1789-1799). The musical follows the life of Jean Valjean, a French peasant who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. The musical traces his rise from poverty and his road towards redemption as he raises Cosette, the daughter of a struggling French sex worker.


Drama, Les Miserables marquee, StudySmarter

Fig. 3 - Les Misérables at Queen's Theatre in London.

The Crown (2016), the Netflix show

The Crown is a popular historical drama series based on the writer Peter Morgan's (1963- present) stage play The Audience (2013). The television series dramatises the lives and events surrounding the royal family of England, beginning with Queen Elizabeth II's marriage to Prince Philip in 1947 and ending with Prince Charles' divorce from Princess Diana in 1996. The sixth season, which has not been released, concludes the series with the life and death of Queen Elizabeth II.


Drama - Key takeaways

  • Drama is a mode of representing fictional or non-fictional narratives through a performance before an audience.
  • A drama refers to any performance that may be either live or recorded, such as mime theatre, ballets, musicals, operas, films, television shows, or even radio programmes.
  • Elements of drama in literature:

    • Plot and action

    • Audience

    • Characters

    • Dialogue

    • Staging

  • Western drama originated in Ancient Greece, where greek playwrights were known for writing tragedies, comedies and satirical plays.

  • Notable examples of dramas include:

    • Macbeth (1623) by William Shakespeare

    • Les Misérables (1985), the musical

    • The Crown (2016), the Netflix show


References

  1. Fig. 1 - “Romeo and Juliet “, Ballet of the SNT, Novi Sad, 2013/14, ensemble (Romeo i Julija, Balet SNP, 2013-14, ansambl, foto M. Polzović.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Romeo_i_Julija,_Balet_SNP,_2013-14,_ansambl,_foto_M._Polzovi%C4%87.jpg) by Miomir Polzović is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 3 - Les Misérables at Queen’s Theatre in London (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_at_Queen%27s_Theatre_in_London.jpg) by BroadwaySpain is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Drama

Drama is a mode of representing fictional or non-fictional narratives through a performance before an audience. They are meant to be seen and heard, not read. 

A notable example of a drama in literature is Macbeth (1606) by William Shakespeare.

Elements of drama in literature:

  • Plot and action

  • Audience

  • Characters

  • Dialogue

  • Staging

In literature, dramas have 5 types:

  • Tragedy
  • Comedy
  • Tragicomedy
  • History 
  • Melodrama

Western drama originated in Ancient Greece, where greek playwrights were known for writing tragedies, comedies and satirical plays. 

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