Drama Guide

  • Basic Definition

Drama is a form of literature acted out by performers. Performers work with the playwright, director, set and lighting designers to stage a show.
Live actors act as someone else called a character.

A play consists of:
dialogue – where characters talk with each other
action – what characters do in the play
gesture – what the character shows through motion(s) and expression(s)

A script, written by a playwright, gives the actors words and cues to perform the dialogue, actions, and gestures of their characters on stage.

As a reader, you can only imagine what the gestures, expressions, and voices of the characters are like. Remember you must imagine the “sounds,” actions, and scenery when you are reading a script.

Reading a play is like listening to a conversation, and using your imagination to guess at what the characters are like. This conversation is what actors will perform on the stage and will give you an idea of how other people, including the playwright, imagined the play to be.

Drama differs from short stories and novels because it is made to be performed by different actors in different locations throughout time. While the script remains the same, actors’ interpretations of a single role may differ.

If you have read a play and then see it, you may be surprised because the play may be different from what you had imagined. This is similar to reading a story and then seeing a movie of that story– it is rarely exactly what you had imagined.

There are two basic types of drama:

  • Tragedy – a serious, solemn play based on an important social, personal, or religious issue.
  • Comedy – a play that shows the humorous actions of characters when they try to solve social, personal, or religious problems.

Some of the first forms of documented drama come from ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks performed both tragedies and comedies.
Ancient tragedy – invented by the ancient Greeks to show the actions of a tragic hero or heroine. (Ex: Oedipus Rex.)
tragic hero/heroine – the protagonist, or main character, in the play.

  • Aspects of the Greek tragic hero:
    • he/she must be of noble birth or hold an important social position
    • he/she is generally virtuous
    • he/she has a desire to do good deeds
    • he/she dies in the end of the play

    The hero/heroine seems “better” than the other character(s), but there is a fate which overpowers this “good” character.
    Poor judgment by the protagonist (hero/heroine) causes a fall from grace and social ranking. Poor judgment is a tragic flaw, or error, called hamartia. It leads to personal catastrophe and unintended harm to others.
    Hybris (hubris), which means excessive pride or arrogance, is the most common type of hamartia.
    A hero/heroine’s misfortune is an example of human fallibility (human’s tendency to fail).
    Learning from the mistakes of others was an important part of Greek tragedy.

  • Aspects of tragedy in Greek drama:
    • crisis of feeling – painful or harmful experience that may upset or depress the audience.
    • catharsis/purgation – the audience cleanses their emotions. For example, they may feel uplifted and/or get a new sense of spiritual understanding or tragic pleasure.
    • reversal/peripeteia – the hero/heroine goes through a significant change in fortune for the worse. The reversal may happen after a discovery (anagnorisis,) or a recognition of something previously not known to the hero/heroine.
    • In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus experiences a reversal when he gets the message that his father, Polybos, has died of old age. Oedipus is at first relieved to find out that the prophecy that he would kill his father was wrong. Then his dream is renewed when the same message reveals that Polybos was not his biological father (Kennedy 871).
      (Comedies can have reversals too, but in comedy, the change is almost always for the better).

Modern tragedy – unlike Greek tragedy, the protagonist is often a common or middle-class person, not high born, noble or important. Ordinary people exemplify basic issues of social and personal conflict.

Ancient Greek Comedy – performed to show the humorous actions of one or more characters as they attempt to solve a problem.

  • Aspects of Greek Comedy:
    • required action and conflict that led to a happy ending.
    • included ridiculing and violent personal attacks on contemporary personalities.
    • involved acting out of bawdy personal and social relationships.
    • as opposed to ancient Greek tragedy, a change in fortune is almost always for the better.

Types of comedy from ancient to modern times:

  • romantic – involves a love affair that does not run smoothly but ends happily.


  • Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • the movie, Pretty Woman
  • manners – portrays upper-class society involved in witty repartee that focuses on their relationships and “affairs.” A comedy of manners focuses on the behavior of men and women who violate the rules and manners of upper-class society.


Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
  • farce – “low comedy” with lots of “belly laughs” that uses quick physical action to induce immediate laughter. The verbal humor is often crude or ridiculous. Farce is sometimes based on incongruities of character and action; a character doing something that is completely unlike what we would expect of them.


    • In Shakespeare uses farcical humor in his play, Twelfth Night. Malvolio, a very rude, self-important character, is convinced to wear funny clothing and act like a fool (Meyer 900).
    • Most of Jim Carey’s comedy is a farce. His comedy is based on quick physical humor and often crude dialogue.
  • satire – mean jokes (barbs) are aimed at people, ideas or things in order to improve, correct, or prevent something.

    Again, the character Malvolio in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night is a satirical character. He is held up for scrutiny and ridicule by other characters and the audience because of his self-important, pompous attitude. Shakespeare reveals Malvolio’s faults and shows him to be pathetic.
  • absurd (black) – unusual, some would say weird or uncomfortable, a comedy that portrays the world as unstable. The action includes improbable events with highly unpredictable characters. Black comedy is very different from other comedies in that this type tends to end unhappily.

