Main Page

I. Definition of the genre


II. An overview of the history of drama and of the theatre

II.1. Greek drama and theatre

1. Origins and development


II.2. Elizabethan drama and theatre

1. Origins

2. Genres

3. Main characteristics of Elizabethan theatre


II.3. Modern tendencies in drama and the theatre

1. The formation of the modern theatre from the Restoration to the end of the 19th centurys

2. The realistic revolution of the end of the 19th century

3. Experimental trends in the 20th century


III. Main Dramatic Genres: Tragedy and Comedy

III.1. Tragedy

1. Definition

2. Tragic structure

3. Types of tragedy

III.2. Comedy

1. Definition

2. Types of comedy

III.3. Other genres


IV. Exercises

V. Links

I. Definition of the genre

Drama is one of the three major literary genres, besides prose and poetry, and while it can contain both other generic forms, it fundamentally differs from both. Mostly because drama, in the broadest sense, is a work of art meant to be performed on stage.

A dramatic performance relies on a social consensus which denotes certain utterances as theatrical, placing them among the boundaries of what a community defines as theatrical. According to the definition of Eric Bentley (Bentley, Eric. A dráma élete. Pécs: Jelenkor, 1998, 123.) the theatre is “A personifying B watched by C”, but it also requires rules which define the context of this interaction and which are known and shared by the actors and the members of the audience as well: the traditional theatrical frame thus includes both a group of people (actors) who, conscious of their performative roles, take part in an event, the aim of which is to create a fictional world (that is a performance), while they are (consciously) exposed to the gaze of another group (the audience). This second group is also conscious of their roles as spectators while they are watching the fiction created for them, that is, the performance. What is decisive in this context is that both groups are aware of the fact that what they create together is the theatrical event itself. With S. T. Coleridge’s words we could say  that they both agree on “the willing suspension of disbelief”, that is they want to and therefore do identify the actors with their rôles, imagine different countries, time-periods and sets onto the stage, as well as watch the action of the drama as a real event.

The rules of this mutual understanding, in other words what people define as theatrical, however, vary in time and space, creating cultural and time-specific modes of the theatrical. Therefore the theatre, and drama with it, is not something stable, universal and finite, but culturally and historically determined. The study of drama thus, has to begin with the history of drama. This history is inseparable from that of the theatre, as theatrical spaces, modes and styles always shaped the forms of drama as well. In Greece, Elizabethan England or in the late eighteenth century, for example, the different venues where dramas were performed created different genres, and modes of playwriting.

In conclusion, we can say that drama is a performative genre, both communal (created by the play-going society, a community of theatre-makers and playwrights) as well as time and space-specific.

However, most of the times – especially during our studies – we come across dramas in their written, published form, as texts. When reading a play one often has to become a more attentive reader than when reading fiction, as the preserved text, which sometimes, especially in the case of older plays, is only a by-product of the performance, mostly contains the dialogues, and – depending on the edition, the playwright and the genre – additional stage-directions, but most of the stage events (or the stage-business) are lost there. These we have to recreate with our imagination, filling the gaps between the page and the imaginary stage. We have to picture the scenery, the costumes, the stage action (who stands where, who is on stage / absent from stage, the exits and entrances), the props, and all the little things visible in a theatre but absent from print.

There is obviously no right solution of how a play should be put on stage – even if the playwright himself has very specific ideas about it, see for example George Bernard Shaw’s plays (Pygmalion), or the dramas of Eugene O’Neill – the only criterion a director and theatre crew are measured to is the acceptance and appreciation of the audience and the critics.