    • True West
    • The movies, Fargo, and Pulp Fiction

    How you react to a play will depend on:

    • your individual perspective of the world
    • your sense of humor
    • you political attitudes
    • your moral values

    Analysis begins by asking what factors about the play shaped your response.

    Aspects of drama that help you to enjoy and interpret a play:

    • setting
    • structure
    • characterization
    • theme
    • dramatic irony

setting – The scenic design and props. These add meaning and historical context to what characters do and say in the drama. Some components of the setting are as follows:

      • the orchestra, the performance and dancing area for actors and chorus, which was utilized by Greek theater to inform audiences of what happens “off stage.” (i.e. no murders or suicides were shown; instead, a messenger would inform the characters of the news).
      • lighting is used to show the illusion of time, highlight an action, or emphasize an event or character. Lighting is more complicated today than it was in ancient times because plays used to be shown only outside.
      • costumes are used to portray age, class, profession or ethnic culture.

structure – The way a play is organized into sections. Most plays are divided into acts and scenes.
Ancient Greek drama did not use acts and scenes but had a system of divisions which were:

  • prologue (exposition) – the introductory speech given to the audience at the beginning of the play.
  • paradox (entry of chorus) – the paradox is the song chanted by the chorus on their entry. Their song is usually about the action of the play and helps to build emotion in the audience.
  • episodes – modern drama would call these scenes, or acts. There are usually four or five episodes. Each episode consists of dialogue and action that takes place in one location at one time. Each is separated by a choric interlude, or the strophe and antistrophe.
  • choric interlude – immediately follows each of the episodes. Like the paradox, these are songs or odes performed by the chorus. They serve to comment on the characters’ actions, express emotion and explain the plot. Also, because Greek theatre had no curtain, the interludes indicate a change of scene.
    • strophe and antistrophe – these are terms that describe the chorus’ movement from one side of the stage to the other. For the strophe, they are on one side of the stage, and for the antistrophe, they move to the other. When the chorus speaks outside of these interludes, directly with the characters, their lines are said by only one member of the chorus, their leader (Miller 38).
  • exodus – the final scene and resolution.

The ancient Greek episodic structural pattern gradually evolved into a five part division of action. By the 16th century, most plays had five acts with as many scenes as needed. The playwright determines how many acts and scenes the play will have.
A traditional play follows the structural pattern of a traditional short story or novel. It has an introduction (exposition), conflict, climax, and a resolution (denouement).

  • characterization – the way the actor portrays the character’s qualities and faults.
    The actor plays a role that animates the characters:

    • traits
    • moral qualities
    • physical presence
    • voice

    Qualities of a person may be either physical and superficial (external) or psychological and spiritual (internal). Characters can possess both types of traits.
    External characteristics (characteristics that flat, one-dimensional characters possess):

    • names
    • physical appearance
    • physical nature
    • manner of speech and accent
    • manner of dress
    • social status
    • class
    • education
    • friends
    • family
    • community interests

    Internal characteristics (characters that round, multidimensional characters possess):

    • thoughts
    • feelings
    • emotions

    Types of Characters:

    • protagonist – the main character of a play, the one who is the center of the action and holds your attention.
    • antagonist (or villain) – the character who causes problems for the protagonist. Example:
      • In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, Othello is the protagonist and Iago are the antagonists (Desdemona can also be considered to be a protagonist).
      • In the fairy tale and movie, Cinderella, Cinderella is the protagonist and her wicked step mother is the antagonist.
    • foil – the character that acts as the butt of the jokes. Also, a character used to show contrast with the main character.
    • confident/confidante – friend or servant of the antagonist or protagonist who by “listening” provides the audience with a window into what the major characters are thinking and feeling. Example:
      • In Othello, Desdemona’s nurse acts as her confidant.
      • In Cinderella, the friendly mice serve as Cinderella’s confidants.
    • stock characters – superficial roles. (Ex: comic, victim, simpleton/fool, braggart, pretender).

    • theme – the central purpose or message of the play as developed by the playwright (i.e. the playwright’s message for the audience).

    dramatic irony – the contrast between what the character thinks the truth is and what the audience knows the truth to be. This occurs when the speaker fails to recognize the irony of his actions. For example, if the speaker were to put a curse on the murderer without realizing that he himself is the murderer, then he would have unwittingly cursed himself.
    In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus places a curse on the murderer of Laios, not realizing that he was that murderer. Since the audience has information of which Othello is ignorant, they recognize the significance of Othello’s actions, while he does not.

    Kennedy, X. J. Literature, An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 3rd ed. Boston: Little Brown, 1983.
    Meyer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
    Miller, Jordan Y. The Heath Introduction to Drama. Lexington, MA: D.C. Health, 1976.

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